We all want our kids to sleep well and when they don’t, it can put a real strain on family life.

Disrupted night sleep is the root cause of a myriad of problems for children but also for their parents. When kids don’t sleep well and nights are disrupted, it can make it difficult to carry out even the simplest of daily parenting tasks. Some parents drag themselves to work and then somehow try and stay focused and productive in a kind of sleep-deprived delirium. They can find themselves feeling irritated, moody or teary. Some parents have multiple kids to look after at home and are simply exhausted. Some parents experience a sense of foreboding and anxiety as they head towards the possibility of ‘yet another night of disrupted sleep’.

In a bid to have restful nights and have their kids sleeping well, parents read up about what to do and what not to do to encourage better sleep. They ask their mum friends, their family and their maternal child health nurse for tips and advice. What they usually learn is that their child may not sleep well at night if:

  • Their room isn’t dark enough.
  • They are getting too much or too little day sleep.
  • They are not eating or feeding well.
  • External noises are disturbing them.
  • They are too hot or too cold.
  • They go to bed too early or too late.
  • Their bedtime routine is rushed.
  • They are moved to a big bed too soon.

Luckily, these are all things that are easily addressed and things that parents can prevent or fix with the proper guidance. However, even with the best of intentions and even when parents have all these things spot on, their kids still might not sleep well at night. If this is the case for you, consider the following three things that you may not have been told, that can have a negative impact on your child’s night sleep. When you are aware of these things, you can work on changing them so your family can enjoy more peaceful sleep.

1. Stress in the house

Stress is a part of life for everyone and very much so, for busy parents, especially given the state of the world with the current pandemic. Things like working from home, homeschooling and not being able to see friends and family, have put immense pressure on mums and dads. It can cause stress that can manifest in insomnia or lethargy. Some parents experience a heavy feeling of loneliness, even when other people are around. Such stressors can cause relationships to be strained or even to break down.

As parents, you need to remember that children are like sponges. They soak in everything you say, everything you do and how you react to things. Children (even very young children) can sense when you feel frustrated, angry or anxious. They have a ‘sixth sense’ when it comes to feeling your emotions. It’s natural for them to be attuned to your feelings because they love you and they rely on you to care for them. It’s in their best interests to be connected to you this way.

It’s important to express our feelings freely and for our children to see that we have feelings, just like they do. However, this can actually be counterproductive. The trouble is, a small child is too young to understand or to know what to do with an adult’s big feelings. Expressions of intense anger, frustration or anxiety from a parent, especially when they occur frequently, can be scary for a child. It can exasperate sleep issues. Likewise, conflict between parents can inevitably manifest into restless nights for a child. The child might struggle to settle for sleep or start to wake frequently at night in response to a parent’s discomfort. Sensitive kids have the most difficulty adapting to such stressors.

Practical tips:
  • Find time to work on lessening your stress levels and make a conscious effort to practice being calm. Consider activities such as yoga, meditation, exercise, dance or reading. Relaxing outdoors while your child plays, is a great way to get some fresh air and sunlight, which can help lift your mood.
  • Make an effort to regularly connect with your partner (or a friend), away from your child, if you can. Simple things like enjoying a drink with your partner at the end of a long day or leaving a love note on your partner’s pillow can foster connection. Send your partner a thoughtful text message (even though they might be sitting right beside you) or simply ask them about their day and make sure to really listen. If you have to put your kids in front of a screen for half an hour while you talk to a friend on the phone, don’t feel bad.
  • Fake it. Hiding our feelings goes against all modern conventions but when it comes to our young children, it can sometimes be a necessity. They don’t need to be burdened with our big adult feelings. Faking things is a way of hiding what’s really going on so that your stress is not projected onto your kids. If you want your child to sleep well at night you might need to become a master of disguise when in their company around sleep time. You may not feel calm inside, but you can do your best to appear calm on the outside, in the presence of your child. Practice calming strategies such as counting or deep breathing when you are in the moment. This is especially important at bedtime or when they wake in the night. Don’t worry, you can be ‘your true self’ and let out your emotions after your child is tucked up in bed.
2. The weather

Gloomy skies, icy cold days or blustery wind are commonplace in some locations and at certain times of the year. Some people believe that cloudy and miserable weather can negatively affect a person’s mood. It’s true that on days of bad weather, we can feel generally maudlin, snappy or just ‘off’. We can’t get out of the house and we can’t offer our kids the outdoor play and the fresh air they need. It can make us feel trapped.

As humans, we all need sunshine and times of activity to regulate our sleep wake system. Humans need to expend energy to build up sleep pressure and feel physically tired. Unfortunately, you can’t control Mother Nature but you do have control over your kid’s activities when you are with them. When the weather is bad, do what you can to encourage movement for your child, whether it’s indoors or out. Your child needs to physically expend him or herself to be able to sleep well. As soon as the sun comes out, head outdoors.

Practical tips:
  • Put on your coat, grab a takeaway coffee and take your child to the park so they can ‘let off some steam’. As long as your child is wearing appropriate clothing and you have an umbrella on hand, there’s no reason why they can’t run around and splash in puddles outdoors.
  • Consider joining a physical activity class such as swimming or kindy gym. If you can, aim to walk rather than drive, to your destination.
  • Try to get your little one moving as much as possible if you are stuck inside. Make an obstacle course or have a dance party. Anything goes as long as you get your child moving.
3. Inability to self-settle

This is ‘the biggie’. It’s the thing you need to focus on most once you’ve got all the basics sorted. It’s also the hardest thing to do, which means it’s the thing you might need help with. You see, you can have your child’s sleep environment, their routine and their naps spot on. You can make an effort to get outdoors, connect more with your partner and do your best to hide your inner stress from your child. The trouble is, if your child doesn’t know how to sleep independently, he or she will have trouble sleeping through the night in spite of everything else you do.

It’s natural for children to wake in the night at the end of a sleep cycle. Children who know how to sleep independently don’t fully wake. They drift seamlessly back into sleep on their own, without help. On the other hand, children who rely on a parent to help them go to sleep will wake fully, as they look for the help they are used to getting in order to go back to sleep. These children often wake up crying and upset, which can make it harder for them to calm down and go back to sleep, even with their parent’s help.

Practical tips:
  • Have a plan in place for teaching independent sleep skills.
  • Choose a sleep training method that you feel comfortable with and one that suits your child’s age and temperament. Choose a date to start and be consistent with following through with your plan.
  • Enlist help from an expert. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help. On the contrary, it’s a sign of strength and of love for both yourself and your child. A sleep consultant can design a plan that suits your particular family. They can give you the support you need to ensure that you reach your goals quickly and with minimal stress.

Need help with self-settling?