Sleep routines for young children

By Donna McIntyre

Keep calm and baby will sleep says Donna McIntyre.

Sleep routines for young children are really important. Photo / Thinkstock
Sleep routines for young children are really important. Photo / Thinkstock

Families do best when everyone is getting plenty of sleep.

Even if just one member of a family is not sleeping well, the whole household can be affected.

But calming an upset child or baby isn't always easy, especially if the parents are also sleep deprived.

Allison Jamieson, Plunket clinical advisor, says sleep can be one of the hardest parts of parenting, particularly in the first few years.

All sorts of things can unsettle babies' and children's sleep patterns, including sickness, teething and changes in routine. And often children and babies settle back to normal when they feel better.

Jamieson says children are not being naughty when they wake at night. To help settle your child at bedtime, she advises following a regular evening routine (e.g. bath, story, quiet cuddle and bed). "If your toddler wakes at night, try not to rush to settle them," she advises. "They may settle themselves back to sleep."

The amount of time a child sleeps can vary but newborns tend to need 16 hours a day, from three to six months they need 14 to 15 hours, from nine months to two years 13 to 14 hours and between two and five years, they need 11 to 12 hours. But if your child is happy and healthy, it is likely they are getting enough sleep.

Louise Tanguay, a mum and co-owner of the Auckland-based online Sleep Store "for tired parents", says parents should understand that all babies and children over 5 months wake on average four to six times a night and will "sleep through" only when the child can resettle themselves back to sleep. "So we recommend gently encouraging a child to learn to fall asleep at bedtime without needing a parent with them. Or allow time for a bedtime story and cuddles after the child has finished their bedtime milk, so the child can fall asleep without needing milk."

Routines help toddlers and preschoolers learn what happens next. "Toddlers can very easily get over-tired and revved up if they go to bed too late, so we recommend being in bed ready for sleep at 7pm for under-4s."

When her four children were babies, Tanguay sought advice from Dr Harvey Karp's book, The Happiest Baby using his five recommended steps to trigger babies' and children's calming reflex. That experience led her to set up the store.

The shop's online forum is especially popular. "Parents like to know that other parents have had the same challenges.

"The most popular sleep technique seems to be the middle of the road, verbal reassurance approach, where parents check on their child while still giving them the opportunity to learn to sleep. This approach usually works quickly and avoids the 'cry it out' approach of leaving a child to cry without checking in on them."

But some parents prefer to continue with the status quo of everyone waking many times a night rather than use even a gentle approach to encouraging better sleep.

Overcoming sleep problems

• Establish an evening routine and stick to it, e.g, bath, cuddles, bed.
• Have a special toy or blanket for bedtime.
• No TV or computer games for an hour before bedtime.
• If your child cries, reassure him/her then leave the room.
• If your child continues to cry, keep returning and reassuring him/her again until they go to sleep but stretch out the time between visits to their bedroom. After a few nights, the child will get used to the routine.
• Praise your child when they sleep well.
• More information, plunket.org.nz or thesleepstore.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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