Like adults, children can wake up in the night. They may do so for any number of reasons, depending on their age, health and unique characteristics. However, when a child awakens in the night, other members of the household may be disturbed (i.e. siblings sleeping nearby or parents in their own room). If nighttime awakenings happen only on rare occasions, it’s not a big problem. But what if a child routinely wakens in the night and does so more than one time?
If your child wakes up too frequently, consider the following tips:
Babies Naturally Wake Up Often
Newborns and infants wake to feed every 90 minutes or so. There’s not much that can be done for this age group; they’re SUPPOSED to wake up in the night every couple of hours. The best solution for tired parents is to try to catch a few naps in the daytime. Sleep when the baby sleeps in those early weeks and for as long as you can manage it. Some people are able to afford night nurses so that they can sleep through those night wakings, but many cannot. Some couples trade off in the night, so that each one only loses half the sleep. Some people take the newborn into bed with them, finding this less exhausting than having to get out of bed and walk down the hall to another room, or even to get out of bed and go to the baby’s cradle in the same room. Some folks can afford daytime help that allows them to take a generous snooze in daylight hours. Those who have only the one baby or other kids in school, can and should try to nap when the baby naps. The good news is that this stage of life eventually passes and babies will sleep for longer stretches. Some babies will actually sleep right through the night from 8 or 9 months of age. Some will accomplish this later – say at 14 or 16 months. And some, will not sleep right through the night until they are 6 years old!
Toddlers Still Seek Parental Comfort at Night
While some toddlers sleep through the night without interruption, there are many who don’t. In this latter group, some children awaken just once and then settle back to sleep for the night. Some want a little parental presence, while some want a lot (i.e. they want to climb into the parents’ bed). If parents provide that presence (either by letting him in their bed or by patting him back to sleep), some of these little ones will just go back to sleep for the rest of the night. If you are fine with that, go ahead and let it happen. All kids eventually outgrow the need and desire to sleep in their parents’ bed. However, if you prefer to train your child to stay in his own room for the duration of the night, you will have to do a bit of nighttime sleep training.
To begin with, you need to understand that parental touch and presence is comforting and pleasant for small children. When little kids enter a light sleep cycle, they often call out for this touch or presence. If parents are willing to pat the child back to sleep, or talk to him or hold him and rock him, then the little night-waker may expect this service each time he wakes up in the night. In order not to have to provide it, you will want to create a scenario in which the child must soothe HIMSELF back to sleep. Once you accomplish that, the little one will put himself back to sleep after waking in the night.
Parental Consistency is Key
Put your little one to bed in the usual way. Provide a night light, soft toy and other comforts and then leave the room. If the child wakes up and calls for you, you can come to the room – but do not pick up the child or touch him. Simply tell him that it’s late and he should go back to sleep. Then leave. If he calls again, wait a bit and then come back and tell him the same thing. Don’t stand too close – it’s best to stand in the doorway. Each time he calls for you, wait a little longer before coming. The idea is to provide reassuring presence without providing reinforcing contact. When the child figures out that he’s not going to get much out of this and it’s getting to be hard work for little payoff, he usually stops calling for parents and just stays asleep. Keep in mind that if you decide to do this with your child, you cannot interrupt the process by taking the child into your bed. Some parents make exceptions and let the child come into their bed when he is sick or when he has been crying for a long time or even when THEY are just too tired to deal with it. Providing these exceptions causes the child to learn that it’s worth staying up and screaming for as long as possible because it might just yield some positive results! If you take the child into your room even once in awhile, it can become impossible to get him to stop waking up in the night.
School-Aged Children Wake for Different Reasons
When bigger children are waking up frequently in the night, there is something wrong. Some kids are fearful of sleeping in their own room or being separated from their parents. Whereas such feelings are common for two and three year-olds, their existence in kids over six might indicate the presence of some anxiety. A mental health professional should be consulted. Some kids wake up because of various health problems. Always have a pediatrician do a full workup to determine if a physical condition is causing the frequent waking. For instance, it is possible that the child suffers from a breathing difficulty known as “sleep apnea.” If doctors have agreed that there is no emotional or physical cause for frequent nighttime awakenings, then you can safely use behavioral interventions to help the child. As for younger children, make it clear that you expect the child to stay in his or her own room. Let the child know that YOU need your sleep and you will NOT be tending to his or her needs once it’s night. Provide the child with books, crayons or puzzles to entertain him or herself with, should awakening occur. Make it clear that no one can be disturbed, including other children in the house. When the child sees that everyone is sleeping and no one is coming to look after him or her, the child usually decides to stay asleep. However, if your child insists on coming into your room and disturbing you, feel free to inform him or her that causing you to wake up will result in a (significant) negative consequence the next day. If necessary, be sure to apply the consequence (show the child you mean business!). Be consistent. Apply the consequence each day that follows night time disturbance. Hopefully, the child will soon get your point. If he or she fails to learn, see a professional counselor for further suggestions.