Most parents won’t be surprised to learn that babies and young children don’t always sleep through the night. In fact, even older children and teens may wake up before dawn.
If your child wakes up in the middle of the night consider the following tips:
Waking Up After Being Put to Sleep
This problem is very common among babies and some toddlers. A very new baby may wake up only minutes after being put to sleep. Older babies may wake an hour or two after “going down for the night.” And toddlers are notorious for waking up 4 or 5 hours after going to bed.
Children, like adults, drift in and out of various sleep cycles. When they are in a light stage of sleep, they may wake seeking food, comfort or both (i.e. babies may wake up to nurse). These small humans may wake several times throughout the night, disturbing their already exhausted parents.
Most people keep very small babies close to them at night (in their bed or in a cradle or crib in the parent’s room or nearby) in order to minimize the amount of energy nighttime parenting will take. It’s easier to roll over to take care of a baby than to get up, paddle down the hall, tend to the baby and then return to one’s own bed. However, many people do the latter even with newborns and certainly with older babies and toddlers. At a certain point, a parent may stop responding to the waking child in order to train the child to sleep through the night. Many people wait until the baby is around 9 months old before starting to withdraw nighttime attention in a gradual process. Some wait until the child is 14 months. Some just wait until the child stops waking up all by him or herself. Whatever works for the parent is fine. Parents know the limits of their own energy and they know what parenting style works best for them. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to solving nighttime waking problems. However, as long as a baby is permitted to nurse at night, he or she will tend to wake up many times in order to do so. Nighttime weaning therefore is a necessary step on the way to stopping nighttime waking.
Some school-age children also wake in the night. Usually, some sort of health problem (like sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome or nightmare disorder) is responsible. However, anxiety can also be a culprit; when an anxious child goes into a light sleep cycle, he or she may wake up for a moment and discover that he or she is alone – this can cause the child to wake up fully, get out of bed and run to the parents’ room. Teenagers can also wake up after going to sleep. Like school-age children, this indicates some sort of physical or emotional issue. Teenagers may have sleep disorders caused by, caffeine, drugs or alcohol as well as mental health issues like anxiety or depression, that interrupt sleep. When children and teens wake up in the night, a trip to the doctor for a complete check-up is recommended. If everything checks out fine, a trip to a mental health professional is then indicated. Even when the child does not have a mental health diagnosis, a psychologist can teach the child self-soothing and relaxation skills that can help him or her fall back to sleep independently and quickly and/or stay asleep throughout the night.
Difficulty Waking Up in the Morning
A totally different type of problem is having trouble waking up. This issue doesn’t seem to affect babies or toddlers! School age children usually have trouble waking up when they have not had enough sleep. This can happen because the parents haven’t established a consistent, appropriate bedtime or because the child cannot fall asleep at the appropriate time. Sometimes a child’s system is too active and he or she just can’t wind down and go to sleep. Some kids lie awake for hours after being put to bed. Of course they’re tired in the morning! Teens who can’t get up may have the same problems but they are likely to be short-changed on sleep for other reasons as well. This age group likes to stay up on their computers late at night or stay up with friends into the wee hours of the mornings. They can’t get up because they just don’t go to bed on time.
Children who can’t fall asleep at night may benefit from medical and/or alternative treatment. Medications, herbs and supplements are available that help the nervous system settle down at the right time of night. Melatonin is one such treatment but there are many others; ask your doctor and/or naturopath for assessment and treatment. For children who CAN fall asleep but choose not to, more structure and discipline may be required. Consequences for failing to be up on time can help motivate a youngster to get into bed earlier. A teen who wants a ride to the bus stop can be deprived of that ride if he isn’t out of bed on time. Or he can be deprived of his allowance or some other privilege. Children who can’t get up on time may have to go to bed a half hour earlier the next night or lose some privilege. If you are having trouble finding consequences that matter, consult a psychologist or parenting specialist for ideas.
It’s important to establish some sort of reward or consequences system to help kids get up on time – do not use anger as a wake-up tool! Sometimes, waking up is as simple as finding the right alarm clock (i.e. something very loud and very funny is good for kids). Teach kids NOT to use the snooze alarm, as this just teaches them to sleep through the alarm.
Remember too, that the parental model is important – if you sleep in, your child is more likely to do so as well. And keep in mind that most kids do grow out of the “sleeping in” stage eventually. Those who don’t generally find careers that allow them to sleep in! Try to guide your child but don’t stress too much about it. The consequences that life presents are usually sufficient to encourage morning wakening (i.e. detentions at school, job issues, parenting responsibilities and all the rest).