Expert / 2 February, 2017 / Alison Scott-Wright
I was prompted to write this article due to the amount parents who contacted me this January seeking help to resolve their toddler’s sleep disturbances that seem to have come from nowhere. ‘Sleep regression’ is a fairly typical occurrence at this time of year and one of the main reasons that January is an incredibly busy month for me, as The Magic Sleep Fairy!
So “why?” I hear you ask. Well, in essence it’s quite simple – toddlers, especially those 18 months and children heading up to 4 years of age, can really struggle to ‘come back down to earth’ after the hype and excitement of all the events that occur in December.
If you think about it, it’s not just the big day itself, there is a huge prelude to Christmas with daily references to Santa, him ‘coming down the chimney’ and leaving presents, advent calendars, perhaps an ‘Elf on the Shelf’, the children learning roles for nativity plays, practising & singing new Christmas songs, making Christmas gifts etc and with all this & more often starting as early as mid-November.
It all leads up to the big day itself, holidays, family get togethers, parties, games, fun, happy times, but sadly for some maybe not such happy times! Let’s not forget that many of us do feel a huge pressure at this time of year, which in turn can lead to much stress and feelings of anxiety which can then build within the home. So although it’s a time of year that we typically all look forward to, there may be many other underlying feelings of worry, sadness and stress which along with the euphoric excitement can culminate to create a highly-charged atmosphere that may have a profound effect on babies and toddlers who simply ‘soak up’ the aura and atmosphere in which they live.
They literally ‘feed off’ the energies & emotions their parents project and will quickly get used to the extra daily activities & the attention danced upon them at this time of year. For most children, it all soon becomes the accepted norm with an understanding of ‘this is how life is’ which they quickly get used to and expect as the current day to day routine.
Children have little concept of the longevity of time so new habits and routines are often quickly formed and within a week or two all the flare and fanfare leading up to the end of December has simply become normal daily life to them. Then – BOOM, it’s all over and before they know it the decorations are down, everyone is saying ‘Happy New Year’, parents are back at work, the toddlers are back in nursery or school and life returns to normal. The trouble is, it’s NOT normal to the children as the previous 6 or 8 weeks have gradually built to become the expected norm and now, after the event they can actually feel bereft, even feeling a sense of loss that all the daily excitement, stress and euphoric atmosphere has disappeared. They maybe feeling unsettled, perhaps a bit ‘lost’ whilst missing all the previous, extra attention and excitement which can leave them feeling insecure and uncertain about what ‘normal’ daily life now consists of. This in turn can have quite serious affects on their behaviours and emotional responses, which for many can manifest into a sleep disturbances.
For a toddler who previously slept well, the stress and emotional distress of change can easily disrupt their sleep and they might wake up during the night unhappy, maybe crying and of course you run to see them, find out what’s wrong? They are then cuddled, read another story, offered some milk, given a teddy… anything to help soothe and calm them in the hope they will settle back to sleep, which I expect they initially do… BUT a tiny seed has been planted deep within child’s sub-conscious and a knowledge that they can get extra parental attention which they didn’t previously have, by waking during the night. This extra attention is of course a comfort to them, not only to help them back to sleep but it also a replacement for some of the ‘lost’ excitement and attention that they had become used to during the heady days of December.
So before you know it and within a week or two this association becomes a reality and your previously ‘good-sleeping toddler’ is now waking every night, maybe even getting up three or four times and you are in their room trying to find anything that will settle them down and restore a full night’s sleep to your household!
Another poignant example of how stress and short-term, extra attention can have a profoundly negative affect on a child’s sleep came from a client whom I spoke with a while ago.
Her toddler, who just turned three on November 25th, was due to have an admission assessment for a new school. For four weeks leading up to this assessment the parents, who are actually both doctors, made sure they put in lots of extra hours with their son trying to make sure he knew his numbers, letters etc to ensure he was as ‘prepared’ as possible for the test. They believed they were careful not to let the importance of the test or their feelings of pressure and stress at the outcome be passed onto their little boy and did their very best to keep the education fun and light-hearted.
Thankfully the day of the test came and went after which the extra home ‘tuition’ could cease and both parents breathed a huge sigh of relief and that life could return to normal. But sadly, not so for their little boy who although slept beautifully as usual during the night of his assessment day, he certainly didn’t the following night when woke up crying uncontrollably.
This little boy had, from the age of a year old when the parents followed my book, slept 12 to 13 hours through the night, every night and squealed with delight at going to bed and snuggling down after a story each evening.
Thinking the night disturbance was a one off and after giving lots of cuddles and a drink of milk they settled the toddler back to sleep, but that was only the beginning! The night wakings both continued and escalated during the next four weeks until, in utter desperation this mum contacted me for help.
I explained to her what I’ve alluded to in this article and that how changes to a child’s daily routine, however big or small and seemingly inconsequential to us, can have a disturbing effect on a child’s sleep patterns and behaviours.
Luckily – as happened with my client and her toddler – these sleep disturbances are usually quite easy to redress and be turned around as quickly as they started. By acting upon a few simple tips and following my techniques a full night’s sleep can be achieved again with the harmonious balance of night and day restored.
SLEEP-TRAINING TIPS FOR TODDLERS
Continue with this ‘battle of wills’, until the child goes to sleep.
If your toddler wakes during the night employ the same tactics as at bedtime and see it through for the whole night, no matter how long it takes or how many wakings you have to attend to!
If your toddler unexpectedly wakes during the night, having previously been a good sleeper – firstly – try not to panic, take a deep breath. Then calmly go in to see what is wrong. Obviously check for any signs of illness, temperature or truly severe anxiety, all the while trying to assess the situation.
If he genuinely seems ok, try not to over-react, keep calm and settle him back to sleep with the minimum of fuss… (obviously if he is unwell then you need to deal with this accordingly and forget any notion of ‘sleep-training’.)
The above tips are only a generic guide and every child and situation is different, so there may be other things to take into consideration before embarking on full-blown sleep training. Think about what could have upset the equilibrium or maybe your toddler has never slept through?
Maybe the new baby is already 8 or 12 weeks old so you might assume this isn’t what’s causing the disruption to your toddlers sleep, but don’t be fooled!
These are just some other points to think about as working out the ‘root cause’ of a sleep problem is the key to working out how to address it and there is much more information and guidance I can give on the subject than I can write here.
So if you would like further help or advice then please contact me directly on firstname.lastname@example.org or alternatively you can order a copy of my book The Sensational Baby Sleep Plan.
Good luck and thanks for reading.