How many times do you hear yourself saying these words in exasperation as you try to get your toddler or preschooler to sleep and then again in the middle of the night? For parents of toddlers and preschoolers, balking at bedtime is a common concern. Between the ages of 2 and 3 years old, a child is going through many developmental changes and learning to sleep all night is a big step toward independence.
Typically, a child of this age needs about 10-13 hours of sleep each night and may have already given up daytime naps. Research reported in the Medical Journal of Australia (1994) found that 41 percent of 2- and 3-year-olds awaken a minimum of twice each night. It is important for parents to recognize that all children have periods of wakefulness during the night. The issue is whether or not they can get back to sleep on their own. So let's look at how you can set the stage for a good night's sleep.
In these early years, your child is learning how to interact and react to his surroundings and is practicing newfound physical and mental skills. Physical tiredness, excitement, and tension, often mixed with the frustration of learning these new skills, build up to a point that requires parents to provide periods of relaxation during the day. Even if your child no longer naps, doing puzzles, drawing together, or reading a storybook will provide quiet times during the day that can diffuse some of tension that may create bedtime stress. Children also require opportunities for physical activity during the day to release pent-up energy. Parents should try to build into the structure of their child's day a balance between physical activity and quiet time.
It is always important to rule out any medical concerns as well. Reactions to allergies and/or food sensitivities can include restlessness and insomnia. Painful ear infections or teething may keep your child awake no matter what you do. Next, think about your child's physical comfort. Is the room temperature comfortable or is it too hot or cold? Is the child hungry or thirsty or wet? Addressing these concerns will avoid problems later. It is not advisable to put your child to bed immediately following a big meal. However, if the child is hungry, a light snack consisting of foods rich in carbohydrates such as crackers or cereal with milk, may have a calming effect.
Aside from pain or discomfort, there may be other reasons why children can't sleep well. As a child's imagination develops, dreams become more intense and vivid. Nightmares or episodes of night terror often occur during this time. Also, being encouraged to sleep in his or her own room may invoke separation anxiety.
Adoption adds another layer of complexity around bedtime for some children. Feelings of abandonment or loss can be much more pronounced at bedtime, when a child feels most vulnerable and alone. It is difficult to predict how long it will take for your child to become accustomed to sleeping in a new place. Remember that children, especially those who are adopted internationally, often are sleeping alone in their own rooms for the first time. Sights, sounds, smells are all foreign, and the whole family may be suffering from jet lag in the first few weeks. Since they are nonverbal, infants express their sense of loss in ways that involve the whole body, sometimes through extended periods of sleep irregularities. Long periods of sleep difficulties can also be an expression of grief in preschoolers. If sleep issues become an ongoing problem, you may need to explore, with the help of a professional, how the events surrounding your child's adoption may be related to difficulty in sleeping.
Sensory difficulties, often diagnosed as sensory integration dysfunction, may also disturb sleep. These difficulties are sometimes discovered when children display sensitivity to movement, temperature, noise, and light -- even the weight or texture of a blanket may cause enough discomfort to prevent your child from getting back to sleep. A child who has trouble transitioning from one activity to another may need more time to settle in at bedtime or, if awakened at night may need to be taught self-calming techniques to get back to sleep on his or her own.
1. Arrange a comfortable, consistent routine at the end of the day to create positive bedtime habits. For instance, a warm bath followed by a story or music while tucking your child in each night will provide relaxing predictability after a busy day.
2. Reassure your child that you love her and that you will be close by if needed. Leave a light on, a door open, or music playing to help her feel less lonely. Remember that it may take time before your child is comfortable and secure enough to sleep well alone.
3. Make sure your child has some sort of toy or blanket to snuggle with, if desired. Reaching for something familiar and comforting in the middle of the night reminds a child that everything is okay and helps to soothe him back to sleep.
4. Waking at night is a time for your child to be comforted and then to get back to sleep. If you stay in the child's room until she falls asleep, be comforting but boring. It is not a time to get out of bed for play or anything else that may be exciting.
5. During the day, address the issues of separation and loss that your child may be feeling but unable to express. Adoption-related books and stories are a good starting point.
With patience and a relaxing evening routine, children usually adjust to sleeping through the night. However, if sleep disruption is ongoing and severe or if sensory issues are a possible concern, you might consider enlisting the help of our SPARK adoption professionals.
For more specific information or assistance please contact Spence-Chapin's SPARK program at 212-360-0231.
Linda Duval, MS, Ed, is an education specialist with Spence-Chapin Adoption Resource Center.