Q. My 14-month-old son has never been a great sleeper but it seems to be worse lately. He tends to wake up at about 2am and finds it impossible to go back to sleep. We have tried staying in the room and patting his back and so on, and even bringing him into our bed. Although he might stop crying after being brought to our bed, he still finds it very difficult to settle and keeps tossing and turning and keeps us awake. I would really appreciate your advice as we are both working full-time and we are getting increasingly exhausted, being up all night. During the day he can have a nap for up to one and a half hours but he is not too fond of going down for his naps.
A. Getting your child to sleep through the night is a long-term journey with many pitfalls and setbacks. While some parents find themselves lucky, having a baby who sleeps through the night at a young age, these children are in the minority and many other children have intermittent sleep problems throughout the baby and toddler years. Tackling a sleepless one year old or toddler is, in many ways, much harder than doing the same thing with an infant or an older child. At the age of one, your child is old enough to be attached to you and to seek you out in the night for comfort, yet he is too young to understand the reasons for him sleeping in his own room at night and for you to make sure he does not feel rejected or abandoned.
Take time to understand your baby’s sleep pattern
To help your son have more settled sleep, it is important to step back and take a holistic view of his sleep pattern considering his day-time as well as his night-time routine. During a night’s sleep, children tend to go in and out of deep sleep and normally wake briefly a few times before falling back to sleep. Some young children seek their parents to comfort them when they wake and some become dependent on their parents to support them getting back to sleep. Frequently, a period of sleepless nights is triggered by a bout of sickness, or a child going through a developmental change or becoming overtired during
the day. Such events can disrupt their natural sleep pattern and make them more likely to wake and to call their parents at night.
The key to sleep training
The key to sleep training is to help your child have a more relaxed, rhythmic sleep and to learn how to self-soothe and return to sleep by himself if he wakes. Although it is important to have a clear plan on how to respond when your child wakes at night (and we will come to this later), the best place to start sleep training is during the day, in particular ensuring a relaxed bedtime and nap routine. Children who have good naps and who are well rested during the day tend to sleep better at night. To improve your son’s night-time sleeping, you can try to improve the quality and length of your son’s naps. Generally, these naps should occur early in the day and ideally in his own cot (so he associates his cot as a place of rest and sleep). To help him learn to self-soothe, the key is to bring him to his cot when he is sleepy but not fully asleep so he takes the final step of getting to sleep by himself.
Establishing a good routine
Parents often assume that a child who is unsettled at night is not tired and thus needs to go to bed later, when in fact the reverse is true. Children who are unsettled at night tend to be overtired and need to get into the habit of going to bed earlier rather than later. For this reason, starting a relaxing bedtime routine much earlier than usual can make a big difference to a good night’s sleep. This should involve the same steps each night such as quiet playtime, washing/bath time, putting on pyjamas, reading a story/listening to music, and so on, and finish once again with your son making the final step of going to sleep by himself. If this is a new habit for your son, you may have to be present initially to support him going to sleep but then over the course of a few nights you can gradually withdraw.
Dealing with night waking
When dealing with your son’s night-time waking, the key is to help him get back to sleep with as little support from you as possible and in a manner that is least disruptive to you as the parents. This might mean first waiting to see if he settles himself after the first few cries, or then going in and simply patting him quietly without picking him up, rocking him for a few minutes before putting him down again or taking him into the bed with you, as you do now. If taking him into the bed is not working for you, some couples try lying beside their baby in his room for a few minutes (which has the advantage of him learning to go back to sleep in his own cot). Once you have a pattern of settling him at night, then you can choose to reduce your support gradually over the course of subsequent nights (for example, just pat him rather than pick him up, or try to support him falling asleep in his cot rather than taking him into your bed) as he learns to sleep himself.
Finally, dealing with sleepless nights is stressful and it is really important that you look after yourselves as parents. Many couples I have worked with take turns for the “night duty” so they at least get an alternate decent night’s sleep.