Sleep is essential for children, but each child is different and the key for parents is to be responsive while also looking after themselves, researcher and commentator Nathan Mikaere Wallis says.
Speaking to Nine to Noon’s Kathryn Ryan for RNZ’s series on parenting 'it takes a village', Nathan notes that sleep is important for everyone - the parents as well as the children.
“It’s sort of at the base of everything isn’t it, if you’re dead tired and can’t achieve anything else, you know, sleep’s kind of fundamental for everybody.”
How sleep works
Nathan says people have some misconceptions about what sleep involves.
“They think that you go to sleep for eight hours and you wake up again. I think that tells us more about the industrial revolution than it does about human circadian rhythyms.
“You really have about four sleep cycles a night, and as an adult you’ve learned to link those cycles together but there are three times or more a night when you come close to waking up.
“I joke when I do dads’ groups that those are the times you roll over, pull all the blankets off your partner, fart and go back to sleep.
“You don’t actually wake up, but your wife probably does wake up because pregnancy keeps her awake during her sleep cycles ... women often continue to wake up in between their sleep cycles when they’re parents.”
He has some advice for dealing with common problems for children’s sleep patterns.
Nathan’s tips for older children’s sleep:
- Bed or cot - Don’t rush kids into beds, having a cot with walls allows you to control the child’s routine and gets them used to the idea of being in bed. Wait until they're ready.
- Waking up - Children who have a strong nurturing base of dependence are more likely to be confident and become more independent. If they are waking up in the morning and happy and comfortable they may amuse themselves better than if ordered to leave their parents alone.
- Sharing beds - If a child is feeling unsafe or insecure they might seek to be in their parent’s bed, so allowing them to do so and allowing them to feel safe and nurtured again can help them go back to their own bed as they get older. It can be good to get them to start sleeping in their own bed but not reject them if they want to hop in with mum or dad.
- In the child’s bed - Sometimes joining a child in their own bed and comforting them can allow them to be more confident in staying in the bed on their own. It can be time consuming, but should become less so over time - 30 minutes one day, 15 the next, etc.
- Bedwetting - Can sometimes be a medical condition, or it could just be that they are still figuring out how to listen to their body. Stressing or shaming children about it will not help. Wait until the child is ready to go without a nappy and don't blame them for it.
- Practical solutions - Sometimes there's easier fixes than behavioural ones. Children might be in an uncomfortable or cold bed, or if they're having toileting trouble the bathroom might be scary, or the hallway cold.
Sleep training for infants
Nathan says for those under the age of one year, the key is all about providing a feeling of safety and partnership.
“That’s what gives them the biological information to really have the best brain they could have for the rest of their life.”
“The first year, midwives talk about as the golden year, because so much happens in that first year.
He says a sleep training programme is an option, but parents should not feel obligated to do it.
“A lot of parents thought that it’s their job as parents to put them into a routine … it’s okay to just keep responding to your baby throughout the night when they wake up and helping them to go back to sleep.
He says it’s not good for children to be truly distressed, however.
“Now, that doesn’t mean the sort of grizzling, settling down cry that the baby has when you often first put them down to bed, there’s a level of distress that the child hits that normally you feel it in your chest.
“You want to rush straight to the baby as a parent, that level of distress we don’t really want babies experiencing that in the first year of life.”
He’s quick to point out that stress like this is not going to destroy a child.
“Children are incredibly resilient, it’s going to take more than just a sleep training programme to do any harm to your baby.
“I want to emphasise that a baby left to cry in the middle of the night that has everything else going for them in their lives and has loving parents and loveing grandparents and is free of any trauma or neglect or abuse, putting them on a sleep training programme is not going to do them any great harm.”
With that in mind, and with work lives and social lives of their own to deal with, parents also have to look after themselves.
“I use that metaphor of the, like, air hostess. Put your own oxygen mask on first, you’ve got to look after your own wellbeing.
So the solution is to do what works for the parent and child alike, keep trying different options and if it’s not working, move on to something else.
“I sort of want people to be responsive in that first year, but I think if you get a good basis in that first year you’ve got that basis then.”
“If you’ve given that a couple of days … and it seems to work and they seem to settle off and go to bed, yeah everyone’s happ, then, arent’ they. Baby’s only had a couple of days of stress, now everyone’s gettng a full night’s sleep.”
On the flipside, parents need to be ready to put a stop to the sleep programme if it doesn’t work.
“If the child is persistently distressed and upset and cries for you that tells you that the baby really needs you to be close so give into that as well.”
Nathan says there’s a massive amount of variability in children’s sleep patterns, and some kids just have a temperament that means they want to be awake all night and sleep during the day.
“They grow up to manage night clubs and stuff, so sometimes there is no reprieve.
Thankfully, there is an end of sorts in sight.
“If you’re sleep deprived and going mental yourself then I might start looking at how to manage the child’s sleep after that first year.
“Certainly after 18 months all that stuff is in place and there’s a good foundation.”