Why can't my baby just let me sleep?
Updated: Feb 1
A guide for parents of babies over a year old.
This article is the second in my sleep-blog series. The first ‘Why won’t my baby sleep? How tired can I be before it actually kills me?’ focused on the newborn-to-one phase of baby sleep, so click back and have a read of that one if you haven’t already. This one, on the other hand, is all about toddlers - why they seem to want to punish us at night-time, and suggestions for what can we do to survive this sleep-deprived, soul-destroying stage.
I should note from the start that I am not a sleep-consultant. I do not claim to have the ultimate answer that will work 100% of the time. I do not expect to solve your current sleep nightmare immediately, but I do hope to shed some light on why it might be happening, which in turn might give you some hope and belief that it will soon end and you will sleep a whole night again sometime soon. I’m writing this as a mum who has been there, got the t-shirt, and is (mostly) out the other side. I aim to share my experiences as well as the real experts’ opinions and some of the current research that supports them.
According to the NHS website, babies of 12 months old should be getting approximately 13.5 hours of sleep per day, 11 of which should be at night (2.5 hours nap time). By two years of age, this amount drops by half an hour, to 13 hours per day, 11.5 at night (1.5 in the day). At three, they suggest children should be having a 45-minute nap and between 11.5 and 12 hours at night. By age four, the snooze in the day has gone entirely, and the child should have 11.5 hours at night.
Now, this is all very well and is a great goal to aim for, but it is also probably a piece of information that you want to throw out the window at this point as, if you’re reading this, your child is likely getting no-where near this amount of sleep. I’ve included it because this is the ball-park figure you’re aiming for and for some, getting the nap vs night-time sleep ratio correct could be the answer to your sleep woes – but more on that later.
Why is it so important for our babies to sleep?
Apart from the obvious, so you can get some shut-eye yourself! Sleep is vital for brain development. Recent research has shown that when we sleep, our brain is working hard to strengthen the connections that were made during the day and get rid of those that are deemed unnecessary. Think of it as a chance for your brain to tidy up and organise itself – it is much easier to tidy the house when you’re alone with no distractions than it is to try to do it when the kids are still playing, you’re trying to cook the dinner and get the washing on all at the same time!
Without enough sleep, children (just like adults) will start to become sleep-deprived, causing them to feel ‘half-asleep’. Researchers studying sleep-deprived adults have found that parts of their brains really were asleep even when they were awake. If we assume the same is true for children, this has obvious ramifications for their ability to take on new information in these parts of the brain.
So, what can we do about it? What follows is a range of reasons for the night waking and possible solutions. Remember, it is unlikely that any of these tips will be a miracle cure for your child. My best advice is to read them, try one that you think might work and then persevere with it. It is easy to try something once and think it doesn’t help when in fact, it might have if you’d given it a chance over several days. The solution might also be a combination of these ideas – you know your child the best - follow your instincts (however, sleep-deprived they are).
The temperature in your baby’s room can be the cause of their night waking. Unlike us, they can’t easily change their environment for themselves if they feel too hot or too cold. The Lullaby Trust suggests that the ideal temperature for a bedroom should be between 16-20oC, this is to avoid the baby getting too hot as this can increase the risk of SIDs (sudden infant death syndrome). You can buy a room thermometer on their website for £3 and, if you haven’t got one already, I would say it is a worthwhile investment.
The type of bedding your child has can also be the reason for their waking. Duvets and pillows are not recommended until your child is at least one, as they could pose a suffocation risk if their face gets smothered. When your child is old enough, it is definitely something to experiment with. My daughter loved her duvet but not a pillow. My son loved his pillow but not the duvet because he would wriggle around in his sleep, and it would fall on the floor, and he’d wake up cold. I did invest in a bedding set where the duvet zipped to the fitted sheet underneath which solved this problem but, this was during his very worst night waking stage, so his cover wasn’t the only reason for his constant waking! If your child is happy in a sleep sack, then you can buy large sizes or even ones with legs so they can wander around in them. Another tip to try if your little one is frequently waking at night is to feel their feet. If they feel cold, they might be waking because of it! Our body temperature naturally falls a degree or two when we sleep so it is entirely plausible that cold feet might be the culprit - try putting a pair of socks on your toddler before they go to bed to see if that makes a difference.
Weighted blankets have become a popular option in recent months. Sometimes called ‘gravity’ blankets, the idea is that the pressure of the blanket against the body stimulates the release of serotonin and dopamine, which in turn makes the user feel more relaxed. Some describe the sensation as akin to being hugged. They have been praised by many as a wonderful invention that drastically improved their sleep; however, their use with children should be treated with caution. While some of the manufacturers claim they are safe for use with children over one, others put a 4+ age limit on their use. Some experts would argue that they shouldn’t be used with children at all – “if the child can’t lift it off themselves, then this is a serious hazard”. I have no personal experience of their use, but if the idea interests you, please ensure you buy from a reputable source and check the safety guidelines before use.
2. Crib vs Bed
If the transition from cot to bed has been the trigger for sleep disruption, then these ideas might help.
First, consider why you moved them – some children are not emotionally ready to sleep in a bed when we would like them to, so think whether the move was necessary and whether you can go back to how things were for a few more weeks before trying again.
If, on the other hand, your child needs to make the switch (my son, for example, decided at 18 months that he would climb and launch himself out of his cot in the middle of the night!) then think about how you can minimise the change for your child. You could start by putting the mattress on the floor; therefore, there is no risk of them rolling out of bed and falling – a cause of anxiety for some. Alternatively, you could buy a cot bumper or shield for the side of the bed. These slide underneath the mattress and provide a barrier, making it feel cosier and stopping them from hurting themselves. Check the age recommendations before use to make sure they are appropriate for your child.
Finally, consider the placement of the bed in the room. You need to put it in a location that is going to be safe – away from windows or objects that they could now reach if they were standing on their bed. Also, consider what they will see when they are lying in bed. My son suffered from separation anxiety (more on that later), so we had to experiment with whether it was better for him to be able to see out of his room into the hall (therefore being able to see us) or better for him to face into his room (so he wasn’t constantly looking for us).
Creating a solid routine for daytime naps, as well as for bedtime, continues to be an essential part of ensuring your child has a good night’s sleep. While it can be restricting for your daily plans if your child will no longer go to sleep in a pushchair, I really do think it's important to keep their nap in place for as long as possible. Research studies have shown that young children who habitually nap are better able to retain new words and some have found that children who nap are also better able to solve problems, understand and use new vocabulary.
Both my children attempted to give up their naps at various points when they were 1 and 2. I persevered and sat in their dark rooms with them if I needed to (making sure I wasn’t making eye contact or talking to them). After a few days of habitually going to their room and lying down in the dark, they were back to their naps as usual. My daughter napped until she was four and my son, now three is enjoying his daily rest (and so am I!).
What can I say?
Teething sucks! If your child is waking in the night and they are of the age when they could be struggling with their teeth, then this is likely the problem!
The NHS website says that most children have all their milk teeth by the age of two and a half, that’s probably not much comfort to you (or them), but, at least you know it will end eventually. In the meantime, experiment with the various gels, powders and other remedies out there. Every baby is different, and some work well for some and not for others, so experimentation is the key.
5. Sleep Regressions
These are often stated as the reason for babies and children to wake frequently at night, especially when they have previously been sleeping well. While it doesn’t feel like it at the time, sleep ‘regressions’ are actually not caused by your baby ‘forgetting how to sleep or self-settle’, they are a normal part of children’s development.
They can be triggered by your little one learning a new skill – they might be being more vocal, be learning to walk or wanting to climb. Try to remember that there is so much learning going on for toddler, and for them, night-time is as good a time to rehearse it as any! Sometimes, they can be practising in their sleep, or dreaming, or even wake up naturally and decide to entertain themselves with their new skill. I have often woken in the night and heard my children talking, singing or laughing, and generally, my rule of thumb is unless they are distressed, I don’t go in. I’ve discovered that while practising the new skill is not causing a problem, it can be what causes them to wake up so much that they think it must be morning. Don’t forget they can’t yet tell the time, so they have no idea if they are supposed to be asleep or not!
Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent these stages, and some children are more affected than others, but the key is to be consistent with what you choose to do about it.
My son was a good sleeper until he was about 22 months old. The two-year sleep regression has come a bit early, I thought. Nothing to worry about, my daughter had been through similar, and it only lasted a couple of days. I’ll go in and settle him and that’ll be fine. Oh, how wrong I was! A few days of unbroken sleep turned in to weeks, which turned into months. It got to the point where neither my husband nor I could ever imagine having a full night’s sleep again, and we dreaded going to bed and for the torture, because that’s what it felt like, to begin.
When I’d go in at night and he seemed wide awake, I didn’t have a clear strategy for what I’d do. Sometimes I would give him a cuddle, other times I’d sit next to them. I tried going in to reassure and then leaving the room, but that would make him really distressed so I’d go back in and try to inch my way out when he calmed down. We tried sitting in the corridor where he could see us, we tried the gradual retreat method, we tried leaving him and checking back every few minutes. Nothing worked. He was exhausted, we were exhausted, and there was no light at the end of the tunnel. It had gone on so long that he was no longer waking due to practising any new skills; he was waking because he had separation anxiety. I’m convinced because our seeing each other in the night had become such a regular hoo-ha, that when he naturally woke in the night, he had become used to one of us being there.
How ironic that I had been so worried about inadvertently doing something ‘wrong’ that would mean my child would always need me to be there, that that’s precisely what happened! I kept changing what I did when I went in because I thought that, as he was waking up again, clearly whatever I did last time didn’t work, so I’d try something new! In hindsight, and being no longer sleep deprived, I can see exactly where I went wrong.
Firstly, being caring towards your child will not create a bad sleep habit. Being there and showing compassion will also not create a bad sleep habit. Trying to instantly ‘fix’ the problem is how I found myself making the nightmare last for months rather than the more usual week or so.
What I’ve learnt through experience is to have a clear plan of what you will do when you go in. This needs to be consistent between you and your partner so that whoever your baby sees in the night will do the same thing each time. It can be called your ‘back-to-bed’ plan. It might look like this:
· Go in and reassure them verbally
· Offer them a drink (distracts them)
· Ask if they need the toilet (if potty trained)
· Tuck them back in
Easier said than done I know, but finding what works for you and what you are comfortable with is the best thing. Some people rock their children, stroke their backs, leave them to cry it out – I’m not going to suggest you do any of those things. I’m advocating an approach which sees you acknowledge your child’s feelings and deal with them compassionately and appropriately. I’m not suggesting that having a ‘back to bed’ plan on its own is going to solve the problem, but consistency is most definitely the key.
Some people find it more positive to call these disrupted sleep periods ‘transitions’ rather than ‘regressions.’ Whatever you call them, try to remember that they will, eventually, pass.
If, like us, you’ve got to the point where the above ‘back-to-bed’ plan is impossible. If there is no way your child will let you leave the room when they are awake, then they may be suffering from separation anxiety. Read on if you want to know how we managed to overcome this.
6. Separation Anxiety
As I’ve already described, our son almost killed us when he was coming up to two years old. He started waking 3 or 4 times a night (having slept previously for 11 hours each night). He would sometimes be awake for 2 hours at a time. Seemingly nothing was physically wrong, but he didn’t want us to leave him alone. When he fell asleep, we would stumble back to our bed, just about fall asleep ourselves and then he’d wake up and realise we weren’t there, and the whole thing would start all over again. In desperation, we kept changing our approach – we would try every sleep tip and trick we read online, and none of them made any difference. My husband and I were exhausted and at breaking point. Eventually, I decided that, if he needed us to be close to him, then we’d put a mattress on the floor of our room and he could come and sleep there when he woke.
I was worried that by doing this, he would be in our room sleeping on that mattress forever, but at this point, we were both so tired that we ‘just needed to do what we needed to do to get through’ (see my previous blog on sleep). I was insistent that he would be put to bed in his room each night; that if he woke during the evening when we hadn’t yet gone to bed, he would stay in his bed. During the night when he called for us, we would collect him from his room and bring him to his mattress on the floor, tuck him in and go back to bed ourselves. Without even realising what we were doing, we had created a ‘back-to-bed’ plan. There was no chopping and changing of what we tried. There was no inconsistency – we did the same thing every night without fail.
I’m not exaggerating by saying within two weeks he was no longer coming into our room and was no longer waking up at night. I don’t believe it was the bed on the floor that made the difference; I think it was the fact that we finally acted with compassion. He needed us to support him not ‘fix’ him. When we were consistent, there was no crying, no midnight battles of will; there was a plan that worked for us all.
If you’re in the middle of a sleep-deprivation nightmare, then please take comfort in my story. I’ve been there and it is truly one of the hardest parenting experiences I have had. It will get better. You will sleep a full night again. Accept help if you are offered it. Allow yourself the kindness of a day-time nap if you can have one. Eat cake. Drink coffee. Do whatever you need to do to get you through this stage. As I said I’m not an expert, I’m just a mum who has been there. If you’ve read this far and feel like you are in hell, I feel for you. If you want to message me and tell me about your child, then I will happily share my thoughts with you.
Good luck and sleep tight!