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The importance of sleep
A child’s brain is utterly amazing and will triple in weight between birth and the age of two! This is why the first two years are the most formative and critical period of a child’s development.
No pressure, then! Most parents already feel overwhelmed with so much conflicting advice about how to look after their baby or toddler. However, there’s no need to panic, as your little one’s requirements are mainly uncomplicated. There are a few simple but key steps to remember, all of which will promote well-being in all areas of emotional, psychological, physical and cognitive development:
- Offer as much calm, positive and peaceful love as possible, with lots of physical contact, cuddles and hugs.
- Engage with them on all levels, through chatting, watching and listening. Pay positive attention rather than offering a distracted interaction.
- Provide a calm and happy home without anger, arguments, shouting or negativity.
- Understand how to give emotional and positive endorsements to your child.
- Limit screen time – yours as well as your child’s!
- Ensure some fresh air and exercise each day.
- Implement a simple daily routine – your child will feel safe and secure if they know what’s coming next each day.
- Create boundaries and limits, and try to be consistent.
- Establish a bath-and-bedtime routine at the end of each day.
- Ensure your child gets enough rest, because sleep is of paramount importance and will keep everything else on track. Without proper rest your little one will struggle to function on a number of levels.
Sleep is an essential building block for a child’s mental and physical health, and it plays a crucial role in the development of young minds. In addition to having a direct effect on happiness, research also shows that sleep impacts alertness and attention, cognitive performance, mood, resilience, vocabulary acquisition, learning and memory. Sleep also has an important effect on growth, especially in early infancy. For toddlers, daytime napping is also reported to be necessary for memory consolidation, focus, attention and motor-skill development.
If you’re finding it impossible to help your toddler sleep, you’re certainly not alone. The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that sleep problems affect 25–50 per cent of children and 40 per cent of adolescents. Understanding your child’s sleep-needs is the first step towards providing better sleep for them. Through a combination of good sleep hygiene, age-appropriate routines, close attention to any sleep disorders or underlying digestive issues, and by following my books, you can help your child get the rest and sleep they need to grow up strong and healthy.
Sleep deprivation in the early months and years takes a toll on all aspects of a child’s health and, if not resolved, can have a hugely detrimental effect on their development. Sleep is such an important part of your child’s mental and physical health because, while sleeping, a child’s mind and body are able to rest and rejuvenate. The brain needs to sleep so that it can restore resources that were used up during the day, and a well-rested brain can solve problems, learn new information and enjoy life much more than a brain that is overtired .
Daytime naps and quiet time
So many parents feel a lot of stress about implementing and achieving daytime naps with their little ones. In the early months, naps will rarely fall into a routine until a full night’s sleep is properly established. Many will follow advice to wake their baby after a 45-minute morning nap, enforce a 2-hour sleep after lunch and/or not let their baby nap again after 4pm, but often with little success .
My advice is somewhat different from most, because I suggest you implement a more flexible nap structure that better follows your baby’s natural sleep patterns. During the first 8–10 months, the easiest daytime nap to establish is the first one of the day. It’s also the most rejuvenating and the best-quality daytime sleep your little one will have, even after a full, 12-hour sleep at night. This often means that the after-lunch daytime nap that most parents try to achieve may not be quite so successful and may be frustratingly variable in its length. However, as your baby heads to twelve months old the need for two daytime naps will lessen and by eighteen months you can expect your little one to be having only the one nap, after lunch, which stays in place for another year or so.
- At 6 months Around this time, if you’ve followed The Sensational Baby Sleep Plan, I would expect your baby to be dropping the late-afternoon nap and just having a nap in the morning and one after lunch. To cope with the longer afternoon from wake-up after the second nap through to bedtime, you can push back the timings of the naps so that the first is at around 9/9.30am instead of 8.30am, and then the second nap starts at around 1/1.30pm instead of 12.30.
- Approaching 12 months Some babies seem to need to drop the morning nap around this time, though some do it sooner, or later, than others – the earliest I have seen was at ten months and there are some who keep two naps until they’re almost two!
- 2–3.5 years Once your little one is down to just the one, after-lunch nap as they head towards three years old, they may then drop the nap completely. The earliest I would expect a toddler to be able to do without the nap is around two and a half years, whereas some will keep their beloved nap until around three and a half.
Working out when and how to drop from two naps to one, and then deciding that your child doesn’t need the daytime nap at all, can be quite tricky and there is no exact age to be guided by. However, if your older baby is sleeping from 9–10.30am in the morning and suddenly starts to not sleep easily for their second nap, or is sleeping then for only 30–45 minutes, it’s a sure sign that you need to limit the morning nap to promote a better after-lunch sleep. Start by waking your baby 15 minutes before his usual wake-up time at the first nap and see what, if any, effect that has on the second nap. If there’s not much change, limit the first nap to just 1 hour or even 45 minutes, which should then help them to sleep better for his second nap.
Once this transition has taken place, it is likely that after a few weeks they will no longer need the first morning nap at all, and they will settle down to the one-nap strategy. Instead of putting your little one down at the usual time of 9.00am–9.30am, keep them up for as long as you can before you feel they need to sleep. This transitional phase can take a week or so and lunch can become somewhat interrupted, so you may need to alter the timings of their meal for a few days. For example, if your little one can only manage to get to 11am before they really need to sleep, give them a good mid-morning snack beforehand then another robust snack, or a late lunch, once they wake from thier nap. As they may have gone to sleep at 11am and woken at, say, 1.30pm, the slightly longer afternoon may also be a tad challenging as they get increasingly tired and grumpy heading towards 6pm. You can always do an earlier bath and bedtime for a few days to compensate, but hopefully it will all fall into place within a week or so and they will easily be able to wait for lunch at 12pm then go down for thier nap at around 12.30, then you can re-establish the usual bedtime.
Somewhere between two and a half and three and half years of age, your toddler will reach the point when he doesn’t need a daytime nap at all, and although you may be dreading this and miss having that glorious hour or so to yourself, I’m afraid it will happen at some point!
Bedtime refusal/night wakings
There are many different reasons why your toddler may not have learned to sleep through the night, or, having done so for some time, has now started to resist bedtime and wake during the night:
- You may not have followed my plan or, indeed, implemented any kind of routine, and consequently your little one has not yet learned to sleep through the night.
- Perhaps your toddler has never been a good daytime sleeper and, as a result, doesn’t sleep well at night either, due to being so overtired.
- You may have decided to co-sleep in the earlier months, and though you want to change things now, your little one cannot seem to sleep alone.
- You may have been offering the ‘dream feed’ or are continuing to give night feeds, which your little one now relies upon and is reluctant to give up.
- Your child may be reliant on a dummy, which actively encourages them to wake up when they lose it and then require your intervention to help find it.
- Perhaps your little one has become attached to a comforter (a cuddly toy or ‘blankie’, for example) that has somehow got lost in the daytime and he now won’t settle without it.
- Perhaps your toddler struggled with acid-reflux as a baby and still has unmanaged symptoms, which are interfering with their night-time sleep – because, contrary to popular belief, many babies do not just ‘outgrow’ it.
- Your child may have food allergies or intolerances that cause digestive discomfort and prevent him from sleeping easily at night.
- Perhaps your toddler is teething, unwell or has some other medical problem that interferes with sleep.
- The arrival of another baby can easily unsettle your toddler and may cause him to display some negative reactions, including waking at night.
- Any change in your toddler’s usual environment, such as a new home or a going away for the weekend, can cause him to be less settled at night.
- Being on holiday, staying with friends or family, travelling abroad and encountering different time-zones may cause your toddler to fall out of their routine, making them more unable to sleep as soundly as when at home.
- The hour change that takes place in the UK every March and October can cause disruption to your toddler’s sleep.
- Your child may have started nursery or school or changed classroom, leaving them feeling somewhat apprehensive and perhaps experiencing a degree of separation anxiety, which means they are less happy to sleep at night.
- A change in your family dynamics, when you are dealing with a bereavement, a family split or any other stressful situation life throws at you, may result in your toddler picking up on a tense atmosphere and feeling more unsettled, especially at night.
Whatever the cause of your toddler’s sleep problems, it can seem like a hopeless situation when, no matter what you have tried, nothing seems to help. All too often I hear parents declare that they have the child who doesn’t need sleep or are convinced that their child is ‘different’ in some way and there is no sleep solution for them. In fact, nearly every parent who has asked for my help has felt that way and has been sure that their toddler will be the only one who will not respond to my reassurance sleep-training technique! Happily they have all been wrong and, although some children along the way have proved to be quite ‘challenging’, many more have responded with ease.’
The technique and how to implement is clearly detailed in both my books for you to follow or listen to on the audiobook recordings.
Many parents are convinced that their toddler was born to be an early riser and are adamant that a 5am wake-up is hard-wired into their child. However, I have never agreed with this ethos, however, and always believe there is room for improvement!
Whist I understand there is variation in individuals’ sleep requirements, I will never accept that 5am is the natural waking time for any child, and in my opinion the absolute earliest to even think about starting your day would be 6am. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, and for those parents who are do shift work or need to get to the office early in the morning, a very early wake-up for the household may be necessary. Importantly, though, if your toddler is waking before the natural morning time of 7am, they will not be getting the required sleep quota and sleep deprivation could begin to build.
- Any milk feeds during the night, whether breast or bottle, will almost certainly be the cause of an early wake-up, as the digestive system itself has to wake-up and digest milk when it should be resting.
- Too much sleep during the day can cause early waking, so adjust the daytime nap schedule accordingly and/or limit the total amount the daytime sleep.
- Going to bed too late can, over time, lead to general sleep deprivation. This will cause night-time sleep to deteriorate, so an earlier bedtime is often appropriate. (NB: I advise a 7pm bedtime – 7.30pm latest – for toddlers and children, right up to the age of 5 years.)
- An acid-reflux problem or dietary intolerance may lie at the root of consistent early waking. (See Chapter 7 for detailed information about this condition.)
- Sometimes early waking has simply become an ingrained habit, which can make it incredibly difficult to break, but sometimes a change of environment – moving your toddler into a different room or just moving thier bedroom furniture around – can be enough to break the cycle.
Nearly all early-morning waking needs the same response as you give for bedtime refusal and night-time wakings, by following the age-adapted Reassurance Sleep-Training Technique as described in both my books.
Practical tips for mealtimes
If you have a food-resistant toddler, mealtimes can be tricky to manage, and there is no single rule that works for all.
As parents, but especially as mothers, our deepest, strongest and most naturally nurturing instinct is to feed our young. When our offspring don’t want to feed, don’t seem to like feeding and even scream or protest when we try to feed them, it such a huge of maternal emotions – you may feel a rising panic, frustration, despair, upset and even anger. This means that feeds or mealtimes become stressful and challenging events that both mother and child almost fear, rather than the enjoyable, calm and social situations one would hope them to be.
The best way to manage this situation is probably the hardest to actually implement – and that is to relax! Of course, when you baby won’t feed or your toddler won’t eat the meal you’ve just cooked, the last thing in the world you feel is relaxed, and trying to manage and ‘hide’ all these raw emotions is incredibly difficult.
Many years ago, I created a mental image to reflect the satisfaction we feel when our babies feed well.
“Imagine a baby’s bottle full of milk and alongside a ‘maternal satisfaction-ometer’.
As the amount of milk in the bottle reduces, the ‘satisfaction-ometer’ level rises, bringing about a huge feel–good factor, and almost a sense of relief, when we know our little one has had a good feed!”
Here are some top tips to help lower your stress levels and more easily manage the mealtimes:
- Turn on the radio or some music so you have a distraction to listen or sing along to.
- Try to sometimes change the mealtime environment by hosting a ‘picnic’ outside or sitting around a small table in another room.
- Invite friends round to coincide with a mealtime, to make things more enjoyable for you and provide a distraction for your child.Obviously they need to the kind of friends who understand your situation and you feel comfortable having them around – especially when things are stressful, such as mealtimes!
- Have other children to come for mealtimes so your child can learn from and see other children eating.
- Provide some physical distractions for the mealtime, such as toy food or wipe-clean books.
- Play audio-stories for your toddler to listen to while eating.
- Try to eat at the same time as your child and share food, rather than focus only on what he is eating.
- Resist the temptation to constantly encourage them to eat; it’s actually better to say hardly anything about the food itself and instead just chit-chat about anything else you can think of.
- Try not to let your child know how anxious you feel and avoid watching their every mouthful. Give an impression of complete disinterest in how much they eat or don’t eat.
- Avoid offering ‘reward’ food, such as pudding if the main course is finished, or stating that one thing has to be eaten in order to ‘earn’ another.
- Set a time limit for the meal, and when the time is up clear away no matter what’s been eaten and what’s left on your toddler’s plate. You could get a timer to use for this and devise some ‘mealtime rules’ similar to the bedtime ones.
- Above all, make absolutely sure your toddler is digestively comfortable and that any reflux issues or food intolerances are being properly managed.
Bedtime with more than one!
Once a new baby arrives, one of the most challenging scenarios is bath- and bedtime. How on earth do you manage to keep your toddler’s usual evening routine from being disrupted while also meeting the needs of your baby, who wants to cluster-feed and is at their most unsettled at this time of day? The answer: quite simply, you can’t! Or perhaps you can – if you are able to accept in your mind that your toddler’s life has changed and things will simply never be the same as they were before the new baby arrived.
The sooner you can acknowledge, without any guilt, that there is a new member of the family to look after and that life is going to be very different, the sooner your toddler will get used to the changes too. The best advice for managing bath and bedtime with one or more older children and a new baby is to ask for help. Beg or plead for help at the children’s bedtime from whoever you can, as it’s likely to be the most challenging time of day until your new baby is at least six or eight weeks old, so an extra pair of hands will be hugely helpful!
It can be interesting to recall how you created the most wonderfully calm and happy bedtime routine with your eldest child, but can only provide a somewhat ‘watered-down’ version for each subsequent child, which shows how much children’s birth order has an effect on how they grow up. That said, whether you are trying to manage solo or do have help, the following list will give you plenty of tips to help make bedtime easier:
- Rather than trying to stagger the children’s bathtimes, try to combine them from the start. Even if you have a four-year-old and a new baby, I would still try to do bath-time with them both at the same time, then afterwards your older child can relax with some books or an audio-story while you feed your baby then and settle them to bed. If your child shows an interest, get them to ‘help’ wash, dry or dress the new baby, which will make your child feel included and important.
- Sometimes you might bath your baby on their own, but with your toddler ‘helping’. Then, while you feed baby – perhaps sitting on the loo seat – your older child has thier bath, but still with lots of supervision and vocal interaction from you.
- Remembering the advice to limit screen-time for a couple of hours before bed, you could leave your older child listening to an audiobook in their room or on your bed while you feed your baby then settle them to bed. You then do a quicker version of bath- and bedtime with your toddler, but at least it is still on a one-to one basis.
- It might prove easier to make your baby’s schedule slightly later than that of your toddler. For example, if your toddler is used to having a bath at 6pm and being asleep by 7pm each evening, you could try to give your baby a late-afternoon feed around 5pm or even 6pm, and then let the baby sleep while you bathe your toddler then put them to bed. Of course, you then have to do another bath and bedtime with your baby, which can make for a long evening!
- It’s quite possible that, previously, your toddler was very easy to put to bed and happily settled themself to sleep, but since the arrival of your new baby they have suddenly become quite challenging and refusing to go to bed. This is a natural reaction and likely caused by jealousy, but it is important to try to keep the usual routine in place and stick to the sleep-training, as opposed to overcompensating by relaxing the usual bedtime rules.
- There may be times when your toddler has to take a back seat and allow you uninterrupted time to see to your new baby. This will be difficult for your toddler to accept, but also a good life lesson, which will ultimately help them to learn that we are all equal and that their new sibling is as important as he is.
- If you are too tired, the day has not gone to plan and you simply can’t face doing bath-time with any of your little ones, then just bypass it! Instead, engineer a quick wash of hands and faces, and clean some teeth, then get everyone changed into pyjamas and snuggling on your bed for an audio-story, saving you having to read, with milk feeds for those that need them and winding-down-time all round.
Reflux in older babies and toddlers
In the last chapter of my first book, The Sensational Baby Sleep Plan, I explain the true meaning of ‘colic’, give detailed information on acid-reflux and flag up digestive issues related to dietary intolerances and allergies, then explain how to spot the symptoms and to understand the effects these conditions have on your baby, as well as how to manage the situation to bring some resolution. In fact, although my book was predominantly about babies’ sleep, it has almost become better known for the information about these gastric and digestive issues. It has helped thousands of parents who have instinctively known something was ‘not right’ with their baby, but have been repeatedly dismissed by countless health professionals and continually told that ‘everything is normal’! My book helped these parents to identify the issues with their babies and to understand why their baby seemed so difficult to feed or wouldn’t sleep, why their baby cried all the time or protested each time they were put down.
- ‘It was such a light-bulb moment when I read that last chapter – it all makes sense now! I’m truly grateful that your information has given me the strength to keep fighting to get what I need to help my baby.’
- ‘When no one else would listen, I found your book. I cried all the way through the last chapter, as I knew there was finally one person in the world who understood what was happening to my baby. I would give you the biggest hug and kiss if we could ever meet. Thank you so much, Alison.’
- ‘You have literally changed our lives and we will never be able to thank you enough. Your information on reflux was simply invaluable and enabled us to help our little baby. Thank you!’
- ‘I was convinced you wrote that chapter solely about my baby. Everything you describe made so much sense and it’s almost as if you were here, watching and writing about the behaviours my baby was displaying. You are truly an angel sent from Heaven and we will be eternally grateful to you, Alison. Thank you.’
Many people might ask why am I talking about acid-reflux and dietary intolerances as it is a widely understood that children grow out of these problems by twelve months of age … Wrong! From my years of experience working with babies, toddlers and young children, I can attest that many of them don’t. Instead, as babies get older, they become somehow better able to ‘self-manage’ their discomfort and certainly don’t show the same symptoms in response to their pain as they did during the first few months. This makes it easy to believe that they’ve simply outgrown the problem and that any issues they still have are due to developmental leaps, sleep regressions, general toddler behaviour or other expected life changes. So, again, many toddlers – just like babies – are not understood and any challenging behaviours they display are simply dismissed as being part of ‘normal’ toddlerhood!
In the last section of my second book The Sensational Toddler Plan you can access loads of information on this subject and go through the checklist of symptoms to see if your toddler may still be struggling with any degree of digestive issue, discomfort or food intolerance.
What you can do
Whatever the problem you are expeiencing with your toddler, it can be changed, fixed, rectified and sleep can become the norm in your household!
- You can read both my books.
- You can listen to the podcasts I have recorded about toddlers
- You can scrutinise my Instagram page and replay many of my ‘live’ posts and Q and A sessions.
- You can seek direct help from me through an online consultation.
There is definitely light at the end of the tunnel and you, like thousands of parents before you, can and will promote and establish positive sleep habits for your baby, toddler or child. Good Luck!