Obstacles to sleep

Obstacles to sleep
All parents want their children to sleep well, but there are several factors that can affect sleep without our even realizing it. Here’s a look at the most common obstacles to getting a good night’s sleep and a few tips on how to overcome them.

All parents want their children to sleep well, but there are several factors that can affect sleep without our even realizing it. Here’s a look at the most common obstacles to getting a good night’s sleep and a few tips on how to overcome them.

Irregular supper and bedtimes

This is the greatest challenge when trying to balance work and family life! When you get back from work at 6 p.m. and one of the family has an activity that evening, it’s not always easy to keep a consistent mealtime and bedtime routine. Even so, it’s good to try to stick to a stable schedule if you can.

“This regulates your toddler’s biological clock and helps her fall asleep more easily,” explains Jennifer McGrath, psychology professor at Concordia University. “That’s why it’s also good to stick to the same routine on weekends too.”

While there is no miracle solution for hectic weeknights, some popular suggestions for balancing work and family life can help : planning the menu for the week and preparing a few meals on the weekend, limiting evening outings, dividing household chores between you and your partner, etc.

It’s also important to watch for your child’s sleepy signals so you can put her to bed at the time when her biological clock asks for it. “When my daughter needs to sleep, she whines, loses her patience for no reason and twists her hair,” describes Pascal, father to 5-year-old Félix, 2-year-old Manue and 5-month-old Matéo. Other children rub their eyes, yawn, stare into space, look for a fight, and so on.

No bedtime routine

According to experts, this is the main cause of sleep trouble in toddlers. If you establish a predictable and reassuring routine (e.g. bath, pyjamas, teeth brushing, story, hugs, and sleep), your toddler will sleep better and fuss less about going to bed. “A little ritual reassures a child, since she knows what to expect,” says Dominique Petit from the Center for Advanced Research in Sleep Medicine at the Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montréal. “What’s more, she learns to associate sleep with the various steps to falling asleep.”

Father of four children between the ages of 5 and 21, Éric knows what a difference a routine can make. “With my older children, I didn’t have a routine or regular bedtime, and it was always difficult to put them to bed. With my younger ones, 5-year-old Lytycya, and 6-year-old Lukas, I always do the same things in the same order. They understand that it’s time for bed and they sleep very well.”

It’s also recommended to promote calm activities in the hour before bedtime, like reading, listening to soft music or drawing.

Too many screens, not enough physical activity

As several studies have shown, spending too much time in front of screens (TV, tablet, cell phone, computer) affects sleep. In fact, it’s better to avoid them altogether before bed. Your child should not have a TV or other screens in her room either.

You should also limit screen use during the day so that you leave more time for physical activity in particular. As Lukas’ dad has discovered : to get a good night’s sleep, your child needs to move. “When my son isn’t active enough during the day, he has a hard time falling asleep at night.” The Canadian organization Participaction highlighted the importance of sleep in its last Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth. “Kids aren’t moving enough to be tired, and they may also be too tired to move […] it’s a vicious cycle,” reads the report.

Certain bedtime habits

In her research, Dominique Petit has noted that parents, often without meaning to, adopt bedtime habits that do not actually promote better sleep. For example, a parent who stays with their child until she falls asleep, or brings their child into their bed when she wakes up in the night, actually teaches the child that she needs an adult beside her to be able to go to sleep. A child who learns that she can fall asleep without assistance, on the other hand, also learns that she can fall back asleep on her own during the night. Her night wakings will be shorter and she will enjoy longer, more restorative sleep.

“The best thing is to teach your baby to fall asleep on her own as soon as possible,” says Dominique Petit. At just a few months old, you can put your baby to bed before she’s actually asleep. Around 6 months old, babies don’t usually still need to be fed at night. If your child wakes up and cries, go to see her to make sure everything is okay, recommends the specialist, but leave her in her crib. To soothe her, you can simply caress her and speak to her softly.

Avoid sending your child to bed as punishment. Her room must remain a pleasant place.

What if your 1- or 2-year-old still needs you in order to settle? There are several methods to help her fall asleep on her own and just as many opinions on the matter. For example, some parents may decide to try the progressive sleep training method (waiting 5-10-15 minutes), while others are not comfortable doing this. This method entails waiting for progressively longer periods before going to check on your child if she starts crying—first 5 minutes, then 10, then 15.

Studies show that this is an effective and safe method; however, Marie-Hélène Pennestri, psychologist and assistant professor at McGill University, interprets the results with caution. “It’s very difficult to make a direct link between the use of a sleep training method and the emotional development of children in the long term. It’s just one factor among many others,” she says. Nevertheless, she adds that it’s still better to try a sleep training method than to be depressed and develop a poor relationship with your child. “However, if parents don’t feel comfortable with it, we shouldn’t tell them it’s the only solution. If a parent uses the method because he or she feels social pressure to do so, it probably won’t work and no one will feel good about it.”

Fears and anxiety
Your child may have trouble sleeping because she’s afraid of the dark, of monsters under her bed, of strange noises, or even because she finds it hard to be away from you. “In addition to reassuring her, it’s a good idea to show her how to soothe herself with a comforting object such as a blanket or stuffed animal,” suggests Jennifer McGrath. You can also leave the door ajar and install a nightlight to reassure her.

The way you react to a child who makes repetitive requests (potty, water, kisses, etc.) to stall bedtime can also be key. It’s normal for a child to test limits. However, if you say yes to everything or you react according to your mood, the situation will reoccur night after night. Since your child will learn that she sometimes “wins”, she will continue to try. To reduce bedtime requests, it’s therefore important to set limits and stick to them.

Some parents also choose to reinforce good behaviour with a reward. This is what Manue’s parents have done so that she stops getting up ten times a night. “When she stays in her bed, she gets a sticker that she sticks on a board,” explains Pascal. “After three stickers, she’s allowed a little something.”

  • A bedtime ritual and a regular bedtime are excellent ways to resolve most sleep issues.
  • Don’t let your child be in front of a screen (tablet, cell phone, computer, TV) in the hour leading up to bedtime.
  • For your child to fall back asleep on her own during the night, she needs to learn to fall asleep on her own at bedtime.
Naître et grandir

Source : Naître et grandir magazine, October 2016
Research and copywriting : Nathalie Vallerand
Scientific review : Evelyne Martello, clinical nurse, Sleep Disorder Clinic, CIUSSS du Nord-de-l’Île-de-Montréal, Rivière-des-Prairies Hospital

Photo : iStock.com/Bodler