Grouchy, moody, exhausted – and that’s just mum and dad. Nothing prepares you for the sheer exhaustion of parenthood. Thankfully, after the first few months of grinding sleep deprivation, the little monsters usually settle into a routine. But not always. Midwife and parent educator, Cecile de Scally, who set up Dubai’s first child sleep clinic devising programmes for exhausted families, knows only too well the stress faced by parents whose kids won’t sleep through the night. ‘You cannot underestimate the effect poor sleep routines have on the entire family,’ she says. ‘It can be devastating, affecting not only the mood and behaviour of the child, but all the relationships in a family. Parents are so tired that they lose patience with each other and with the children, and siblings, who have previously slept well, can develop bad habits because their nights are disturbed by the wakeful child.’ We put several common sleep questions to Cecile.
My six-month-old baby keeps waking up very early in the morning. What can I do?
Don’t go to them at the first cry. If all seems normal, wait five minutes before responding – and then the next day, stretch it again for another five minutes and so on. Eventually, they will start waking up later.
My four-month-old baby slept through from the word go. Now she’s waking up hungry at 3am.
She could be ready for basic solids. Try mixing a little baby rice with her formula or breast milk and see how she responds.
My toddler wakes up screaming for no apparent reason.
That sounds like overtiredness. Parents often try to tire out their children by putting them to bed later. But this results in an exhausted, disturbed sleep and an early morning wake-up. Night time screaming occurs when a child wakes up – but can’t switch to a full waking state. Comfort your child calmly, but try not to wake them fully or remove them from their bed. Children aged one to four need at least 12 hours sleep in 24. Setting their bedtime routine at 7pm should ensure a 7am-8am wake-up.
My child has started sleep walking. What can I do?
This can be dangerous, especially if they’re able to open doors and windows in their sleep, so it needs to be addressed. First of all, don’t wake them up. Gently try and guide them back to bed. If the sleep walking persists on a regular basis, consult a child psychologist to rule out or discover any underlying causes.
My three-year-old won’t stay in her room and keeps getting into our bed.
Don’t be angry with her. Calmly take her back to bed, but don’t talk to her – or make eye contact either. This is attention-seeking behaviour, and if you give her what she wants, namely communication – even if it’s disapproval – she will persist. If she keeps doing it after several days, put a stairgate across her doorway, or try closing her bedroom door. I don’t advocate locking it, though.
My child gets distressed when I leave her at bedtime.
Children get used to certain cues, and having you cuddle them to sleep at bedtime is one of them. If you can’t bear the distress caused by leaving them – and not many parents can – tell them that they have 20 minutes of your time, and then you’ll get out of their bed. Gradually distance yourself by sitting on the bed rather than in it, to sitting on a chair, to standing by the door, and finally even being in the hallway. Once they get used to that, you can just call in on them to reassure them of your presence. Eventually, they will get used to you not being there.
If it’s not the monster under the bed, it’s a tummy ache, or a trip to the bathroom. I feel so guilty ignoring them.
And don’t kids know it! Rule number one: never negotiate at the bedroom door. If they come down once, on their way back up, offer them a bathroom trip and make sure their favourite toy is with them. Put them into bed and withdraw. There may be screams, and it’s fine to check that they’re okay every five minutes or so, but maintain an emotional distance and stick to your word. Success in establishing any sleep routine is rooted in consistency. If you stick to the plan, within seven to 10 days, they will be staying in bed.
My child is up reading and playing in his room way past bedtime. How can I stop this?
It’s much more difficult to establish good sleep habits with older kids. If you haven’t got it sorted by five or six, you’ll be fighting a losing battle. Introduce an incentive chart for good bedtime behaviour, awarding him stars for settling well, staying in bed and putting out the light at a reasonable time. His reward should be quality time with you, though – not a present. Offer to take him on a picnic, or play Lego with him for an hour. Don’t allow television or video games in your child’s room and make sure bedtime is a calm and regular routine.
My friends have tried things with their kids that worked, but when I tried them, they failed.
Every child is different, and every family has a different routine and different circumstances. If you’re struggling with sleep, book a consultation, so an expert can assess your child and create an individualised programme both for them and for you.
For more info, contact Cecile at firstname.lastname@example.org