By TMoM Team Member, Ashley Quinn Kibby
As parents, we know how essential our children’s sleep is for their wellbeing, and ours! According to the NIH, sleep is critical to the repair and regeneration of nearly every type of tissue and system in the body. Everything from our brains, hearts, lungs, to our immune function, metabolism, and mood depend on sufficient sleep to function correctly!
The infant years pushed many of us to the brink of insanity battling our own sleep deprivation while trying to provide adequate sleep for our babies. As our babies grow into toddlers and preschoolers, we encounter a different set of challenges due to shifting sleep requirements, attitudes, and disruptions like nap-dropping, nightmares, and/or night terrors. So, how can we set our kids up for sleep success?
Let’s start with the basics. According to the AAP, the recommended amount of sleep for toddlers and preschool age children is 11-14 hours for 1–2-year-olds, and 10-13 hours for 3–5-year-olds. This is a great, simple reference for the quantity of sleep your child requires. Now, let’s dig in a little further into frequency and quality.
I’ll share a little research as well as my experience as a mother of two 31-month-olds. Note: this is not a substitute for medical advice; if you have any concerns about your child’s sleep habits, please call your family doctor.
The AAP states that children may require naps until 5 years of age. This sounds wonderful in theory, but it isn’t reality for all of us. When my daughters dropped their naps two months after their second birthday, I was confused and stressed.
I knew most of their peers still napped and it seemed too early according to everything I read and heard. But when I looked at my twins, they were full of energy after lunchtime, and the earliest I could get them down for a nap was 4pm. Then they were cranky and groggy for dinner and awake until 10pm!
Soon, we switched to a 7am-7pm schedule with no naps, and balance returned to our household. This was a learning process for me to tune into and trust my children’s biorhythms over the “playbook,” and it’s an exercise I practice daily. Even though naps aren’t part of our typical schedule, when the girls are overly cranky, congested, battling colds, etc., I encourage daytime sleep.
Sometimes it’s as easy as separating them for “quiet time” and other times it requires a walk in the stroller. Other go-to sleep inducers for the nap-fighting toddler include white noise machines, black-out curtains, and car rides. Whatever tricks you have up your sleeve, it’s important to pull them out when your child is sharing their sleep signals. Rubbing their eyes, whining or clinging, having meltdowns, and even hyperactivity can indicate the need for more sleep.
By the age of two, your child is typically not waking up through the night for the infant reasons rooted in hunger or attachment. However, they may wake up suddenly screaming for mommy or daddy because they’ve had a nightmare. Nightmares typically happen during the second half of the night, during REM or dream sleep, and oftentimes make it difficult for the child to fall back to sleep right away.
At this age, it can be difficult to explain the difference between what’s “real” and what’s “not real,” and that’s okay. When your child has a nightmare, the most helpful response from the parent is to override the somatic sense of fear with comfort. Holding, rubbing, or rocking your child, along with familiar phrases like “mommy’s here,” “everything’s okay,” and “you are safe,” can quickly alleviate the fear response.
Some children may remember their nightmare the next day and some may not. I’ve found that trying to discuss dreams with my 31-month-olds can create a bit of confusion. While it might be interesting to understand the topic of your child’s nightmare, it’s important to keep the conversation on their level of comprehension, and even more important to focus on the positive with language that affirms and empowers.
A night terror is a less common sleep disturbance that usually happens during the first third of the night, often within the first two hours when the brain is transitioning into deep sleep. Typically, you’ll recognize a night terror because your child is sweating, screaming, crying, and/or thrashing around. When you go to comfort your child, they may push you away or look at you like they don’t even know who you are!
While this can be quite alarming and your instinct may be to wake and comfort your child, sleep experts advise to not disturb the child, who is often still sleeping during this state. Instead, make sure their sleep environment is safe so they can’t come into physical harm from the episode. Although you may assume the emotional distress would be of equal concern, the child usually will not retain memory of a night terror.
This all said, I’ve had some success going the empowerment route with my daughter, who has suffered night terrors since infancy. A few months ago, after a string of frequent night terrors, I told her that nothing could hurt her and if anything bothered her while she was sleeping to say: “Go away,” and “I’m not afraid.” Since then, I’ve noticed a serious reduction in her night terrors.
While the state of sleep remains an enigma to many scientists, everyone can agree that it’s essential to wellness. Sleep studies have also proven that maintaining routine sleep and wake hours are critical to health. Just remember, a developing child’s sleep habits and requirements are prone to change, so when one routine stops working for your family, it’s a good idea to try another one!
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