Managing sleep habits in times of uncertainty

Hannah Abrahams
 Child Psychologist & Educational Expert

Managing sleep habits in times of uncertainty

There is no doubt that the jump to parenthood is one of the very largest leaps you will make in your lifetime. 

In today's world we are swamped with information about the do's and don’ts for creating your perfectly sleeping child. But parenting is an art not a science and, as always, it’s your own deepest wisdom to decide what is best for you and your child with regards to their sleep. 

Have faith in your intuition about your child’s sleep needs and communication about their sleep for you are very much the expert.

As I write I think about my experience of my own expectations as a new mother. I had created my own  narrative about what my new baby would do in terms of her sleep and although it was a romantic notion it was far from true. I had to adjust my expectations and hopes quickly so as not to berate myself for having a “beautifully sleeping baby by six months.” Navigating the world of sleep and the deprivation suddenly entered into as a new parent is challenging, both in terms of our own expectations and those surrounding us culturally and socially. 

We all have basic needs; to eat, drink and to sleep, and in order to function we need to ensure that these basic needs are met so that we can meet the needs of our children too, but it is important to remember that all of this is thrown in the air when we have a baby. 

What are your expectations about sleep and your baby sleeping? Where are these expectations coming from and where did you learn of them?

A NEWBORN BABY

If you have a young baby, sleep is so very precious to you. Babies need the comfort and warmth of you close to them to know that they can turn to you for food, warmth and nurture. 

Embrace these moments, allow yourself to cocoon in their world. For now, you and your baby are very much engaged in a connected dance together; the outside world and the dishes can wait! 

During lockdown, it is important not to create additional pressure and stress on yourself and your baby in trying to increase the length of their sleep. All babies develop sleep patterns in their own time and, whilst I recognise how difficult this can be, it is  important to follow the lead of your baby. 

Nurture your needs where you can. If your baby is sleeping, give yourself time to doze too. You will find that because you are nurturing your own physical needs, which are so important at the beginning of motherhood, you will intrinsically meet the needs of your baby.  If your thoughts are running away with you, notice them, allow them to happen and bring yourself back into the present. Your own experiences and expectations placed upon you by others’ narratives or the stories you have heard are likely to play in your mind. Reach out if you feel overwhelmed. 


TODDLERS 

You may have noticed that your toddler or child’s sleep habits have changed or regressed during lockdown and this is to be expected. 

They will sense that their world around them has changed and their behaviours and emotions will change in response to this. Alongside sleep changes their emotions and responses may be bigger than usual. 

For example, a child who normally goes to bed after a night-time story, a kiss, and a cuddle, may now be walking trepidatiously down the stairs numerous times after you’ve said it’s lights out. 

Notice, what feelings arise in you when I mention it? 

I am guessing that it leads to a sense of frustration or anger about the fact that your precious time has been impeded on, or even perhaps a feeling of regression?

Ultimately, it’s about recognising the sense of discombobulation that we’re all feeling right now and this could be how it is being displayed. 

In times of uncertainty and stress, it is to be expected that children will change emotionally and behaviourally. It’s likely that they’re going to want to spend much more time with you and the process of falling asleep can become more uncertain, and therefore more demanding, for you as a parent. 

At these times, it’s really important to validate your children's feelings. Talk to them about what it is like to feel worried about going to sleep. 

  • What would their perfect bedtime look like?
  • Can you both work to change something to make it feel better?
  • How could bedtime look a little different? 

For some children, it might be the agreement that you read one more story. If this is the case, try to ensure that whilst validating their needs you also maintain a sense of routine and containment. If everything changes the likelihood is that sleep will become more disrupted.

It could be that your child is finding the process of you physically leaving the room very difficult. Recognise this and reassure them repeatedly that you will be nearby. This could mean a gradual retreat, where over the course of a few days you quietly sit by their door, allowing sleep to come and for your child to remain calm and feel listened to. If your child keeps getting up, reassure them with the same phrase and gently tuck them in. 

Notice if your emotions are getting too big for you. If they are, STOP, DROP and BREATHE. 

Younger children successfully engage in positive praise and reinforcement. This could be in the form of a smiley face chart which is immediate and responsive to their positive behaviours. 

Before bedtime, discuss with your child what sort of realistic reward they would like. This could be:

  • Some Playdough making time with you
  • Extra football or games time during the day

Ensure that you keep to your promises, as much as the children. But also remember to allow yourself and your child the experience that their sleep will never be as perfect as your internal narrative hoped and that both your adjustments are good enough. It’s ok and they will sleep again. 


TWEENS AND TEENAGERS

For families with tweens and teens, during lockdown you may have noticed significant changes in your child’s sleep patterns. While undoubtedly this can be frustrating, there is also a biochemical and hormonal as to why this is happening. 

Young people's circadian rhythms go through tremendous transitions during adolescence. They naturally wake and sleep later. It also becomes incredibly important for them to feel socially connected and they will often follow the lead of their peers whereby calls are made later into the evening. Whilst it is understandable that their sleep rhythms are changing, discuss clear boundaries, hopes and expectations about how their ‘schooling day’ will look.

Ensure your child feels listened to during this discussion and negotiate with them. By doing this, you are encouraging them to feel more autonomous about the times agreed that they will get up and go to sleep. Therefore, as a parent you are validating their needs too. 


FOR YOU

Finally, work to ensure that you are gaining as much sleep as you can. Switch off your phone two hours before you plan to sleep and try and engage in calming activities. At the moment, watching the news before bed may not help!

Ensure that you get time during the day to go for a walk with your baby or take your teen out in nature, and this too will serve to have a positive effect on your sleep routine. If any of this feels too much, please contact your local GP or NCT support group. 

Remember, your parenting is good enough right now and whilst this can feel really hard, this too shall pass. Notice your successes - they will always be there.

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