Sleep Challenges in Older Children

Sleep problem can linger well into the school-going age bracket. Sleep issues are not reserved for infants and toddlers, but if parents have reached the stage when their older child doesn’t sleep well you may also be resigned to the situation. Obviously the older the child is, the more difficult it can be to change long ingrained habits and expectations. With age, the emotional landscape shifts as well, however the principles of healthy sleep hygiene still apply and your child’s sleep can always be improved. Of course, some children are better sleeper than others, and yes, some children require more and some a little less than average, but ultimately, all typically developing children, have the capability to learn how to go to sleep without a parent present or delaying sleep for 2-3 hours at bedtime and how to say asleep overnight without wandering into the parent’s bedroom or indeed looking for the parent to join them in their bed.
Quality sleep for your child should not be underestimated. It serves a far greater function than rest alone, contributing to optimised learning and mental alertness, increased ability to retain and process information along with enhanced cognitive development.
With preschool and school going children between 2-7 years of age, that do not sleep well, the problems are normally either not being able to go to sleep easily at a reasonable time or not being able to stay asleep; and very often parental presence is required either at the onset of sleep, overnight or both. Another common issue in this age range is staying awake for long periods of time overnight. Just with younger children, in order for healthy sleep to develop and for your young child to be independent and efficient at sleeping, core elements must apply. Healthy sleep may be described as getting enough sleep for the age group, taking a day time sleep when age appropriate, the ability to go to sleep at a regular time and to be able to consolidate the sleep without adult intervention.
How much sleep?
At age 2- 3 your child may require 10.5-13 hours at night and 1-2 hour during the day.
At 4 your child may require 10.5-13 hours overnight
What is the right bedtime for your child?
In this age group bedtime may be from 7-8.30pm and awakening from 6am onwards, but in a lot of instances, 8pm onwards is simply too late, causing bedtime battles, frequent waking and shorter sleep duration. If you are struggling with your child’s sleep then consider an earlier bedtime, even temporarily. Consider their mood and behaviour in the evening time and work on bringing timings forward in an effort to establish healthy sleep hygiene.
If you find that your child struggles to go to sleep much before 10-11pm and then sleeps late in the morning. You may need to consider waking them earlier in the morning in an effort to establish a regular age appropriate bedtime and a natural wake time.

Sleep Strategies

Explain Talk to your child about the changes that you intend to make. Do this during the daytime, on a walk or over lunch. Let your child be involved in the decisions, rearrange the bedroom, choose the books and pajamas. Give them a sense of control over the situation.
Illustrate Create a personal book of sleep to help illustrate the changes you are going to make and what you are hoping to achieve. Make it specific to your family, use photos and text. Get your child involved in this process, ownership and goals to works towards.
Relax Establish a bedtime routine in your child’s bedroom-allocate 20-30 minutes to help your child become quiet and relaxed. Be creative and loving; indulge in plenty of physical contact. Gentle massage, stretching and relaxing exercises. Cuddles and stories. Chat about the day and what you are looking forward to doing tomorrow. Use music or audio books during the wind-down-turn off before sleep time. Consider meditations for children if your young child finds it difficult to switch off. Provide a guardian angel, warrior for protection.
Make sure that you have an end to the bedtime routine. Common issues here involve delaying tactics, calling you back after you have left the room: hunger, pain, not tired, scared, needs a wee wee. Try to meet the objections in advance and don’t fall victim to giving into demands for extra drinks, toilet runs or one more story. With a pre-sleep ritual that is focused and even illustrated with a check list on the wall, it can set the scene for lights out and sleep time. You may even need a few guidelines such as, once the lights go out-no talking….close eyes…..go to sleep.
Environment Make sure your child bedroom is a calm, safe place to be. Avoid too many distractions or stimulating activity in advance of sleep. Keep electronics and televisions out of the bedroom and restrict their use at least 1-2 hour before sleep time as using gadgets close to sleep can make it difficult for your child to switch off and have a restful sleep.
Exercise Outside exercise and fresh air are a significant component to healthy sleep. At least 1 hour a day is the recommendation. Don’t do this too close to sleep time though as in advance of sleep your need to help relax your child’s body, not stimulate it.
Diet As with all lifestyle, diet plays a large role. Your child will need sleep well if hungry and requires three structured meals and to be adequately hydrated throughout the day. Avoid high sugar and processed food. Encourage dinner in the evening-slow energy release and sustainable until morning. Allow 2 hours between eating and sleep to let the digestive system relax. Avoid supplements in the evening time-give early in the day if applicable. Consider foods that promote sleep such as the banana, wholemeal and warm milk.
Sleep Learning With the above measures established, a sleep learning process now needs to be implemented. If your child requires your presence, then working on phasing the parent out of the room using my stay-and-support method, gradually as the nights goes by. Help your child learn a new way of going to sleep. Expect a level of protest. If your issues involve bed sharing overnight, then after explaining that you are making changes, you need to help them learn to stay asleep in their bed overnight-this is the tough part. It can take many, many nights for this to improve, but well worth the effort if you have decided that you no longer want this habit to continue and that learning to sleep without interruptions throughout the night is what is best for your family, then the rewards are great.

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