On a recent Saturday evening, I watched as excited families paraded into a packed stadium for a high school playoff game. Babies gazed wide-eyed at the bright lights, schoolchildren raced up the steps of the bleachers, and teens took off to join equally giddy friends. Everyone was having a wonderful time. There was just one problem. That game would not end until 11 p.m., and every family’s sleep schedule would be thrown wildly off track.
Come Monday morning, how many of these parents would make the connection when their baby constantly fussed, their 8-year-old had a meltdown over getting dressed, and their 15-year-old wouldn’t get out of bed? Would they, as I once did, miss the connection and instead react impatiently and never realize that their children were simply not getting enough sleep?
Once parents learn to recognize the connection between sleep and behavior, and the symptoms of sleep deprivation in their children, they can implement measures that dramatically improve family life.
The 3 T’s of Good Sleep
To experience deep restorative sleep, a child’s brain needs to know it is time to sleep. And his body needs to be calm enough to sleep. Achieving these goals is entirely possible if parents understand three key factors – tension, time and temperament – and how each relates to sleep.
1. Tension – Your child has to feel calm and safe. Many children cannot sleep because their bodies are in a state of high alert at bedtime. A skipped nap, an anticipated event, a change in schedule, family tension – all of these things can throw a child into alert. When this happens, extra calming measures are needed throughout the day.
In fact, a good night’s sleep begins in the morning! Begin your child’s day with a sense of calm and loving connection. Greet her warmly when she rises and leave time for an unhurried family breakfast. Such interactions actually slow heart and pulse rates, and buffer against the day’s stresses.
2. Time (the body clock) – A child’s body clock is the control center for the sleep/wake cycle. It tells his body to be awake during the day and to sleep at night. Your child may need help setting his body clock. Cues such as bedtime routines, lighting and a regular sleep-and-wake schedule are all things parents can do to help a child develop a healthy sleep/wake cycle.
But before creating new cues for your child, consider whether you’ve done something to tamper with his sleep/wake cycle in the first place. The decisions you make throughout the day can innocently confuse your child’s body clock. If you’ve ever offered your child a caffeine beverage after lunch, let him skip a nap, allowed him to stay up late as a reward or roughhoused with him right before bed, you may have innocently disrupted his body clock.
3. Temperament (knowing your child) – All is not equal in the land of sleep. Every child is an individual. And some have inherited temperaments that are more – more sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, lights, textures and emotions. Their reactions are often more intense and they may be slower to adjust to change than others.
Five temperament traits tend to make sleeping far more difficult, including:
• The Intense Child is a living staircase of emotion. This child needs adult help to calm herself and doesn’t want to be put down or left alone. She benefits greatly from soothing touch or having a story read to her while sitting in your lap. Her sleep and nap times must be protected because, once overtired, she struggles fiercely to control her strong emotions.
• The Sensitive Child notices everything, from a slight noise, to differences in taste or texture, to changing sights and the emotions of those around him. First, believe your sensitive child when he says something is bothering him. He really can’t sleep until the tag is cut out of his pajamas or the TV in the living room is turned off. Having a “nest” to sleep in is particularly important to him. Put his bed in a cozy corner, rather than floating in the middle of the room.
• The Slow-to-Adapt Child has difficulty shifting from one thing to another. This child needs consistent bed and awakening times to help set her body clock for sleep. She needs fair warning and cues that bedtime is approaching so that she can begin the transition to sleep. Cue her with activities such as dimming the lights, pulling the shades and putting away toys. Changing her pre-bedtime routine is upsetting to her. Build in time for her to awaken slowly in the morning.
• The Irregular Child is unpredictable; he never falls asleep at the same time of day and easily becomes sleep deprived. Though he seems to resist it, the irregular child needs to be gently nudged toward a schedule. Create a routine and provide gentle but firm support to help him move toward regular sleep. Once he has adapted to a schedule, stick with it.
• The High-Energy Child is always on the move. This child is notorious for her short window for falling asleep. Miss this window and her system will charge up again. An unfailing schedule helps her earmark that window and wind down her nonstop activities. This is also a child who needs exercise during the day.
At the End of the Day
What all parents need to remember most about kids and sleep is that children are not fighting you when they can’t sleep; they are battling their own bodies. You can recognize what your child needs to achieve sleep and, ultimately, teach him to reach that state on his own.
Symptoms of a sleep-deprived child include:
• “Loses it” over little things.
• Experiences frequent meltdowns.
• Acts frenzied and wild.
• Has trouble staying focused.
• Seems more clumsy.
• Performs poorly on tasks that you know he can do.
• Has trouble waking.
• Craves carbohydrates.
• Picks on siblings.
If you’re seeing one or more of these behaviors, it is likely your child is missing sleep.
Mary Sheedy Kurcinka is a family educator and author of the book Raising Your Spirited Child (William Morrow, 2006) and Sleepless in America: Is Your Child Misbehaving or Missing Sleep? (HarperCollins, 2007).