October 3, 2007

Children & Sleep

Category: Family :: Permalink

In 2004, the National Sleep Foundation published the results of its study on children and sleep, based in interviews with 1473 adults with small children at home.  The study found that 47 percent of toddlers and 36 percent of preschoolers woke at least once per night and needed an adult’s help in order to get back to sleep.

For some reason, however, many parents seem to think that their children ought to be sleeping straight through the night without waking up at all or that if the children do wake up, they should be able to get back to sleep without needing Mom or Dad to help them.

But as Elizabeth Pantley points out, “If up to 50 percent of the population does any particular thing, I don’t see how it could be considered anything but normal” (The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers, p. 143).  What’s strange is not that the children wake up and can’t get back to sleep without an adult’s help.  What’s strange is that the parents think this situation is strange.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:46 pm | Discuss (6)

6 Responses to “Children & Sleep”

  1. Angie Says:

    Once per night? Wow. I have three kids, ages 5, 7, and 15, and I can probably count on one hand the number of times they’ve woken up in the night and needed help going back to sleep (one hand for all three kids, that is).

    Maybe some kids have medical or other issues–and maybe some have inferred from Mom and Dad’s reaction that it’s normal to wake up and stay up, and therefore keep on doing it. I sure don’t think of it as normal.

  2. John Barach Says:

    Angie, when you say that you can count on one hand the number of times they’ve woken and needed help going back to sleep, is that from the time they were born?

    Perhaps your children were exceptional. I don’t think that the children who needed parental help in this survey needed it because of medical problems (though that’s certainly the case for some kids some nights: my daughter has woken up and needed help because she’s had a plugged nose due to a cold).

    As you point out, the behavior of parents may have a lot to do with the statistics.

    I suspect that when the stats show that 47 percent of toddlers couldn’t get back to sleep without an adult’s help, what needs to be defined is precisely the phrase “can’t get back to sleep without an adult’s help.”

    One parent may say, “My children have been able to get back to sleep without my help” simply because he doesn’t help and eventually, after an hour or two of crying, the children do always go back to sleep.

    Another parent (me!) would get up long before there was that much crying and would parent the child back to sleep and then would say, “My child woke in the night and wasn’t able to get back to sleep without my help.”

    The first parent might say to the second, “If you’d let your child cry, he’d eventually go to sleep. He didn’t need your help.”

    The second parent might reply, “Sure he needed it! Didn’t you hear him crying and sobbing? I need comfort when I cry, and so does my son” and he would probably think the first parent’s son needs help going to sleep and that the first parent just isn’t giving the help that’s needed.

    I wouldn’t say that a child who wakes in the night and cries for an hour before going to sleep has “self-soothed” and didn’t need a parents’ help.

    But I suspect the questions on which the stats are based simply asked something like “Does your toddler wake in the night and need help to go back to sleep?” And the parents answer according to their own practices and child-care philosophies, each defining “need” his own way.

    But the stats are helpful for new parents, I think, who wonder if it’s weird — or have been told that it’s weird or a problem or bad — that their children are waking in the night and don’t simply self-soothe and go back to sleep.

    The stats say: “Hey, that’s true for almost half the kids in the States. Nothing strange there. Join the club.”

    I know that comforted me.

  3. Angie Says:

    >>is that from the time they were born?

    Oh, no–I got up plenty when they were babies! You said the study was on toddlers and preschoolers, so I meant from the time they were around a year and half or so.

    Only occasionally, when sick and feeling really bad, did they wake up and cry. So it’s not as if I were letting them cry themselves to sleep all the time.

    One thing that may be helpful–I don’t know for sure–is an air filter, mainly to create white noise. When my eldest was around 9 or 10 years old he started having bouts with sleepwalking. I read somewhere that if they’re light sleepers, white noise may help. Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but as soon as I put an air filter in his room and turned it on at night, the sleepwalking problem went away. I’ve got them in all the kids’ bedrooms now.

  4. Sora Says:

    I agree that the “needs a parent’s help” requires clarification. Last night my 21 month old woke me up at 2:00 a.m. His sippy cup of ice water that he takes to bed was empty, and he was thirsty. Not coincidentally, he had soaked through his diaper and his pajamas were all wet. He needed help because he couldn’t change his own diaper or refill the cup himself. As soon as these problems were taken care of, he happily curled back up in his bed and let me get back to mine. He did not need my help to get back to sleep but he did have other night-time needs that he couldn’t take care of on his own. This is not a nightly occurrence by any means — more like once a month. He is number five, and like Angie, the number of times I’ve been awakened at night by a child over 2 is so negligible as to be insignificant (making exceptions for exceptional incidents such as preschoolers with stomach flu).

    Now, all my children have co-slept and night-nursed as much as they wanted as infants. They have all gradually transitioned to their own bed between 9 and 18 months, and by 18 months or so they almost never wake me at night. I don’t think they are particularly “exceptional” in their sleep habits, and their personalities — including sleep preference as infants — have all been very different. Some of my babies liked to be put down for every nap and left the family bed fairly early, some always wanted to be held and nurse to sleep. Even the one who had to be in physical contact with me in order to sleep for almost the first year of his life was sleeping consistently through the night in his own bed at 2 years old.

    No study to back this theory up, of course, but anecdotally, parents I know who have made a big deal of getting their little babies to “sleep through the night” in another room have a lot more trouble than I have with night waking in their preschoolers. Unlike a 3 month old, a 3 year old is capable of going to the parent’s room and insisting on parental “help” to get back to sleep. Perhaps some preschoolers night insecurities are the result of having been left in a crib to cry it out when they were babies.

  5. John Says:

    I appreciate what you’re saying, Sora. My point in posting this comment, though, is simply to observe that what many parents think is weird (“My kid is up in the middle of the night and won’t go back to sleep unless I comfort him and rock him or something”) isn’t really all that weird. It seems pretty widespread, pretty normal.

    But that doesn’t mean that because it’s statistically normal, parents should just shrug and give up. I do believe there are things parents can do to help their children sleep better.

    I think, though, that many parents have the idea that children just naturally sleep and that if their children don’t, something must be wrong. But the fact is that children don’t naturally sleep through the night. They learn to, and they frequently need help, many of them even up through the preschool years.

  6. Rob Says:

    Having 6 children, several of whom seem to sleep only a few hours a night, and having seen thousands in 20 years of practice, I can only say that not only am I not an expert, but I think there can be no expert on this, nor any study done. Any intervention or no intervention would significantly affect the outcome.

    Find Biblical admonition to nurture your children and remember their frames, and take some comfort in the experiences of others, but resist any rules based on evidence or hearsay.

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