Factors that can influence sleep
Sleep problems, whether they are temporary or not, are quite common in children. Of all the problems we may face when working with children, sleep represents a weak point for many. Certain factors can explain sudden changes or variations in a child's sleep habits. If you suddenly notice a change in a child who normally has adequate sleep habits, for example a child who has trouble falling asleep or a child who wakes up four times per night, you must be aware of these factors. As you discover them, you will quickly realize that you may have a certain level of influence on some factors whereas you have very little power over others.
First, it's important to mention that different developmental stages can influence sleep. The most important ones are listed below.
- Separation anxiety around 9-10 months. Babies suddenly become extremely anxious when their parents are absent and fear losing them. They do not want to leave their parents' side.
- The opposition phase between 18-24 months. During this period, children are more assertive and may refuse to cooperate when an adult makes a request. They can therefore use sleep to express their opposition, for example by repeatedly getting up or refusing to fall asleep. This period is often when children transition from a baby bed to a "big kid" bed. This change can also impact their sleep habits.
- Fearfulness between 3-5 years old. At this age, children tend to develop different types of fears and concerns. They will be afraid of the monster under their bed, the dark, insects, etc. They are not yet able to tell the difference between what is real and what is imagined. Nightmares can disturb their sleep.
Beyond these developmental factors, the following can also influence children's sleep.
- Certain illnesses such as the common cold, an ear infection, or even teething can disturb a child's sleep habits. If a child is uncomfortable he/she will inevitably have difficulty sleeping. This period will however be temporary; it should not last more than 1-2 week(s).
- Unfavourable sleep environment. A room that is not dark enough or too noisy will make it hard for a child to fall asleep and stay asleep.
- An unstable sleep routine. To feel safe, children need a predictable routine. If they are calm, it will be easier for them to fall asleep and rest.
- A stressful event within their family structure or a major change (new daycare, kindergarten, a move, etc.).
- Inadequate or inconsistent interventions. In fact, the adult's reaction can greatly increase or reduce the frequency and duration of a certain type of behavior. Parents who let their child climb into bed with them, a child who is rocked to sleep or giving in to a child's 100th request for a glass of water, using the bathroom, a hug all represent interventions that can impact a child's sleep.
What can you do when you notice a change in a child's sleep habits?
- First, try to find the source of the problem. Once you have determined the "why", it will be much easier for you to adjust your interventions.
- Offer a stable, relaxing, and restful sleep routine. No matter what is going on with the child, establishing a predictable routine will positively influence naptime and/or bedtime.
- Be patient and consistent. Things will eventually fall into place.
- Inform the child of your expectations, make sure he knows what you want him to do.
- Maintain your position. Avoid changing your method or your demands when you face opposition. If, for example, you want a child to fall asleep on his own, do not let him get up and avoid rocking him to sleep. Make sure your request is clear and consistent.
As you can see, many factors can positively or negatively affect children's sleep habits. Unfortunately, children are not born with healthy sleep habits. We must teach them. However, once they are established, keep in mind that sleep habits can vary from time to time for many different reasons. When this happens, observe the child, his sleep environment, and your attitude to determine the best way to intervene.
Maude Dubé, Specialized educator