One of the biggest challenges of early parenthood can be a child who doesn’t sleep. Then there is still worry they are getting enough sleep as they get older.
Advice can vary as your child grows, and it starts with the sleep life of infants. It's a subject that fascinates researchers as sleep is such a crucial part of a baby's cognitive and physical development, in ways that still aren’t fully understood.
An American research review speaks about the “positive association between sleep, memory, language, executive function, and overall cognitive development in typically developing infants and young children".
When a baby is born, their circadian rhythm has not developed yet. They don’t differentiate between night and day. They also have to wake up to eat often, as their stomach is tiny. And if the mother is breastfeeding, they eat to encourage milk production as well.
Around 10-12 weeks, the first signs of their circadian rhythm starts to develop. At 16 weeks of age, the sleep decreases to 14-15 hours per day, and by six months this is around 13-14.
Babies’ sleep patterns are also individual. Some of them sleep through the night from two months, while some of them frequently awaken at two years.
We cannot change the neurological processes in our baby, but there are ways to support their journey to have a good rest through the day and night.
First, we need to cover all the basics. To be sure our baby or toddler is not hungry, and had enough physical activity and preferably fresh air before their nap or nighttime sleep.
It's a parent's decision whether to co-sleep or not, and advice can vary depending on what country you live in. Here in the UK, the NHS recommends you do not sleep in the same bed as a baby, but place them in a cot in the same room for the first six months to reduce the danger of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
The ideal environment for sleep is dark, and not too hot (the suggested temperature is around 18-22 celsius). And you might want to consider white noise.
A small study on 20 babies between 2 and 7 days old found that sixteen fell asleep within five minutes with white nose, compared with only five who fell asleep spontaneously.
Babies and especially toddlers thrive with routines.
In a study with over 400 infants and toddlers, a bedtime routine was found to significantly reduce problematic sleep behaviours. They slept faster, had less waking in the night, and maternal mood states also improved.
A study looking at whether there is sufficient evidence to suggest how much sleep children need concluded that in fact children aged five to 10 need around 10 to 11 hours.
It is still nice to keep some sort of bedtime routine and consistent hour to go to bed, while perhaps giving more independence to the child to select his activities, etc.
Adolescence and sleep seem a love and hate relationship but it's really not their fault. Science has long shown that the circadian rhythms of teens adjust in ways that mean the hours they are supposed to sleep are actually not feasible. As a study on the changes in circadian regulation in teens clearly states:
"These changes promote a delayed sleep phase that is exacerbated by evening light exposure and incompatible with aspects of modern society, notably early school start times."
Perhaps the best a parent can do is suggest a teen at least gets off their screens for a few hours before bed. A large-scale research overview summarised 67 studies looking at the effects of screen time on children and adolescents. And it fond that 90 per cent of research proved that screen time negatively affected young people's sleep.
Finding parenting a struggle? Talk to a therapist who really gets it and can help.
Liz Szalai is a freelance writer and parent with a master’s degree in psychology. She worked with children and young people for more than 15 years, including teaching students with learning difficulties. Find her at @lizszalaiwriter.