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13th April 2018

How Temperament affects sleep

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Even from a young age parents are often able to list any number of adjectives to describe their child’s character. Whilst children are undoubtedly and wonderfully unique, there are some words that come up almost every time I talk to a parent about their child’s sleep challenges: determined, curious, strong-willed, bright – the list goes on in the same vein. When I hear this type of description, especially when a parent also reports their child being early to physical milestones such as rolling over, crawling and walking, it’s a strong indicator that the little one we’re talking about has a temperament-type often referred to amongst sleep professionals as “alert” or even “super-alert”.

Alert children are those who take in everything that surrounds them, for whom no little detail escapes unnoticed. They are the ones always on the go, those commonly described as being “into everything”. Alert children have qualities often-admired in adults such as tenacity, ingenuity and fortitude, and these little ones really do have unlimited potential – however it can be daunting to parent such a strong-minded and resourceful small person!

Parenting an alert child

Chances are if you have an alert child then you already know about it! You may have had the sense from an early age that your child was temperamentally just a little bit different to most others. Of course, as parents we all see the uniqueness in our child – and it’s true that no two are the same, yet alert children can be a challenge at seemingly every turn. Feeding may be interrupted by even the slightest distraction, an expectation to entertain themselves for the time it takes you to order a coffee may be met with extreme protest and try to distract or divert them from whatever they have set their mind to and you’ll often wish you hadn’t! If this sounds familiar, particularly if your child was also sitting at or before 4 months, crawling prior to 6 months and walking by 10-11 months then chances are you are the proud owner of an alert or super alert child!

Oh and did I mention…alert children are notorious difficult sleepers?!

Alert children and the challenge of sleep

Alert and super-alert children generally seem to find sleep physically harder than their more easy-going peers. They are commonly unable to achieve 12 hour nights and can be light or restless sleepers. This is largely to do with it being harder for them to “switch off” and a tendency to “stick” in the light sleep phases (when noise, light and other stimulation is more likely to wake us from sleep) as their busy little brains whir away. This is never more apparent than the last few hours of sleep where much more time is spent in light sleep generally which is why those alert ones often struggle to just stretch out their nights.

Alert children also have an uncanny ability to make parents doubt themselves in the sleep coaching process. Whilst I’m not suggesting for a second that these little ones deliberately manipulate their parents, alert children are so inquisitive by nature they often find imaginative ways of changing their behaviour to see whether a parent’s response also alters. Inadvertently this can create inconsistency – the nemesis of effective sleep coaching!

None of this means that alert children cannot learn to sleep well – it simply means they need more help, and often a slightly different approach, to reach their sleep potential. It is perhaps no surprise that upwards of 80% of my cases relate to alert and super-alert children!

Achieving sleep success with an alert child

To help an alert child learn to sleep well you need a plan, the right plan that meets the particular challenges of these wonderfully bright and determined little ones. And you need to stick to it – alert children have a much harder time with inconsistency than their more easy-going contemporaries.

Here are my five top tips for sleep success with your alert child:

1. Understand that your child is different and may well have less flexibility in how/where/when they sleep than other children you know. Whilst your friend’s child may happily nap in their pram in a busy café, your alert child may not. There is little you can do to change this but sometimes understanding why you have less flexibility around your child’s routine makes it easier to deal with.

2. Reduce sources of stimulation as much as possible in the sleeping environment. Keep the bedroom dark (at least 8/10 on a scale where 10/10 is completely pitch black). Don’t assume your child will be afraid of the dark – as a general rule a nightlight in the bedroom will not help, and may very well hinder, sleep. Use blackout blinds to keep out as much daylight as possible. Avoid mobiles over the cot, music and toys as an alert child will find stimulation in almost anything! Additionally, it can be helpful with all children and especially those alert ones to avoid screen time (TVs, tablets etc) for at least one hour before bedtime.

3. Be conscious of outside interference with sleep and do what you can to reduce it. As these little ones often spend longer in light sleep they are more susceptible to being woken by noise from inside and outside the house. A white noise machine or App can be a great way of neutralising these distractions – the constant, low-level hum softens those infrequent louder noises if and when they come.

4. Don’t fall into the common trap of believing that your alert child needs less sleep than is usual for their age. Watch for sleepy signs but never wait for them before you take sleep action! Equip yourself with the knowledge as to how much awake time is appropriate for your child (this changes with age). Sticking to these windows will sometimes mean you start getting your child down for their nap(s) or bedtime before they seem tired – don’t be fooled, alert little ones cover their tired signs masterfully and often by the time those signs do appear the door to sleepiness is closing so you need to stay one step ahead.

5. Never be afraid to seek help with these tricky little sleepers. A well-rested alert child is an absolute joy – bright, determined, funny and inquisitive – equip them to sleep well and you will see these qualities shine through in the most positive of ways.

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