Sleep plays a vital role in our overall health – it enables the brain to cleanse itself of unwanted toxins and allows the cells in our body to repair and replenish, a process fundamental to our immune system operating effectively. Sleep isn’t just a nice to have; it’s a biological imperative – for physical, cognitive and emotional well-being. Parents often hear me say somewhat glibly that there is a reason sleep deprivation is used as a means of torture – a comment that is usually met with a knowing chuckle from the parent. Yet the core message is both a serious and valid one – without sleep human-beings are not able to properly function. What is more, studies have shown that partial sleep loss over a sustained period results in a sleep deficit equivalent to that seen under conditions of total sleep deprivation.
Why am I telling you this? Because if your child’s sleep challenges have left you feeling depressed or unable to function then you’re not being self-indulgent or dramatic – you are, however, most likely sleep-deprived.
Children also need their sleep – it is essential for their cognitive and physical development and to develop the parts of the brain that enable emotional regulation. During sleep, a child’s brain processes what has been seen and learnt since the last period of sleep, filing away new information and building the child’s understanding of the new and exciting world around them. In young children, growth hormones are secreted in certain stages of sleep and for that process to work effectively, a child needs not just to sleep, but to sleep well – transitioning smoothly through sleep cycles enabling these systems to operate as nature intended.
If children are designed to sleep – if their well-being depends on it, why do some seem to find it so hard? Believe it or not, sleeping well requires a set of learned skills – although for some reason this information appears to be a closely guarded secret.
I’m pretty sure that I read at least 47,000 books on how to perfectly raise my brand new small person (without a moment of stress, mess, self-doubt and absolutely, certainly, never, ever having to deal with a toddler lying on the floor of a supermarket screaming “chocolate biscuits…chocolate biscuits NOW!”) and so obviously I was aware that sleep would be somewhat elusive in the early months – everyone knows that. And I was feeling pretty smug when by around 8 weeks old my little human was sleeping for a good 7 hour chunk overnight. My research had paid off – I had parenting nailed…
But then all of a sudden, I didn’t. Harry began waking – sometimes relatively briefly, other times for hours. I rocked him, we co-slept, but nothing worked. Naps were an even bigger challenge as he woke after 40 minutes, clearly still tired but resolutely opposed to returning to sleep. Harry was exhausted. I glossed over it at the time, but so was I.
What I have since learned is that there wasn’t anything wrong with Harry – he simply hadn’t learned how to sleep well. With the best of intentions by doing so much to “help” him sleep I had in fact been holding him back from learning how to navigate through sleep cycles independently – the cornerstone of great sleep.
Once I set about teaching him, he learned quickly and far from being an ordeal it was akin to supporting him to master any other new skill. When a child is trying to walk, we hold out our arms, encouraging them to take those wobbly steps and supporting them through the frustration – we don’t thwart their efforts by deciding to carry them everywhere so they never need to learn. The same principle applies to sleep.
The fact is, children need to sleep well. In order to do that they need to learn how. Some little ones acquire the necessary skills so easily the parents often don’t realise they’ve even taught them. Others (largely dependent on temperament-type) need a little more help.
Often “sleep-training” is treated with broad-brush criticism with comments made that it will disconnect you from your child. My answer? If not done in the right way then yes that is a genuine risk – a child left alone to cry for as long as it takes for them to fall asleep exhausted is not something I would ever recommend. Ever. But a gentle approach, based on building upon the secure attachment you have with your child, which equips them with the skills and confidence to steer through sleep cycles – a plan where your child is always responded to, quickly, in a supportive and loving way certainly will not.
In my experience, sleep-deprivation often makes a parent feel disconnected from their child. Parents sometimes tell me that in their darkest moments they’ve considered packing a bag and walking out in the middle of the night. Do I judge those parents? Not for a second. I respect their self-awareness and their courage for seeking help to improve the situation.
All-too-often parents delay taking action and wait until they are breaking point, wishing away precious time with their child and holding out for the day (or night!) when things turn a corner. It doesn’t have to be that way. Whatever a parent’s motivation for seeking help with their child’s sleep, the natural by-product of the process is that the whole family sleeps better. Bodies and brains, both adult and child, start to see the numerous benefits of getting the amount of sleep they need rather than what they can manage before staying asleep just gets too hard.
Good quality sleep is not an optional extra – our ability to function physically and emotionally depends on it. We need it to be the best parents we can be – and we don’t have to choose; it is possible to be a parent and to sleep well!