If you’ve followed my blogs for any length of time, you’ll know that I’m not a fan of the ‘quick fix’, or examining sleep from a simplistic ‘goal-orientated’ point of view. Sleep is a really complex interaction of factors, and I prefer to look at the inter-relationship of all those factors in terms of how they affect sleep.
You may have already figured this out – but it took us a while! I realized quite late in the game that our eldest daughter slept better when her day met certain criteria. Confused? Read on! Our magic five a day is as follows:
That’s it. Except that I could write an essay on each of those! I wont – don’t worry, I’ll spare you the thesis but let me expand a little on each of these factors and explain why they are so important for a good night’s sleep.
Love: So, this is probably the biggest one. Children who have unmet needs in the day often wake in the night to ‘fill their tank’. If you’ve argued with your child – try to make it right before the wind-down period. If you know you’ve been busy and pre-occupied and your child has been more ignored than usual, then invest in 10-15 minutes of high quality one to one intensive time with them. I began learning about the benefits of ‘filial play’ a few years ago and use it quite a lot in my practice. This is a method of play therapy where you are super observant and totally engaged and present with your child during child-led play. You simply notice and describe their play, and allow them to lead totally. If you’re not used to it, it is really tiring to do – hence only trying for 10-15 minutes!
It is also really important to know how your child feels loved by you. Several years ago I came across the concept of ‘love languages’, and discovered that people don’t all give and receive love in the same way – some of us prefer to be told that we’re loved, others of us prefer to be touched and held, still others of us prefer presents and gifts. Children are no different. I commend the book ‘The five love languages of children’ by Gary Chapman to you – it’s wonderful!
Whether or not your child feels loved most of all through touch, children in general need to be touched. We release oxytocin when we are touched, which is a powerful hormone triggering feelings of calmness and love. 30 seconds hugs are something my daughter now specifically asks for after I told her:
“We need 4 hugs a day for survival.
We need 8 hugs a day for maintenance.
We need 12 hugs a day for growth.”
- Build trust
- Strengthen the immune system
- Release oxytocin
- Release serotonin which lifts your mood
- Reduce tension and muscle pain
- Relieve pain
- Boost your immune system
- Improve self-esteem
- Encourage being in the present
Fun: What’s the point of childhood if it’s not fun! Children learn through play – it’s said often enough, but what that means is that children need life’s playground to learn and grow. If they do not have opportunity to let off steam, unwind, explore, get dirty, be themselves, be silly, and act their age – then they won’t thrive. Make sure your child has plenty of opportunity to have fun, giggle, play, interact with other children and you, in a way that meets their needs.
Food: This is a complex one! The interplay between nutrition and sleep is often talked and written about. It’s not straightforward! On one level, children simply need enough calories for maintenance and growth. If they are under-nourished, they will wake more to get more food. If they are hungry they will not sleep well, struggle to get to sleep, or wake early. But even when they are well fed, micro-nutrient deficiency can cause havoc with sleep. Iron deficiency anaemia causes huge problems with falling asleep, the quality of sleep, and insomnia. Vitamin D deficiency is also known to cause sleep difficulty. On top of that, food allergies and intolerances cause abdominal bloating, digestive problems, reflux, abdominal pain and cramping, diarrhea, constipation and you guessed it – all that impacts of comfort and sleep. I can’t do this topic justice in a simple blog, but if you are concerned about your child’s nutritional status, please talk to a suitably qualified medical practitioner, or consult a nutrition expert.
Exercise: It’s well-known that worn-out children sleep well. We bought a trampoline when our eldest daughter was 18 months – that night she slept through the night for the. First. Time. Ever. It was a huge Eureka! moment for us and we have never forgotten it! Is your child getting plenty of time outside, exposed to natural daylight, and running off steam? Do you find that they are literally bouncing off the walls, or are they tired by the end of the day? Children have varying levels of energy, with some being like little Labrador puppies, and others being more content to sit still. If your child fidgets, buzzes around, fiddles with things, hops about, or does laps of the living room – it's a fair bet they need more exercise!
Intellectual stimulation: this may sound like an odd one, but the needs of highly intelligent children is of intense personal interest to me! However, I believe this piece of advice will suit all children. Children are naturally curious about the world around them. They have a thirst for knowledge and understanding. They like to fiddle and tinker with things to build concepts of how they work. Children do not in general want to be sat down and lectured to or drilled with information, but they definitely need an opportunity to use their immense brains to apply reason and work things out. Give your child plenty of open-ended conversation – ask them not just ‘what?’ but also ‘why?’ and ‘how?’. Ask them their opinion, give them yours! Talk about the differences. Find out what interests your child and run with it. Our daughters' piano teacher told me about how music seems to link both sides of the brain – both the logical, rational side and the intuitive and creative side. We have certainly found that learning to play an instrument has had a massive impact on concentration, calmness and contentment. And we have learnt through bitter experiences that a frustrating, under-stimulating day at school causes bad behavior, boredom, frustration and very poor sleep.
Of course there is more to a good night’s sleep than this! Your child is hugely complex and I cannot begin to unravel the unique situation you’re in, but I hope this gives you the beginnings of a framework to better understand your child’s needs. In meeting their needs better, you will eliminate the preventable causes of poor sleep, but more importantly, build connection, empathy and understanding between you and your child.