To The Mom Whose Kids Aren’t Sleeping Well

To the Mom Whose KIDS AREN'T SLEEPING Well // jessconnell.com

DEAR TIRED MAMA:

I’m not writing this to shame you, or make you feel guilty about your parenting choices, as if this fact of life makes you a “bad mom.” But I’m a mom of 7 (going on 8) who spends a lot of my life analyzing problems in my own parenting and coming up with practical solutions.

What I  want to do is provide some structured, practical advice to help you think through potential solutions for this challenge. These are the things *I* think through when I hit problems in sleep with our kiddos.

If your kids aren’t sleeping well, here are some things to consider:

  • ARE THEY EATING ENOUGH THROUGH THE DAY? This is a huge reason why babies and kids of all ages don’t sleep enough. Now of course if you’re exclusively breastfeeding, you won’t know precisely how much they’re getting (but keeping track of wet/dirty diapers can help!). You might even ask someone else to see their portions and food choices and confirm that these are healthy and normal for a growing child. This is not necessarily about you… I have no idea whether or not it fits your family… but I’m seeing a lot of moms nowadays who don’t have a good sense of how MUCH food kids need to eat… like portion sizes. Very often, it’s either WAYYYYYYYY too big and very unhealthy stuff and the kids are all obese, or else the portion sizes are too small and “all healthy” (veggies/etc/low calories) and their very-very active kids are perpetually under-eating. Problems show up in other areas (not sleeping well, finicky, agitated, easily angry) because they’re simply not eating enough food. So first– I would make sure they are eating hearty, balanced, full, good-portioned meals.
  • ARE YOUR BABIES & TODDLERS ON AN ABSOLUTELY PREDICTABLE ROUTINE? Yes, babies shift their routines every few months, but the day-to-day sleep rhythms should be happening with almost-boring consistency. If 10am is baby’s nap time, it should be so every single day. For a 2 year old, here’s a normal schedule in our house: (8pm- to bed, Between 7am-8am- Wake up, 1 or 2pm- lay down for nap, 3:30-5pm- wake up from nap.) Yes this means we are home every afternoon. Every day. Like clockwork. For 14 years, this has been true of our life as a family. We don’t schedule things in the afternoons so that nap time can be consistent.
  • ARE BEDTIMES REGULAR AND NON-NEGOTIABLE? The older your kids get, the more this should be an absolute “norm” in your home. Give a consequence for getting out of bed, and stick to it. There should be no getting around you!!
  • HAVE YOU TRAINED YOUR BABIES AND LITTLE ONES TO WAKE UP MORE TIMES THAN ARE NECESSARY? We might all approach newborn life differently (I purposefully work to give our whole family full nights of sleep ASAP), but having interacted deeply with hundreds of moms on sleep issues over the last 15 years, I believe healthy babies around a year and up can and should be sleeping most nights, all the way through. Sleep is not just a preference issue; it’s a health issue, and it’s an important skill we can teach. It’s also a lifelong way we can BLESS our children… to give them good sleep habits, and the foundation of healthy mental and physical health that comes from sleeping WELL. If you think you might have trained your children to wake more often than necessary, a few options are — feed full feedings every time they wake (no snacking!), — keep lights off and do not do anything other than necessary items (diaper change + full feeding + back to bed), — and do not go in to them for grizzling/small noises. Choose to be discerning in which sorts of actions get your response.
  • ARE YOU BELIEVING THEY “CAN’T” STAY IN THEIR OWN BEDS? Kids 5 and up are plenty old enough to stay in bed and stay put and never have another issue (except for sickness or a rare occasion of fear). 3 and under can easily be put in a crib, and I would do it if it were me (if it meant them and us getting better sleep). This puts the 3/4-year-old season as one of training kids to stay in their beds. All other ages should be in their beds and know to stay in their beds. Don’t second-guess yourself! This is not an unreasonable expectation. Barring medical issues, you are right to expect your kids to get in bed and stay there.
  • DO THEY FEEL ENTITLED TO STAY UP? Sometimes older kids can get too big for their britches. See a simple sleep chart HERE with medical recommendations for how many sleeping hours/day various ages need. Help your children rightly understand their body’s signals. Tell them– when they feel like sleeping in late, or feel easily irritated through the day, their body is actually telling them to go to sleep sooner. Help them learn to watch their bodies for signs and participate WITH their bodies to work for health and rest.

12 QUESTIONS FOR PRACTICAL TROUBLESHOOTING:

In addition to these overarching principles, here’s a grid of questions I go through to evaluate possible sleep challenges for a particular child. These are things to think through for nighttime sleep as well as naps. You may have already thought through these but these are practical influences I think through in regard to maximizing sleep.

  1. Is there any kind of sickness/physical irritant? Fever? Teething? Tummy problems? Itchy skin?
  2. Is there some sort of white noise? A fan is usually what we use, but something that blocks out noise. I’ve even turned on the stovetop blower and nearby bathroom fans to mask other noise for naps and bedtime.
  3. Is the room dark enough? If not, Walmart sells room-darkening panels for fairly cheap (I want to say under $10 for a basic set). Clipping a dark flat sheet over the curtains is also a quick solution.
  4. Is the bedding cozy? soft (not scratchy), and warm enough?
  5. Is it too cold? Too hot? In their room? In the house in general? In their bedding/pjs? (This might also be an area to ask other people… certain cultures overdress their babies and keep them far too warm… other people are apt to let their kids dress in summer clothes in winter. Invite wisdom from other people!!)
  6. Is another child talking and waking the rest of them up a lot? (if so, go fierce ninja mama on that child) :)
  7. Are there weird noises in the environment waking them up? A train? Live near the highway? Does the vent bring in every noise from big brother’s room? etc? (which I’d point back to the white-noise solution)
  8. Are they eating too close to bedtime? (rumbly digestion happening can affect ability to truly rest at bedtime, so if so, move dinner up to between 5 & 6pm, in order to leave enough time before bedtime @8)
  9. Do they need a cup of water near the bed? (too much is no good– they’ll be waking up to potty non-stop… but some of us function better with a sip or two through the night when we wake up– just remind them to sip, not drink.) NOTE: I DO NOT DO THIS for children who are learning to stay dry at night. During that season, we stop drinking 1-2 hours before bedtime and do not let them drink at night, in order to learn the skill of staying dry. But in our home, toddlers can take a sippy cup to the crib with them, and older kids can keep a half-cup of water near their beds.
  10. Is a nightlight near the potty (so going to the potty is not a big deal?)
  11. Have you explicitly told them how to go back to sleep? “When you wake up and it’s still dark outside, don’t come get mommy. When it’s dark out, it’s still time to sleep. Your can just roll over, close your eyes tight, lay still, and go back to sleep.” 
  12. Are you praying with them before bed? Something about mommy praying for a full nights’ sleep can help comfort and quiet their hearts… but also, prayer works! God hears us! Don’t be discouraged!!

If you do all this, and then still are having sleep issues, TALK TO A DOCTOR.

WHY NOT A DOCTOR FIRST?

These are practical, realistic ways to assess what’s going wrong with your child’s sleep patterns, but once you address these very typical reasons for lack of sleep, if there are still problems, talk to your doctor. I do not think medical advice is the first place you should go, because, unfortunately the trampling of motherhood by feminism has stripped us of these basic pieces of mothering wisdom that we used to collectively *know*. Too many modern mothers are riddled with fears of diagnoses and conditions when the answers may be much, much more straightforward.

Yes, there could be medical things going on, but the most likely answer is that there are simple, physical issues at work. Tackle these practical solutions first… THEN, when all common sense approaches have been exhausted, consider the possibility of a diagnosis or medical issue.

SLEEP MATTERS

Scientists continue to uncover ways that sleep deeply affects us– medically, intellectually, how we deal with stress, how our bodies fight illness, how we perceive life, and more. Healthy, regular sleep cycles are incredibly crucial and giving your children the gift of solid sleep is an incredibly practical and beneficial way to LOVE them.

I hope this comes across as helpful and not judgmental. I know it can be a great challenge when you feel worn out by a child’s lack of sleep.

It is often the case that thinking through practical concerns can facilitate sleep. I genuinely hope you find some doable solutions.

Grace & Peace,
Jess

 

You might also enjoy:

Is Your Child Getting Enough Sleep? Are You? // jessconnell.com

Q&A: Getting KIDS to STAY in Their BEDS // jessconnell.com

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Jess Connell

Jesus-follower, Happy wife, Mom of 8 neat people. Former world-traveler, now settled in Washington. Host of Mom On Purpose podcast (momonpurpose.com). I write and wrangle kids.

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10 Responses

  1. Stephanie says:

    Yes! We do many of these things too. We don’t limit drinks before Ned and just use diapers overnight because it hasn’t made a difference for our later stay dry overnight kids. As we have gotten older kids, we have become more flexible on nap routines and the kids have adjusted pretty well. We aren’t involved in a lot of activities but enough that we do miss naps sometimes and it works for us. Sleep is so important and kids do so much better with good solid sleep (and so does momma)

  2. Melissa says:

    Jess, it’s almost like you knew I had a sobbing meltdown this morning over my 2-year old’s recent sleep issues. But reading over your list, I still don’t see any obvious mistakes we’re making. Unfortunately I think ours is a discipline problem, but I feel utterly lost. We have always been very consistent about nap/bedtimes, and she never gets to sleep with us or stay up to play. But the past few weeks she’s been up for 30-60 min at bedtime, crying and getting up. Same at nap time, and several times during the night, and she’s up for the day crying between 5-6am. Even with 5-10+ consecutive spankings and putting her straight back in bed, she’s up minutes later. I do see her molars under her gums, but she insists her mouth doesn’t hurt. Even though she is a great talker and can communicate pretty much anything, she won’t give us any indication of why she’s getting up. We’ve been dealing with this for several weeks and have been very consistent, but if anything it’s getting worse instead of better. So what do you do when your discipline isn’t working? Is it time to ask a doctor? I’m 38 weeks pregnant so I’d love to figure this out before we throw a newborn into the mix.

    • Jess Connell says:

      You know, with a 2-year-old, sometimes there are seasons of just getting over the hump. Especially with the changing of seasons. This time of year, it’s not as dark at bedtime, and it’s brighter in the early morning. For some kids (maybe most?) that makes it harder to fall asleep & easier to wake up earlier than they normally would.

      Some ideas I might try-
      * Bible story tapes at bedtime? (Maybe get one that’s 30-45 minutes on one side, and then tell her “when it clicks off, if you’re still awake, that means it’s time for bed”)
      * One of you sitting with her for 10 minutes or so to help her learn 3 basic things (1) Close your eyes. (2) Close your mouth. (3) No wiggling/movement. Even the wiggliest kids, if you do this, (assuming they’re getting enough daytime play to wear them out) will typically fall asleep in 5-10 minutes or less. (Yes, sitting with them takes that investment of TIME, but it pays off in the long run…)
      * In the mornings, have her come immediately to you, hold your hand in your bed, and try to go back to sleep.
      * Another possibility for early wakers at this age is that they need to go potty & have an awareness of that sensation, even if they can’t verbalize it and don’t always “hold it”… that sensation can wake them up and make them uncomfortable.

      This doesn’t sound medical to me. It sounds normal, like she needs help to learn to get over the hump of perhaps a new level of energy, or different light with the seasons, or just an active imagination/thought life. If you try any of these, let me know. I’d love to know how/if they help.

      • Melissa says:

        I tried sitting with her and coaching her to sleep for naptime just now… and it worked! Let me tell you why I was so skeptical: after the newborn age (2-3 months) this kid has NEVER been able to sleep with other people around. She has never nodded off in church, or in my lap while reading a book, or on the couch watching a movie. She has always required complete solitude or else she is very easily distracted and stimulated.

        It took about 20 minutes, but she fell asleep with me sitting there! Not only is that hopefully good practice for sleeping, but I was thinking that the “no talking, no wiggling” part is good practice for worship too, because we have huge issues with that. We will definitely keep trying this method! Even if it takes time, it was much less frustrating and draining than continual spankings and her crying fits.

        Do you just gradually decrease the time spent with them as they learn this skill? Do you recommend that we do the same thing during her middle-of-the-night and early morning wakings?

        • Jess Connell says:

          My last two boys have needed me to do this for every nap always after they got out of their crib. I sit with my hand on their back or holding their hand. And it can take anywhere from 5-15 minutes. It’s just part of nap time with my active wigglers. :-/

          I’ve never tried it for middle of night or early morning but you could try the same thing if you want. Let me know how it goes!

  3. Diana says:

    This is a GREAT article. Thank you!!!!!

  4. Sandrine says:

    All our kids sleep well, even if sometimes we would like them to sleep a bit longer, especially on Saturdays, but that is still managable. We taught them to look at the clock and to stay in bed if it is before a given time. My problem right now is with the last one (9 months). She always wakes up once during the night and wants to nurse. I have tried every trick in the book (I have read Babywise) without success. If it is like my second baby, it will stop the day I stop nursing. With him, it was over the night I gave him his sippy cup instead of breastfeeding. I guess he wanted Mom and not a plastic cup 😉 However, I not quite ready yet to try that with her.

  5. Stephanie says:

    One trick we have used to get kids to stay in bes in the morning is attaching a timer to a nightlight so if the nightlight is off they can get up and we set the timer for what time we allowed them to get up. I know they sell a special light but we are cheap.

  6. Susan says:

    I know you try to prioritize and guard your kids’ sleep, but do you ever either stay late at church (for Sunday school/2nd hour) or out late for mid-week life groups/Bible study during times that interfere with their normal sleep times? How do you think through the balance of prioritizing sleep and making sacrifices for ministry? Thank you!!

  7. Tamara says:

    This is a great trouble shooting list.

    I just wanted to encourage those mums of young bubs that aren’t sleeping through that studies have shown under 18 month olds the main contributor to whether or not bubs sleep well is genetics. Of course we can exacerbate issues with the list you gave but you could be doing everything ‘right’ and your bubs still won’t sleep through cause that’s just how God made them.

    Over 18 months old and environmental factors begin to be the major factors.

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