Childhood Insomnia and Sleep Problems

Why is your baby waking overnight?

It’s common for babies and toddlers to have trouble settling to sleep by themselves. Common causes of poor sleep are temporary things like coughs and colds, ear infections, sore tummies, teething, or developmental milestones. This seems simple enough, but when your baby is sick more often than not, then all of a sudden they’re teething again, you find that these ‘normal’ causes of frequent wakings have become too frequent to continue.

How many night wakes are normal?

realise how debilitating long nights of broken sleep can be until you’re trying to live with it. While frequent waking can be expected in the early days, persistent sleep problems can impact children’s development and parental health. Your wellbeing matters amongst all of this as well! It’s important for everyone to get the right amount of rest, so if the frequent wakings seem excessive and your little one struggles to resettle it’s important to reach out for help.

How do you know if your baby is overtired?

Difficulty falling to sleep, inability to maintain sleep, frequent waking, difficulty falling back to sleep and early morning awakening are all presentations of sleep disturbances and can be early signs of childhood insomnia. Significant distress or impairment in daytime functioning can indicate that a lack of sleep is starting to impact a child’s health and wellbeing. Daytime fatigue, low energy, cognitive impairments, mood disturbances, and behavioural problems are all symptoms of inadequate sleep quality and quantity.

Can frequent overnight waking be caused by something?

Sometimes, sleep issues could be a sign of a bigger issue. In these situations, we often need to dig a little deeper to identify the problem so we can resolve it once and for all.

Causes of overnight waking for babies and toddlers

Sleeplessness can have many causes. Physical discomforts like digestive issues, itchy skin, colic, reflux, or gas are common underlying conditions that need to be assessed and addressed in the journey to long lasting positive sleep habits. Young children can definitely ‘become used to’ small discomforts during the day, so it can be difficult to understand how something ‘mild’ can be such a significant part of the sleep issue. This is often because during the night there’s nothing to distract them, so this is when children become more aware of the discomfort.

What causes a child to wake up overnight?

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to disrupt a child’s once textbook perfect sleep routine. A cold, teething pain, restless legs, or a mild ear infection can disrupt sleeping patterns, as can emotional challenges like parents returning to work or adjusting to a new childcare routine. If your child’s sleep habits never seemed quite right, or if getting back to the regular bedtime routine has become impossible, download the Sleep Disturbance Scale for Children (SDSC) checklist as a first step towards gaining a better understanding of your child’s sleep-wake cycle.

How long should a baby sleep?

A baby’s sleep cycle lasts for 60 minutes. Every hour they will enter a lighter phase of sleep, where they may briefly stir. The magic trick is for bub to not need to wake you up in order to help them transition to their next sleep cycle. Newborns and infants can have other reasons for waking throughout the night, the most obvious being hunger. Babies may feed anywhere from 8-12 times in a 24hr period. When babies are feeding more frequently throughout the night and sleeping more during the day, they have likely mixed up their day and night cycles.

How can you get your baby to sleep longer overnight?

Helping to teach your child to fall asleep independently doesn’t have to be stressful. When children learn how to self settle, it doesn’t need to involve parents’ hearts breaking or children crying and feeling distressed. A lifetime of good sleep habits begins with knowing how to fall asleep independently. This is a skill that is learned. For something to be learnt, it must first be taught. General treatments for frequent wakings usually involve teaching gentle self-settling strategies to children and their caregivers.

What treatments are helpful for children that can’t sleep?

I know this is easier said than done but trust your instincts. There are so many health care providers, who are often all giving so much conflicting advice. At the end of the day, you are the person with this baby day in and day out. Take in all the information, and choose to implement what works best for your child and your family. If you’re unsure about a recommendation, or your instincts are telling you that there’s something else going on, there is nothing wrong with asking questions and requesting more investigations.

Tips for encouraging longer periods of sleep

  • Swaddle your baby before bed
  • Use white noise
  • Try dream feeding
  • Feed infants every 1.5-2hrs during the day
  • Limit daytime naps to 3 hours
  • Try putting baby to bed when drowsy, but still awake
  • Make clear distinctions between day and night
  • Establish a short (less than 30min) but regular sleep routine
  • During night feeds, stick with the nighttime routine. Keep lights dimmed, noise to a minimum and try not to engage in any wake time activities like television or play.

Can children develop unhealthy sleep habits?

Sometimes, young children can really struggle with changing sleep habits they’ve come to like and expect, like being cuddled to sleep at bedtime or rocked when they wake up in the middle of the night. There is absolutely nothing wrong with soothing a baby to sleep, but sometimes these habits can become unsustainable for parents. In these cases, a gentle sleep and behaviour consultant can help to address behavioural aspects of sleep-onset associations that are highly problematic or demanding.

What can cause frequent overnight waking for children?

We know that disturbed sleep in children of all ages interferes with overall health and functioning in many ways – energy, learning, and behavioural. Identifying any underlying factors can be the missing piece of the puzzle.

What nutrients support children’s sleep?

Nutritional deficiencies can make sleep difficult for children. Nutrients such as iron and magnesium are needed by so many different tissues and organs as children grow, it’s no wonder that deficiencies are so common. I usually find that if mum was iron deficient during pregnancy, it leads to iron deficiency in bubs. Insufficient levels of vitamin D, magnesium and iron are associated with poor sleep in childhood. Both iron and magnesium deficiency leads to restless leg syndrome, so if you have a picky eater or your child has recently undergone a growth spurt, their nutritional status may need to be reviewed.

Can screen time make sleep difficult?

Circadian rhythm disruption can result from long-term sleep issues. Light exposure after sunset from TV screens, iPads or phones can negatively affect sleep. These devices emit blue light, which interferes with the production of melatonin in the evening, while also exciting the brain at a time when we want to calm it down. Nutraceutical therapy with specific chemical forms of magnesium, lutein and zeaxanthin can help to restore circadian rhythm and reduce the effect of blue light exposure, while also supporting muscle relaxation and improving sleep quality and sleep duration.

Can anxiety make it hard for your child to fall asleep?

If your child is feeling separation anxiety at bed time, their bodies can start producing stress hormones. Stress hormones can interfere with a child’s ability to fall asleep. When children experience stress or anxiety, their bodies release the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, which can activate the body’s “fight or flight” response. Our bodies cannot produce calm, sleepy hormones at the same time as stress hormones. The production of stress hormones can also lead to physical symptoms of stress, such as muscle tension or an increased heart rate, which can further disrupt the ability to fall asleep.

How to help children who have trouble falling asleep

Frequent wakings are a painful memory for me, I’m not the kind of mum that can survive on minimal sleep. I’m a naturopath, so I had big parenting plans involving cosleeping, attachment parenting and breastfeeding on demand. This all went out the window within weeks of having my first baby. I was exhausted. It took a long time to process the mum guilt and gain the confidence to trust my instincts. Once we settled into a routine that worked for us, life got easier. The biggest tip I can give is to weed through all the information out there and settle on an approach that works best for you and your family.

If you would like to explore how a naturopath can help address the underlying causes of poor sleep, feel free to book a 15min discovery call!