Babies and small children vary a great deal in the amount of sleep they need. Some babies sleep practically all the time between feeds, while others are active and lively and have long periods of wakefulness, both day and night.
Parents get extremely worried about this, not just because their own night’s rest is constantly being disturbed, but because they are afraid the lack of sleep may affect their child’s health. From this point of view there is, I assure you, little need for anxiety. It is usually the parents who are worn out by a succession of disturbed nights, while baby remains just as lively as ever.
“But what can we do?” asks the distracted mother. The answer is that you cannot change your baby’s temperament. Nor can you keep him/her in some continual state of being doped by mild sleeping drugs. You can only aim at a routine which is as regular and placid-making as you can possibly make it.
Don’t talk to him and play with him every time you see he is awake. That only tends to make him more alert and more liable to waken easily. Don’t keep him up past his normal bedtime with the idea of “tiring him out”. You won’t. You’ll be the one to get tired out.
Any small child may cry for a minute or two after being put to bed. Take no notice. If he screams, it is a different matter. He may be poorly, or have a tooth coming through, or a pain of some sort. It does no harm occasionally, if this is the case, to rock him to sleep, or take him downstairs for a time.
But once you take him downstairs for two or three nights running, you will inevitably start something which will be difficult to break. If you go and sit with him for two or three evenings, until he goes to sleep, he will like that, and will demand your presence every night. Never take him into your own bed at night. It only starts a habit which will have to be broken sooner or later.
The over two’s often present a different bedtime problem. For them bedtime is a time of separation which can bring its own childish anxieties. Small children, little boys perhaps even more than little girls, are emotionally very dependent on their mothers. Parting from him is upsetting. Even in the day-time a mother may have difficulty in leaving her small son or daughter. “He won’t let me go out of the room” is a common complaint. So it is not surprising that when bedtime comes along Ali knows that his mummy is going to leave him on his own. Naturally he objects violently.
Is this fear of separation a natural thing and, if so, how can it be overcome? To some extent it is quite normal and natural, but the wrong handling might exaggerate it into abnormal proportions. Reassurance is the great thing here, not in so many words, for young children are not capable of reasoning things out. That is partly why this fear exists.
It is also very true that if your child discovers that you are anxious about his going to sleep, particularly if you try to coax and persuade him to get to sleep, the only result will be that he is more determined to stay wide awake.
If your child refuses to lie down, simply leave him standing up, and go right away. Much later, when he is fast sleep, you can cover him up properly and tuck him in.
Between the ages of two and three, fear of the dark or of shadows on the wall may develop. Many parents mistakenly think they will make their children “tough” by refusing them a night-light. But if a child is afraid of the dark, allow him a night-light at his bedside. He will grow out of his understandable fear all the sooner. And as a result you will have fewer disturbed nights.
Reassurance comes much more from the way in which bedtime is a handled. It is important to make it a happy time with happy associations. Never threaten young children with bed. It isn’t a place of punishment or boredom. It is a place of snuggle down in contentment and security. Prepare the way by having a not-too-exciting game and some bath-time fun. A quiet bedtime story and some sort of warm milky drink will often help, too.
Certain rituals are necessary and harmless at this age. A favorite doll or teddy bear must be put to sleep first, a story must be repeated in exactly the same words. “Good-night” must be called, not once but many times, as mother is actually going down the stairs.
These familiar things are all part and parcel of bedtime and should not be skipped. Even the old trick of wanting a drink or wanting the potty at the very last moment should be taken calmly and with as much tolerance as you can master.
If he wants a light left on, let him have it. If he wants the door open and the landing light left on, that’s fine, too.
These are the general principles to follow at bedtime. If things begin to get out of hand, and small children have a knack of getting a bit more and a bit more of their own way each night, once of the best solutions is to enlist father’s aid for a while. It often helps to break the emotional high-tension which may have come up between the mother and child. Father is not a constant day-time companion, so that the same problems of letting him go away don’t arise. Bedtime may be calmer and happier if he says the final good-nights, and reads aloud one bedtime story before he goes.
Above all, treat sleep as a normal natural process. If you do that, you will never try to get a child to go to sleep. It is never necessary. You cannot force any child to go to sleep if he has decided he does not want to.