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Changes in children's sleep pattern are generally linked to change – here are some possible reasons for this and what might help to understand and make a plan.

Parents may find themselves scratching their heads in confusion when out of the blue their great little sleeper is suddenly waking 4 and 5 times a night. Whether they’re screaming the house down, wanting Weet-Bix at 4am or trying to wangle their way into their parents' bed, the results can be the same: parents feeling frustrated and exhausted.

What’s gone wrong? Bedtime routines haven’t changed, so what’s influenced this unexpected disturbance in their established sleep patterns? The list of possibilities could be long and varied, but often a consistent element runs through most causes, and that is change.

What does change look like?

Change for a young child can be represented in many ways:

It might be physical and to do with:

  • teething
  • sickness
  • growing pains.

It might be emotional and to do with:

  • adjusting to a new baby or step-sibling
  • their parents’ breakup or more arguing and fighting going on in their home
  • a death or illness of a parent or someone within the wider whānau
  • the ‘unknown’, where a child is not yet able to understand some of the things going on in their world – like COVID-19, for example.

It might be intellectual due to:

  • a greater awareness and understanding of the things going on in their world
  • increased memory skills, enabling them to easily recall past events or experiences
  • an increased understanding of language and what is said both directly to them and also indirectly – that is, what they hear being talked about around them.

It might be environmental and to do with:

  • a new bed, bedroom, or poster on the bedroom wall
  • a new home or new people staying in their home
  • the weather (noisy wind or rain outside, too cold, or too hot or humid)
  • a new daycare centre or a new kaiako or caregiver.

Some parents may have difficulty accepting that what seems like a relatively small change (to them) has had such an impact on their child and could be the reason why their sleep has become unsettled.

How does the brain react to change?

The human brain is wired to notice possible threats, and any type of change can be interpreted as a threat, which automatically activates the release of stress hormones in the body. Sometimes we’re not even consciously aware of the stress being experienced. As the list above shows, the range of stress-causing changes can be multiple and seem very significant, especially to a young brain still developing.

When we’re stressed – at any age – our brains send a signal to the adrenal gland to release hormones that help the body respond to the stress. One of these hormones is called cortisol. Too much cortisol being released too often or for too long can have longer-term effects on a child’s developing brain.

Providing comfort to children during stressful times can help reduce the level of cortisol their bodies are exposed to. Responding quickly and sensitively to comfort a child helps them learn to manage their own stress and handle their big feelings by themselves.

However, after several wakings in one night, parents may find it hard to keep calm, especially when they’re thinking about getting up for work in a couple of hours ready to face a full day of mahi. After a few nights of broken sleep, sensitivity and calmness can seem to have flown out the window!

What might help?

Understanding developmental stages – Something key to remember is what age or stage of development the wakeful child is currently at. Understanding where their child is developmentally can help parents decide which strategy is most appropriate for the stage. Using the developmental milestone lists in Tākai can support whānau to increase their knowledge.

Identifying possible changes – Working through the list of change possibilities might be a good place to start troubleshooting. It’s often easier to identify physical factors like ‘teething’ because red and swollen gums clearly show why a child might be wakeful. Emotional or environmental influences can be much trickier to figure out.

Big feelings, little peopleYoung children can be affected by things that appear very minor to adults, and it might only take a small change in their lives to influence their sleep. Watching their child more closely and taking note of how they’re behaving, both at home and away, might help whānau figure out what might be going on with them. Increasing the time they spend talking with their child and listening to them can also help to gauge their feelings.

Team work – Deciding on the strategies as a team is really helpful, and doing it in the light of day rather than in the middle of the night works best. If broken sleep or nightly fussing hasn’t been a problem before, parents may be unaware of what each other actually thinks on the subject. One parent might have no problem with an extra body in the bed, but the other might. One might not like listening to the crying, but it may not worry the other in the same way.

Have a planTalking through the pros and cons together before agreeing on their approach will make it much more likely that parents will stick to their plan. If parents can’t reach 100 percent agreement on their strategy to respond to the nightly waking, they might decide to try one approach for a set time period before trying another approach.

Books about sleepSpending time sharing books about ‘other’ kids who are having similar experiences as they are appeals to young children. Ask at the local library for some suggestions of books about young children coping with ‘new’ stuff. Whether it’s new babies, homes, bedtimes, toileting, or having new scary thoughts, making time to read them together and talk about them can be really helpful.

Other resources

The age-by-age guide to better bedtimes | Parents.com(external link)

Night waking problems | Kidshealth.org(external link)

Behavioural sleep problems in school aged children | Sleep Health Foundation(external link)

Preschoolers – Sleep problems | Raising Children(external link)