Caring for your young child at night
Why is sleep important? What is typical and natural sleep for infants?
This section summarises some key points about infant’s sleep and shares some excellent resources where more detailed information can be found.
Sleep is a natural process which allows our bodies to regulate and repair to keep us healthy. In humans, sleep is known to be vital for brain development, processing the day’s events and converting learning into long-term memory systems. Sleep moves through REM sleep (in which our brain is very active and vivid dreams occur, especially important for babies and children) and Non-REM sleep (in which brains are less active and we slowly fall into a deeper sleep). New-born babies move rapidly in and out of REM and non REM throughout the night and are in REM sleep for 50% of the night, 20% more than adults!
As part of the natural process, sleep develops in cycles over time, which can vary between individual children. The ‘circadian rhythm’ is the general sleep/wake cycle most adults follow, however babies are not born with this established and sleep more at night. On average, this develops from approximately 4 months of age. Many parents find their children’s sleep patterns challenging, however a lot of anxiety is often because we have unrealistic expectations of how infants and children sleep.
The current thinking about young children’s sleep
In the past we have tried to train our infants to sleep, new research however shows that this may have detrimental effects on the brain development of children, the quality of their sleep and may also impact on your relationship with your child.
Current approaches to sleep are more flexible and individualised:
|Individualised||Children mature at different rates and we should respond to their individual needs at night. Some children will need more parental support to fall asleep than others.|
|Responsive||It is important for parents to be sensitive and responsive to their infant’s needs during the day and this should also continue at night.|
|Compassionate acceptance||Being compassionate about your infant’s needs at night; their fears and preferences and your own support needs as parents can help you to feel more relaxed about the topic of sleep. It is very normal for young children to wake during the night and need support from their parents to get back to sleep.|
|Flexible routines||Routines can be helpful for infants but if they are too rigid and inflexible they can be difficult to fit into busy family lives. Having flexible routines before bed that help infants feel connected, safe and relaxed will support the natural process of sleep.|
Safety factors to consider
It is important to ensure that your infant is safe at night, your midwife or health visitor will be able to discuss safety guidelines with you. They can also be found on the Infant Sleep Information Source website or APP or the UNICEF Guide to Caring for your Baby at Night (in the “Help & Information” section).
Looking after yourself if you are looking after a young child
Caring for a baby or young child can be tiring and so it is important to look after yourself so that you have the energy and capacity to look after your child. Getting positive help and support from friends and family can make a real difference, as can resting in the day while baby sleeps. If you feel you are struggling and have limited support, talk to a health professional about your worries.
 Middlemiss, W. et al (2012) Asynchrony of mother-infant hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal activity following extinction of infant crying responses induced during the transition to sleep. Early Human Development [online]. 88, pp. 227-232