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Is it a Sleep Regression? Or Separation Anxiety?

Does this sound like you? A few weeks ago, things were trudging along okay. In fact, you might even be as bold to say that your child was sleeping fairly well. You had a little routine, and sure it took some effort. Maybe some songs, a few stories and a cuddle to sleep…but it worked (most of the time anyways). 

But lately, nothing is working!

Or maybe you’ve been struggling all along (If this is you, I am sending virtual hugs Mama! Stick around, this blog may just help you too ;)) 

If you have a child who:

  • Will suddenly only sleep on or touching you in some way
  • Is taking foreverrrr to fall asleep – whether it is constant battles, or crying when you try to leave
  • Wake the second you leave their side… or
  • Needs A LOT more from you overnight than you’d like, with things like crying out, or sneaking into your bed

You are probably wondering what the heck is going on!?

Could this be a sleep regression?

Do Toddlers Even Have Sleep Regressions?

You might be wondering if your child is experiencing a sleep regression?

The truth is, there really isn’t even such a thing as a sleep regression!

Sure, sleep can go belly up now and again. This is quite common with babies around 4 to 5 months, and again around 7 to 9 months. Toddlers experience dips in sleep too, most often around 18 months, and 2 years old.  

But don’t get too caught up in the numbers. There really isn’t any predictability when it comes to sleep development. Scientists have been researching looking for patterns, but have had no luck!! (crazy right!?)

Sleep is not like a magical elevator where we all hop on, put in our time and eventually get to our destination. Nope, I’m afraid sleep is more complex than that.

Sleep is like a roller coaster ride through a corn maze. Only you are blind-folded, and have no idea what is to come, or when the ride will end.

In the medical world, regressions mean a loss of something. A return to a previous developmental level. Do you get less sleep, yup in some cases this happens. But your child has not actually lost the ability to sleep. 

It’s more like their brains and body are too busy working on other things. Learning and growing, developing brain cells, and forming relationships. It’s more like they’ve taken a different route on the ol roller coaster. 

Fun right!?

So no, your child is not experiencing a sleep regression?

If you’ve ruled out illness, and teething, it may actually be that your child is experiencing a developmental shift that is contributing to some separation anxiety.

How to Know If Separation Anxiety is Impacting Your Child’s Sleep?

Before you freak out, you should know that in most cases separation anxiety is normal. Pretty well all children experience it at some point in childhood. 

It’s common to see peaks of separation anxiety around 7 to 9 months, and between age 1 and 3 years. But it can happen at anytime, or even multiple times!

It has a lot to do with development and attachment, and when we think about it from an evolutionary perspective, on some level it helped to keep kids who were growing in independence from wandering out into danger.

Mother nature didn’t want all of our littles to be eaten by tigers afterall!

What Does Separation Anxiety Look Like?

During the day you might notice…

  • That your child is more clingy or whiney than usual
  • That they are less tolerant of receiving support from alternate caregivers (they only want YOU!)
  • Crying or upset whenever you leave their sight
  • Apprehension or fear in new situations, or among strangers

At night, you’ll likely notice one or more of the lovely examples I mentioned above…anything from a refusal to sleep, or increase in the number of awakenings, to a change in the amount of support normally needed.  

Fun right!?

So now what…?

How Can You Help Your Child with Separation Anxiety to Sleep Better?

Parenting is hard enough as it is, and becomes a heck of a lot harder when kids need more from us. 

So what can you do?

You’ll no doubt face massive pressure from family and friends (or even yourself) to make changes, and quickly – before any ‘bad habits’ start, or before they get ‘too dependent’ on you. 

Balarsky!

The truth is, if your baby or child is showing signs of separation anxiety, the best way to help them sleep is to support this need. 

While it is true that most kids will outgrow separation anxiety on their own. There are a number of ways that you can support them, while not losing your sanity!

Supporting Separation Anxiety Through Play

Practice mini separations – during the day – through play. Lift the flap books, and peek-a-boo for young ones, and games like hide and seek, or go, go, go stop for kids. Role play, or tell stories that resemble your family situation, but with happy, peaceful separations and reunions. Keep these short, sweet, and fun!

Changing Your Sleep Mindset

Re-Write your Story. Remind yourself that your child needs you. No, you are not spoiling them or making them more dependent! Reassure yourself that this is likely just another temporary blip that will restore itself in time. During the more challenging moments, it can help to use a mantra. I am a big fan of: “They aren’t giving me a hard time, they are having a hard time.” And don’t forget to take a moment to appreciate being loved so much by such an adorable little human!

Meeting Your Child Where They Are At

Don’t force it. This isn’t really a rip the Band-Aid off type of situation. Now is not the time to make big changes, whether to do with sleep, or daytime. Avoid sneaking away, or  pushing them to spend time with others. If you can, focus instead on meeting your child where they are at. For sleep this might mean cuddling them to sleep, or shifting to bed-sharing for a while. I know it’s tempting, but making changes with a goal towards independent sleep right now is likely to be a whole lot harder than it needs to be. 

And lastly… Just give it time 💕

Meeting your child’s needs in a gentle, supportive way is without a doubt the quickest and easiest way through this – for both of you!

If you are looking for more practical tips for your child’s sleep routine, then click here to sign up for my free Peaceful Bedtime Mini-Course. 

Maisie xx

Categories
Bedtime

Why Wont My Child Sleep!?

It’s late. You’re tired. They’re tired. Everyone is tired. Your patience is gone and you feel the anger and resentment rushing through your veins.

“Just go the *#@% to sleep”

“Why wont you sleep!?”

These are words I have said to myself…many times! (twins are hard LOL)

It is in these moments that our insecurities run wild. Our anger flicks a switch inside our brains (ever heard of the amygdala!?) and our “animal brain” takes over. This causes us to act instinctively rather than consciously. In fact, it is ridiculously difficult to think rationally when we are experiencing big emotions like anger, resentment, and defeat.  

Bedtime turns into a battle, and we feel incredible pressure to win. We ‘must’ win!

We worry that if we give in, if we lose that battle, then…

  • We will be seen as weak parents
  • Our children will walk all over us
  • They will never go to sleep
  • Evenings will be ruined  F-O-R-E-V-E-R…..and 
  • You’ll end up with a codependent adult child living with you until they’re 40!

But herein lies the problem. These are irrational thoughts. 

It’s a vicious circle really. Our culture, and social norms are part to blame (but that is a whole other blog!)

Even just using the language “bedtime battle” can set this tone. Psychology tells us that our language choices matter. Speaking positively, you are more likely to feel positively and so on. 

The phrase bedtime battle implies a conflict, that we are at war against our children. It implies that, as parents, we need to win (we are bigger and stronger right?). Which naturally leads to resentment and insecurities, as listed above.  

What is worse, it goes against the serve & return nurture sequence that we know is so important to child development and also risks breaking attachment – both of which are suuuper important for long term health and quality of life.

So I try to avoid using the term bedtime battle (or even the nap equivalent of “fighting naps”) whenever I am talking with parents. And, I encourage you to take a look at your vocabulary too.

Why? Well because we are not at war with our children. And, I think it is safe to say that no-one wants to step onto the battlefield on a daily (or even weekly) basis. 

So how do we make peace?

The answer my friend, lies in prevention, connection, and planning

Prevention

This piece is all about setting the stage for sleep. 

Often bedtime can become difficult simply because the child is not tired enough. Think about it for a minute. What would happen if you went to bed when you weren’t tired? You would probably toss and turn, you might pick up your phone or turn on the TV. Maybe you’d even get back up and try again later.

Have you ever tried to fall asleep with someone yelling at you to go to sleep? Exactly. LOL

Knowing basic sleep biology is important here. 

We have two main sleep forces. Our circadian rhythm is determined by the sun, our daily routine and to some degree our genetics. We also have our sleep drive (sometimes called sleep pressure). 

In order to get good and sleepy both of these factors need to be paired in a sort of harmony. 

Perhaps, the biggest thing that comes into play for kiddies is sleep pressure. Think of it like a balloon. We need that balloon to be full come bedtime, or there will be no pressure to help push that child into dreamland. If you’ve got a floppy weakly inflated balloon, there will be no push for sleep.

Ideally, the sleep pressure balloon will be linked in time with the circadian rhythm because this is what is responsible for the release of our natural sleepy chemicals like melatonin.

Too much daytime sleep, or poorly timed naps can lead to bedtime resistance simply because they are not tired enough to sleep. So can lazy days i.e. not enough exercise or activity. Or not enough stimulation. Babies, toddlers and kids of all ages need to be learning and moving! Their brains and bodies are developing at such a fast rate. They thrive on this. 

(On a side note – I have never met a kid who is getting too much exercise. Hint hint LOL)

Often parents are stressed, and try to make life scheduled, calm, and predictable. While it is true that little ones (and parents) thrive on routine, it can also get a bit boring. They neeeeeed stimulation. Too much of the same, and well…you just plain don’t tire them out enough. 

Ever notice how well they sleep on the days you go on a day-trip (even if you spent half the day in the car)? What about on the days where you go somewhere new? This is why!

Of course the opposite can be true. Overtiredness happens too. However, I hesitated even writing this here. Why? Well because overtiredness has become a sort of buzz word in the sleep community. It is treated sort of like a scapegoat. All sleep problems seem to be blamed on overtiredness, with a recommendation to extend naps, or move bedtime earlier. Unfortunately it is a whole lot more complicated than this. 

It is true that the human body produces increased cortisol (the awake hormone) to counteract that inflating balloon, especially as the balloon starts growing too big. It is also true that increased cortisol can make it more difficult to sleep, and can lead to a poorer quality of sleep too. Kids can get sort of wired and hyper. And, trust me, it is much easier to just let that phase pass, than to convince a squirmy child to lay still. LOL I call it ‘bedtime bonkers.’ 

All of this is true. Science tells us so…

BUT 

I want to highlight that society’s expectation of sleep needs ALSO differs VASTLY from what the research shows. Believe it or not, but it is NOT normal for kids to sleep 12 hours a night. 

My best advice here…Pay attention to your child! Their behaviour is more indicative of their sleep needs than any chart you will find.  

Connection

This section is all about connection. Maintaining that peace. (and for those of you who have been in the trenches for a while….making amends and starting fresh)

For many littles, bedtime is the one time of the day, where they get their parent’s undivided attention. This is especially true for working parents. 

When you think about it this way, why would they want to go to bed? They want to spend time with YOU – all of you!

I hear about this a lot from Moms as they transition back to work after maternity leave. Often bedtimes become difficult and night waking increases. A lot of times this is when parents start bed-sharing (if they haven’t already) as this is a way to connect with our children. 

One way around this is to boost our connection during the day. 

Now, I am not meaning to overwhelm you by implying you have to spend massive amounts of uninterrupted 1:1 time with your child all day, every day. (Though it would be amazing if you could!)

But, you can make a world of difference by intentionally chunking your time. Try to have a couple of small 15 minute blitzes where you focus on connecting with your child. Involve them in your activities. Engage them in conversation. Look in their eyes. Cuddle their soft skin. 

Believe it or not, but this actually can improve sleep!

Planning

So what does planning have to do with bedtime? 

I think we can all agree that life is easier when we are prepared right? When you have a plan, and you know what to expect, there are a lot less unknowns. It’s easier to stay on track. 

If you know that bedtime takes forever, plan for it. Plan for an easy and relaxed night. 

It’s all about the little things

If you are relaxed, your child is more likely to relax.

If you have had nothing but difficult bedtimes lately consider clearing your evening commitments so that you don’t feel rushed. No, not forever, but this process takes some time and it works best when you give it your best shot. 

This wisdom has been passed down by my own Mom. She has always said that the days go easier when you don’t have an agenda . This message cannot be truer.

It is always on the days where I am feeling pressured to do something, to be somewhere, to get the house clean, to do something – anything! It’s always these times that I become most frustrated, angry or resentful of my boys when things don’t go according to plan. 

So just let it go!

Live in the moment. 

I find it helps to ask myself. Will this matter tomorrow? A week from now? A year from now? 

If not…then it’s probably best to just let it go! 

Okay back to more planning stuff… 

Plan a nice relaxing evening. No, not the whole evening (kids have a lot of energy to burn and we don’t want to stop that balloon from inflating), but an hour before bed is a good place to start. Think of some activities that you can do together (remember that connection piece we talked about earlier). Puzzles, colouring or blocks work well

Cut the screens (yes this includes the TV). Dim the lights and throw some Gentle Baby Essential Oil Blend into the difffuser. This helps let your bodies unwind and know that sleepy time is near. 

Then as you prep for bedtime make sure YOU are ready. 

Run through your own internal checklist (or write it down if that is more your style)

  • Have you have eaten dinner (we don’t want you hangry)
  • Are you calm? If not take a minute (or a few) to help get you there
  • Oh and make sure that your bladder is empty (cuz having to pee will make anyone a little rushed! LOL)
  • The next step is to start the bedtime routine. 

You probably already have a bedtime routine with your child, whether you realize it or not…

A bedtime routine is simply the list of things that you do to get ready for bed. As parents, we tend to kiss our children and or say things like sweet dreams. Some of us sing a song, or read a story. 

It sounds simple, and it can be. But it can also work against you if not done correctly. It’s a very misunderstood and underutilized strategy for improving and maintaining a healthy sleep pattern.

Don’t have one? Or unsure if yours is doing the trick…then check out my FREE Ultimate Guide to Bedtime Routines.

You know what, scratch that. Just download the guide. Even if you have an amazing bedtime routine, my guess is that you’ll learn something to make it even better!

Now, before I go, a quick disclaimer. These are all important factors in a healthy bedtime, but they are not the only variables. If after incorporating some of these tips and tricks, you find that you are still having problems, then please reach out to a professional for help. Sleep doesn’t have to be a battle.

Sleep well friend,

Maisie Zzz