You’ve just tucked them in bed, sung a soothing lullaby and dimmed the bedroom lights. You are looking forward to a quiet evening toasting your toes in front of the fire or catching up on the latest news with your friend on the telephone.
But the pleasure is shortlived. Just as you’ve begun to unwind you hear a cry. By the time you’ve reached the top of the stairs it has developed into an ear piercing wail.
No amount of gentle words or stroking will soothe baby who is keen to get out of her cot and into your arms. Eventually, you give in and take her downstairs and spend the evening cuddling this wily bundle as you juggle tea-making with back rubbing.
Research indicates most children, especially pre-schoolers, spend half their time in bed. This is hard to believe if you are the parent of a lively toddler who with steely determination shuns much shut-eye, preferring to get on with the exciting business of living life to the full.
Experts say sleep problems are universal among pre-school children. Many simply do not want to go to bed, others settle down early but wake up several times during the night.
For some, this may be a security issue, maybe they are worried their parents will not be there so they wake up to check. Or the birth of a new baby, particularly if your other child has been an only child for some time, may cause a break in normal sleeping patterns.
Babies may not have established a set sleeping pattern yet or may have colic or some other condition which causes discomfort and prevents them from settling down.
However, sometimes it may be hard to discover why junior keeps waking up night after night and no amount of psychoanalysis may uncover the truth. Some sleep specialists put it all down to bad habits. They say children expect their parents to come in at night and give a drink, snack or cuddle. So, they wake in anticipation of this treat. Parents must break this pattern and sleep association if they want their child to develop a good sleeping system.
Desperate parents are willing to try anything to solve the situation from bringing their child into their own bed nightly to singing endless nursery rhymes and giving regular bottles to toddlers in the hope of calming them.
Other parents let their children cry but give up shortly and check on them. A vicious circle can then arise and the child gets more awake and the parents more frustrated. And so it goes on, night after night.
What can parents do to get their children to sleep through the night? Is it all a matter of being firm and following a routine? Or do you need to adopt devious tactics to outwit these smart little people who have difficulty pronouncing the word ‘bottle’ but have more cunning in their baby fingers than most of us accumulate in a lifetime?
Think out clearly in the daytime the plan of action you need to put into force at night when the child wakes. Your aim is to settle your child back to sleep. Do not start routines which take hours or you will be up all night. Set a pleasant but unalterable bedtime routine.
Although children’s sleep needs vary experts say a new born baby should be getting 16 to 17 hours a day, in about seven sleeping and waking periods. A six month old baby should be sleeping 11 to 12 hours a night with an hour’s nap after lunch.
Tips for getting children to sleep
* Put them to bed at the same time each night. Make bedtime a ritual - perhaps including reading a story - pleasant and unvarying. Canadian sleep expert Dr Richard Ferber says one cardinal rule is: do not go to your child the moment you hear the first yell. He recommends the first time waiting five minutes, then go in briefly. Do not pick up the child, rock or cuddle him - just let him know you are there. After a couple of minutes go out again. On the second night of crying wait for 10 minutes before going in and on the third night wait 15. Within a week of this regime, says Dr Ferber, you should have a good sleeper in your midst.
* Do not be tempted to use bed or bedtime as a punishment. This would only reinforce the message that bed and bedtime is a separation from loved ones and fun. Do not even suggest it indirectly by saying, “You must be tired or you wouldn’t be so cranky.”
* Leaving children’s bedroom doors open at night may help ease the separation from parents and give them a means of communicating with you.
* Many children are afraid of the dark. A small light or a dimmer switch will help combat this fear.
* Encourage children to make their bedroom into a mini-home which they can fill with their own possessions.
* Make their beds as attractive as possible because this will entice them to get to bed. Pretty duvets or pyjamas are well worth buying because they may make bedtime more pleasant.
* A musical box or radio will provide friendly noise. Many children find silence threatening.
* Most children have special bed toys or comforters. It may be a battered teddybear or a favourite half chewed blanket. Be sure to give these pride of place and if possible, have replacement toys, so you will not have to go on a massive hunt for them before bedtime.
* Many children experience nightmares. Some of these stem from stories children have heard or programmes they have seen on television during the day. Be vigilant about pre-bedtime influences. If children wake up at night reassure them gently and put them back to sleep in their own bed.