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Helping Young Children Sleep

Mother kisses daughter goodnightDoes your child put off going to sleep?  Do they wake during the night? Will they only sleep if you are with them or they have their “special toy”? Are you ready for them to move into their own bed?

Maybe you have tried different things to solve the problem, but these have only seemed to work for a while.

Every parent deserves a good night’s sleep, at least once in a while!  Healthy children over 6 months old can sleep through the night much of the time. Many families struggle to establish workable sleep routines, but often the common approaches to solving sleep problems seem harsh and damaging to our relationships with our children.

You can deal with your child’s (and your own) sleep challenges while building your connection with them and deepening their sense of trust in you.  If your child has persistent sleep problems, it might be worth checking with your doctor.  However, if there is nothing physically wrong, then Hand in Hand offers a reliable way to work through your child’s sleep difficulties.

Whether it is getting to sleep, or staying asleep, feelings are often the cause of the difficulty.

Emotional tensions accumulate during the day, or are left over from difficult experiences earlier in children’s lives.  These tend to bubble up in their minds during the night, waking them.

Children also often experience sleep as a separation.  They love us, need us, depend on us, and do not want to be separated from us.  Many children accumulate fears – some light, some heavy – about separation.  If we know how to help our children release those feelings, bedtime can become an easy, fun routine instead of a battle ground.

Connect first by promoting laughter-filled play

A good place to start is not at bed-time, but In the daytime, and early evening, you can make a family tradition of play that helps children (and often the adults) to laugh.  Ideally this play would include with lots of warm, physical contact.   It’s important that you ensure that the children, not the adults, are the winners – they are the inventive, the stronger, and the more persistent.  (And a quick note: don’t tickle.  It would take more space than we have here to explain why, but tickling is not helpful.)

We call this Playlistening. When children get to laugh with us, and get to win, they regain their sense of connection with us, they gain confidence, and tensions dissolve. Laughter actually dissolves lighter fears and embarrassments, all the while connecting us . This can sometimes be enough to solve persistent sleep problems. And if not, the connection built will provide the emotional safety our child needs to really work through their big feelings which are bubbling up around sleep.

Children need us to respond to them when they wake in the night. 

That is one thing I am sure of.  Sometimes we can successfully “comfort” our children back to sleep.  But often, this gets harder and harder over time.  Like many fear-based problems, if not addressed effectively, the problem often gets bigger – it snowballs.  What started as waking only once in the night, or some fretting before bed, shifts over time to several night wakings, or nightmares.  The way I understand this is that the fears are not resolved by our comforting, they are just “tamped down”. The fear keeps bubbling up, and our children find more and more forceful ways to bring these underlying fears to our attention.

There are effective ways to respond which actually assist a child to resolve the emotional tensions that wake them in the night, or which make them not want to go to sleep.

You may need to set limits – but with love and warmth. 

Setting limits at these times – while staying warm, close and connected – can often provide an opportunity for children’s big feelings to surface and be released.  You can gently, with the warmest tone you can muster, say “No” to the request for another bed-time story, or to finding teddy who has fallen out of bed, or to the dummy, or to moving into your bed.  And then you can …

Stay close, and listen to their feelings

Often, children will need to cry.  Sometimes they will also struggle, perspire and tremble.  These physical processes help release emotional tension.  Did you know that stress hormones are washed out of our bodies in our tears?

During the day, you can also listen. 

When you child is upset, resist the impulse to “fix it up” or to tell him to stop being upset.  When children are carrying around emotional tensions big enough to wake them at night, they are likely to be bringing those up in the daytime also.  All those little upsets about things that don’t make sense?  They are actually about big things.  Your child may never be able to tell you what they are really crying about. But you can be confident that those tantrums and tears are “draining the bucket” of feelings that are waking your child in the night.

After upsets, reconnect with Special Time

Special Time is also a wonderful way to fill your child’s cup of connection. When you are in a phase of needing to set limits and work through deep feelings with a child, regular Special Time can re-balance your relationship. It reassures them that you love them, want them, cherish them, and it puts them firmly in charge, at least for a little while! It’s the delighted “Yes!” that needs to go alongside the warm “No” of limit setting.

Consistency is not vital

Can you believe this?  This nugget of wisdom is perhaps the most important thing that I learned when I first came across Hand in Hand Parenting.  So much of the advice about sleep, and about limit setting in general, holds that you will need to “hold the line”  and remain consistent in the limits you set.

There’s a lot to say about this, but in brief, in the Hand in Hand approach, what is needed is your consistent warmth, approval and connection with your child.

When you bring limits, such as proposing that your child sleep alone, or get to sleep without a pacifier or dummy, you will likely bring up the feelings they have been “tamping down”.  These however, are exactly the feelings which have been making it difficult for them to get to sleep, or stay asleep.  Listening to these feelings is the key to progress. But if you have listened for a while, and can listen no longer, or now need to get to sleep yourself, it is OK to bring the child back to your bed, or give them back their dummy.  They will probably stop crying, and may be able to to sleep.  You are unlikely to have completely drained the bucket of fears that are keeping them awake.  But you can come back to it another time.

The thing is, you are not trying to “teach them to sleep” (which might require consistency), but you are aiming to drain away the feelings which stop them from sleeping.  Every little bit of draining you can do will help.  But it is important that you approach this project at a pace that is manageable for you and your child, and maintains your child’s trust in you and sense of connection with you.  Pace yourself.

You may have an “emotional project” on your hands

Difficulty getting to sleep, or staying asleep, often indicate that your child is carrying a load of fear.  It is a fear they will return to, time and again.  This is what we would call an “emotional project”.  Helping your child unburden themselves of the fear may take some time, flexibility in your approach, and creativity.  The feelings that are holding them back from a good, deep sleep, may not resolve in one good, vigorous play, or deeply felt cry.  You may need to develop a Connection Plan to guide you as you and your child work through this project.

Developing a Connection Plan.

We can get so desperate around the issue of sleep that it is easy to move into trying to deal with the problem before we are really ready.  But it may take a while, and you will need to understand it’s dimensions, and look after yourself in the process.

You will need to :

  • understand clearly why your child might be waking in the night.
  • know how to set limits effectively around your child’s sleep issues – which will involve building connection into your relationship, and understanding that solving sleep problems may involve listening to upsets rather than fixing problems.  Learning to listen can also be quite a skill.
  • get support for yourself, somewhere that you can “download” about your fears and worries, and get the emotional support we all need in order to keep meeting our children’s underlying emotional needs as well as their practical needs.

Get information and support

One of the best ways to learn about how to solve sleep problems is to work your way through the course “Helping Young Children Sleep“.  Its a self paced course involving approximately three hours of video outlining the “why” of children’s sleep problems and “what to do” about them. Add to this a couple of Parenting Consultations with me – I’m a Hand in Hand Instructor with over 20 years experience helping families through just this kind of challenge.  In a Consultation, you can have your specific questions answered and develop a plan that fits your family, and you should find yourself well on the way to a good night’s sleep!

Good luck!  Please be in touch – I’d love to help!

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”  Fred Rogers*


There has been talk in the news this morning of possible terrorist attacks in Sydney, the city where I live.  As parents, how do we respond to this constant barrage of news about shocking and violent events – whether they are terrorism, wars, awful mass shootings, or natural disasters?  How do we help our children live happily and confidently in a world which holds so much horror and insecurity?

It is only with a robust sense of their own cherished place in the world that children will have the resource that it takes to tackle the many challenges facing our planet at the moment.  When these things happen, we need to shield them from details they will not be able to make sense of, put our own “oxygen masks” on first to make sure we are in good shape ourselves, listen to our children and answer their questions with pictures of what humans can do together for good, and offer them the huge resassurance of regular Special Time.

As adults, we can put these events into a bigger context. We know that people can and will band together to pull through. Our children don’t always have such a big picture and it makes it hard for them to make sense of what they are seeing and hearing. Continue reading