Imagine this: Your 4-year-old suddenly decides she’s never sleeping again. What do you do?
You might worry it’s sleep regression — but if you haven’t heard of the term before, you might wonder what that sleep regression actually is and if it’s affecting your child. While regression is a real thing in childhood development, it’s not what’s causing most children to stop sleeping normally, says BlueCare Medical Director Dr. Sharon Moore-Caldwell.
“If you have a child who was sleeping and all of a sudden stops, it may seem like sleep regression,” she says. “But clinically, regression means that a child’s health and development are declining or moving backward overall, and obviously that’s a much more serious issue. So step one is always to talk with your pediatrician, who can do a check-up to make sure they’re not declining in other ways.”
Identifying the cause
Pediatricians often use the BEARS sleep screening tool to find out what’s causing the issue. The tool looks at:
Excessive daytime sleepiness
Awakening during the night
Regularity and duration of sleep
Most sleep problems in children and adults can be classified as transient sleep disturbances (TSD), or interruptions of sleep that aren’t permanent. They can be caused by a number of things — travel, illness, stress, etc. — and they are perfectly normal, but parents should be careful how they deal with them.
Here are some common triggers:
“Short-term disturbances surrounding life events are common: you move or go on vacation or someone in the family starts a new job,” says Dr. Moore-Caldwell. “Any change that causes the family to break their routine can also interrupt a child’s sleep.”
“Anxiety is another issue. We often think of stress as an adult emotion, but kids worry, too,” she says. “If there are big changes happening in your family — a new sibling or a death or divorce — that can make sleeping difficult.”
Another common sleep pitfall is illness. If a child has an ear infection, they might stay up late because they don’t feel good, and you might rock them to sleep or let them crawl into your bed. While the infection goes away in a few days, the changes you made to your child’s sleep routine don’t, and you may find yourself with an ongoing problem rather than a temporary one.
The best way to gain a full picture of your child’s health is to talk with them openly and ask if there’s anything going on. If your child won’t talk to you about it, go see the doctor. Even if the issue isn’t physical, having a third party to talk to may help reluctant kids open up.
Here’s how to protect your child’s sleep routine:
Build good habits
No matter your age, the ability to go to sleep comes down to one thing: habit. Creating good ones and breaking bad ones is key. It’s no different for kids.
“With teenagers we sometimes hear parents say that their child simply will not sleep. But if you dig a little deeper, you might find out, ‘Well he was on the phone in bed or he had a Coke at 8:30 or on Saturday I let him sleep until noon,’” says Dr. Moore-Caldwell. “Over time it’s easy for parents and caregivers to inadvertently reinforce bad behaviors rather than good ones.”
For that particular problem, Dr. Moore-Caldwell recommends having a cell phone station in the house where everyone puts their devices at night. For younger kids, however, you may have to go back a few steps in your sleep training so they can re-learn how to go to sleep on their own.
“It helps to think: ‘How did we train our child to sleep before all this happened?’” says. Dr. Moore-Caldwell. “If it worked once, it has a good chance of working again.”
Good sleep rules include:
1. No devices at bedtime
Don’t turn on the TV or let kids play with a cell phone right before bed. That stimuli pushes the brain to keep working when it should be winding down.
2. Don’t let kids fall asleep in your arms
If you know your child is sleepy, put them down before they’re fully asleep so they learn how to get comfortable in their bed on their own.
3. Don’t run to pick them up as soon as they wake up in the middle of the night
If your child gets used to you rocking or singing them to sleep, they will learn to expect it.
4. Pay attention to what they eat or drink before bedtime
Are they having caffeine or sugar? Are they eating too late? Identify and keep things consistent.
5. Keep bedtime the same every night
This one can be hard, especially on vacations and holidays, but it’s better for everyone to keep a regular sleep schedule. If your child’s routine changes over the summer or the holidays, be sure to start them back on their regular school year schedule 4 or 5 days before they go back. Sunday night won’t cut it.
To learn more about sleep myths and facts, click here.