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Sleepless with a 4-year-old — Good Parenting

Welcome to Good Parenting, our weekly online series on parenting advice with Annapolis, Maryland, expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Headshot2011Sleepless with a 4-year-old — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Our 4-year-old daughter has been waking up either my husband or myself almost every night for milk or toilet or ‘I can’t sleep’ reasons. This has been going on for more than 6 months. We have tried addressing these issues by meeting her requests or just walking her back to bed and tucking her in. We had success for approximately 1 month with a reward program if she managed her own reasons for getting up. We have discussed this issue with her before bed and she came up with a plan to avoid waking us up, but does not follow through. She will even crawl into our bed where she sleeps soundly (but we do not). Our pediatrician thinks she will grow out of this phase. Your thoughts/suggestions?

Tired of Interrupted Sleep

Don’t miss last week’s column “Embarrased by grandmother”

Dear Tired,

The main reason a 4-year-old wakes up her parents, or crawls into bed with them, is to reassure herself that they will be there for her. Relax. It’s quite common. Normal child development theory predicts that she will outgrow her need for this with a growing motivation to rely more and more on herself. Sounds like she indeed would like to be more emotionally independent — she had a plan! — but her current midnight insecurities might be too loud to ignore.

In the meantime, reduce your expectation that she can and should sleep without checking in with you. And recognize that your frustration with sleep interruption is probably about expectations of yourself – for being 100 percent alert, clever, energetic, compassionate, etc., that are beyond the realities of your stage of parenting. A good 75 percent of your optimum capacity should get you through most days. And if you can’t muster “good enough” then you need to schedule some meditation breaks or power naps in your day. Many devoted exercisers claim a 20 minute workout can refresh them when a good night’s sleep has eluded them. At the same time, you might reduce your obligations so you don’t feel you are coming up short with your underslept brain.

Sound sleep for a continuous 10 to 12-hour period, with a longer deep sleep phase and a shorter light sleep phase every 90 minutes or so, is the ideal for a preschool child. A healthy diet, adequate exercise, and good stress management all contribute to a good night’s sleep. If she naps in the afternoon, she might need only nine to 10 hours at night. However it is quite common for young children to bring themselves fully awake during a light sleep phase – when they are dreaming. The dream phase, or Rapid Eye Movement phase (when her eyes are physically attending to her dreams) is for sorting through the experiences, emotions, and information of her waking hours. REM sleep is an active time for her brain to try to make sense of her world. This is when fears and fantasies are reviewed and new learnings become filed. If she has had a particularly stimulating day – perhaps a field trip to the fire station to watch a regular human being transform into a gasmask-wearing hose-wielding hulk, her dreams will likely be vividly overstimulating as well. Which wakes her up.

If exciting, confusing, or scary dreams are waking your daughter up, she might benefit from more opportunities to debrief her day with you in advance of bedtime. This can happen when you reunite after she has spent time away from you, at dinnertime, and or during her bath. If she still seems agitated or excited at bedtime, you should review the events of the day and help her to find familiarity in a novel experience.

Be sure that every bedtime also has a reassuring routine of oft-read story books, a standard lullaby, mutual declarations of love for each other, and thoughts (and prayers if you like) about other loved ones. She should drift off knowing that although she may have different experiences, thoughts, and emotions every day, the love of her family is steadfast.

Which brings us to one of the unfortunate side effects of interrupted sleep. Her beloved parents may be more forgetful, less creative, more cranky, and less patient than usual when their sleep cycles have been interrupted. To a 4-year-old this kind of behavior can be unsettling. Likewise a child who is not well-slept is similarly less easy to get along with, often causing her parents to have to be more stern than usual with her. If your day has been marred with fussy spats with each other (because one or both of you had your sleep compromised), use bedtime for clearing up any bad vibes between you.

If your family relaxes about whether or not the 4-year-old has access to her parents at all hours of the night, she might just calm down enough not to need it.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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