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The A to Z of children's sleep

Simple strategies to give your child sweet dreams every night.


Posted: 20 March 2014
by Margot Sunderland


A to Z of sleep

A is for Ambient lighting
Soft lighting activates sleep-inducing chemicals called oxytocin in your child’s brain. It is not known precisely which kind of lighting activates oxytocin most successfully, but we do know that bright or harsh light, such as fluorescent lighting, is unhelpful and also blocks the activation of melatonin, the natural sleep hormone. Choose ambient lighting, such as dimmer switches, a warm-glow night-light, or magical fairy lights.

B is for Bodily arousal system
At bedtime, the aim is to activate the ‘calming branch’ of your child’s bodily arousal system. You don’t want to activate your child’s alarm systems, stress hormones, or create high levels of bodily arousal. If you do, your child will feel wide-awake and won’t be remotely interested in going to sleep.

C is for Co-sleeping
Whether you’re an advocate or a critic, research has shown that co-sleeping dramatically lowers a child’s stress chemicals, improves the immune system and releases feel-good oxytocin and opioids in the child’s brain.

A to Z of sleep
D is for Delaying tactics
Some parenting experts believe that children who use delaying tactics before bedtime – like saying they are thirsty, hungry, or need to go to the toilet – are just trying to control or manipulate you. The science of separation anxiety tells a very different story. Babies are genetically programmed to move into a state of both panic and pain when separated from their parents and left alone in a room, particularly if it’s dark. It’s not about control, it’s the activation of your child’s separation, distress and fear systems deep in their brain. Much as you may long for this part of your child’s brain to have evolved, it hasn’t yet!

E is for Emotions
Children are hyper-aware of their parents’ emotional state, so if you are stressed, anxious or irritated, don’t be surprised if your child has trouble sleeping. Research shows that maternal anger directed at children is significantly linked with sleep problems and restlessness.

F is for Ferber
American paediatrician and sleep expert Dr Richard Ferber popularised the “controlled crying” sleep theory and was responsible for a generation of babies being “Ferberised”. Crying-it-out sleep training, which involves long periods of comfort-denial, activates alarm and stress systems in the child’s brain. A mass of brain research shows that early-life stress is detrimental. This is because the first few years of life form a very critical period of brain development. One scientifically measured study showed that babies in the first year of life whose cries were not answered, moved from protest to detachment. The detachment meant that, although they stopped crying, they also suffered from erratic changes in heart rate, breathing, immune and digestive system functioning, and growth hormones. Interestingly, Dr Ferber has recently revised his strict stance on sleep strategies.

G is for Good-night kisses
Another opportunity to release those feel-good hormones and promote feelings of safety, security and sleepfulness. And of course, it goes hand in hand with…

H is for Hugs
There is also an abundance of scientific studies showing that calming your child’s hyperactivity – instead of just ignoring it – helps him develop strategies to be calm under stress in later life. The most powerful way of doing this is by bodily contact, so give plenty of hugs and cuddles or a relaxing massage.

A to Z of sleep

I is for Isolation
Could your child be waking up during the night because he is lonely? Scientific research has shown that isolation is a genetically-programmed acute stressor for mammalian infants and it’s not great for adults either. When adults and children feel lonely, they have poorer sleep, a higher heart rate and lowered immune response. Babies sleeping on their own is a very recent shift for humankind. So much so that some people now refer to sleep training as the biggest experiment of our time – an experiment as yet because we don’t really know the long-term effects this will have on our children. Humans are the only primates that are expected to sleep alone.

J is for Junk food
To be avoided at the best of times, but especially before bed. Sugar-loaded cakes and biscuits will make your child hyper, agitated and irritable, and a protein-rich supper will inhibit sleep-inducing chemicals. Instead, opt for dairy products – they contain calcium, a key component in the manufacture of melatonin, which calms the brain. It’s also worth remembering that it takes around one hour for the tryptophan – a vital component in the manufacture of the calming hormones serotonin and melatonin – in foods to start having an effect, so plan to eat supper at least an hour before your child’s proposed bedtime.

A to Z of sleep
K is for Kiss-and-make-up
A child who is still high from a fight with their sibling or from a major tantrum will not be feeling sleepy. It’s the same with the child whose day has included something frightening that has made their world feel unsafe. When upsetting events occur, primitive alarm bells are triggered in the child’s brain, and high levels of cortisol and noradrenaline (bad stress) block the release of the wonderful calming well-being chemicals needed for sleep. If you want your child to feel sleepy, talk through the events of the day and give lots of cuddles and reassuring kisses.

L is for Lullabies
Babies adore the sound of their parents’ voices, so singing a lilting lullaby can have a calming and soporific effect on your child. Not only do lullabies have an almost hypnotic quality, but they have also been shown to encourage premature babies to grow. In experiments, children who were sung to at night were also better behaved during the day.

M is for Massage
A bedtime massage ritual for the first few years of life has a beneficial impact not only on your child’s growth rates, but also on her activity, rest cycle and sleep-inducing hormones. Research with preschool children showed that those who received massage fell asleep sooner, slept longer during nap time, exhibited better behaviour and had less difficulty falling asleep.

N is for Nose
Your scent is another powerful opioid-activator for your child. The olfactory bulb in the brain is next to one of the key centres that registers alarm. The research shows that powerful smells with strong positive associations can really help to calm separation stress and anxiety. Give your child something she associates with you, or spray some of your favourite perfume on a cloth and leave it by her bed.

O is for Other parents' children
Try to avoid competitive parenting when it comes to sleep. Forget any thoughts of so-called ‘normal’ sleep patterns. Very few children sleep in their own beds each and every night. One study at the Institute for Child Health in London found that 70 per cent of four- to 16-year-olds came to their parents’ bed at least once a week, and up to 47 per cent of toddlers and 36 per cent of preschoolers wake up at least once a night and need an adult to help them fall back to sleep. Persistent or recurring childhood sleep problems in preschool years are very common, with around a quarter of under-fives having some type of sleep-disturbance problem.

P is for the Psychology of co-sleeping
Psychological studies show that children who have co-slept with their parents in the first years of their life enjoy significantly higher self-esteem, experience less fear and anxiety, suffer less mental ill-health in adulthood and feel more satisfied with life.

A to Z of sleep
Q is for Queen-size bed
If you are thinking of co-sleeping, bed size is vital. A queen-size bed is, by and large, just not big enough, so think of investing in a king-size, or a futon on the floor with an adjoining mattress. It can make all the difference between failed co-sleeping and contented high-quality sleep for all parties during the night.

R is for Routines and Rituals
A regular night-time routine, including bathtime and storytime, will help activate the brain’s calming opioid systems. Eventually, your child will automatically associate this wind-down time with sleep and restfulness.

S is for Storytime
Listening to a bedtime story can activate your child’s higher-thinking brain in such a way that it naturally ‘quietens’ one of the key alarm systems known as the amygdala. Storytime is therefore excellent if your child is still agitated after a fight with her brother, or has had a tantrum over something. Children often love having ‘touch’ stories told by drawing pictures on their backs. Always take your lead from your child. Lying back in a blissful state while you massage her, or telling you to “Get off!” should be feedback enough.

T is for Talking
Taking time to talk through the events of your child’s day will help her reflect on feelings, rather than being overwhelmed by them, and will encourage her to develop empathy and understanding. Even very young children listen intently to this processing of their day. Calm reflection on powerful feelings is a wonderful soother for children and adults alike, and can calm threat and alarm systems in the brain.

U is for Understanding
Being rudely awakened from a blissful sleep is part and parcel of being a parent, but it’s important not to show your impatience if your child wakes you during the night or has nightmares. Allow her to describe any scary dreams and reassure her with comforting words. Settle her back into her own bed and remind her that you’re always close by.

V is for Voice
Your voice has an extremely powerful effect on your child’s brain chemistry from the womb onwards. A jarring voice will be likely to activate sleep-blocking stress chemicals, whereas a soothing voice is likely to activate relaxing opioids. Research with other mammals shows that when infants heard the sound of their mother’s cries, even when she wasn’t actually there, it dramatically brought down their stress hormones. Scientists refer to this as the “acoustic presence of the parent”. Think about using a tape of your voice singing a lullaby or telling a story.

A to Z of sleep
W is for Wind-down time
Children have very immature bodily arousal systems. As a result, they often get over-excited and can’t calm themselves down easily without the help of a soothing adult. By settling your child and allowing quiet activities, you will be activating the ‘calming branch’ of her autonomic nervous system.

X is for XXX
Goodnight kisses are your child’s last contact with you before she closes her eyes, so make them warm and affectionate.

Y is for Yawns
Yawning fits are a sure sign that your child is ready for sleep. When humans are tired, we breathe less, resulting in increased amounts of carbon dioxide and decreased amounts of oxygen in our systems. Yawning invigorates the body, stretches the facial muscles and draws fresh oxygen into weary bodies. But beware, yawns are extremely contagious.

Z is for ZZZZZ
Sshhh. She’s fast asleep. Hopefully she’ll wake up refreshed and ready to face another fun-filled day tomorrow.


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