If your child has a sleep issue you will know just how difficult it can be to continue to function when you are chronically sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation can have a devastating impact on parents and can lead to depression, mental illness, a lowered immune system, weight issues, not to mention difficulties within relationships. Children with sleep issues are less able to meet their full potential at school and their learning is affected, they are more likely to have behavioural issues too. Despite the overwhelming evidence that sleep is vital to maintain good health there is still very little support freely available to parents who have sleep issues with their children.
The Children’s Sleep Charity was set up by Vicki Dawson to help parents who are suffering and to train professionals so that they are more able to support parents who are having difficulties. Vicki tells us, “I have been a sleep deprived mum myself and know how difficult it is to function when you are so incredibly tired. I asked for help with my child’s sleep issue via my GP and Health Visitor and there was nothing available other than recommending books to read. When you are exhausted the last thing you want to do is to read a book! I trained as a sleep practitioner in 2006 and was amazed at the information that I learned. I put this into practice and very quickly all sleep issues in my household were resolved. Since then I’ve been passionate about supporting other families who are going through difficult times, the methods we use are based on behavioural and cognitive approaches and are extremely effective.”
Statistics suggest that around 40% of children will have a sleep issue at some point in their life and this figure increases to around 85% if the child has an additional need. Sleep issues can range from having difficulty falling asleep to frequent night waking or even getting up extremely early to start the day; sometimes all of these issues occur. Other children may be suffering with night terrors, they are experienced more commonly by those children that are sleep deprived. Night terrors are different to nightmares though often get confused.
The Children’s Sleep Charity currently do not receive any funding for the work that they carry out and income is generated via donations and setting up sleep workshops where parents are offered free places and professionals pay a fee to attend. The sleep workshops are being rolled out across England and Wales and help parents to understand why their child has a sleep issue by examining sleep cycles, the bedroom environment and the importance of bedtime routines. The workshops have recently been commissioned by Sheffield Children’s Hospital’s Charity to educate the parents of patients with sleep issues.
Keep a diary
Parents are encouraged to keep sleep diaries and shown how to interpret the data from the diaries so that they can begin to understand why their child has difficulties. Sleep diaries are a really useful tool in developing understanding about sleep issues. Sometimes parents have unrealistic expectations of their child’s sleep patterns and sleep diaries can show exactly how much sleep a child is getting and whether it is an appropriate amount.
Sleep diaries are also helpful in identifying patterns around sleep behaviours for example a parent may record their child’s sleep and recognise that they sleep better on certain nights of the week. It is important then to consider why this may be. It could be that on other nights the child is over stimulated or perhaps they are worrying about an activity that is happening at school the following day.
Sometimes children are getting the right amount of sleep, just at the wrong time! Sleep diaries help you to see if sleep patterns have become delayed. So if a child is still awake at 10am but then struggling to get up for school you can see that their sleep pattern has shifted and needs gently moving back to a more appropriate time so that they can wake up easily in the morning.
The time that a child gets up in a morning is as important as the time that they go to bed at night. Sometimes parents are unrealistic about children’s sleep habits and expect to be able to still have lie ins on a weekend! Children need to get up at a consistent time each day to help to strengthen their natural body clocks. It is helpful to see what time children do awaken so that strategies can be suggested if this is too early or too late.
Get rid of gadgets
Vicki says, “Many parents believe that they are doing the right thing with regards to their child’s sleep and may go out and purchase gadgets claiming to help children to sleep better. Sadly many of the items on the market that make these promises aren’t actually helpful in promoting good sleep habits. Bedrooms need to be calming environments as opposed to stimulating.
Is it dark enough?
It is important that parents consider whether for example the room is dark enough. Darkness helps our bodies to produce melatonin and this helps us to feel sleepy. We recommend using blackout blinds to help with melatonin production.
Go neutral not bright
The colour of the bedroom is important too, for example red is probably the worst colour you could choose for a bedroom environment as it is highly stimulating and not conducive for relaxation, a much better choice would be a neutral or pastel shade.”
Stick to a routine
A good bedtime routine is key in order to support children’s sleep habits. Vicki says, “Parents often tell us that they have a good bedtime routine but when we start to explore it we find that there are many things that we can help them to improve. A bedtime routine is more than just having a bath, brushing teeth and going to bed. A bedtime routine needs to begin around an hour before bedtime and calming activities should be planned to help promote relaxation. Fine motor skill activities are perfect for helping children to relax so doing jigsaws, colouring in or threading are all great to use to help youngsters to wind down before bed. Televisions, computers and mobile phones are all highly stimulating and are best avoided in the run up to bedtime.”
The charity also aim to heighten awareness about sleep issues and how they can impact on families. “Sleep is so important to our wellbeing. Unfortunately it is not taken seriously enough in this country and there are many parents out there who are suffering needlessly. We hope that our charity will gain support and that in time we will be able to offer sleep services directly to parents.”
For more information contact The Children’s Sleep Charity. They’re currently working on a range of factsheets to help parents to support their children’s sleep and these will be available free of charge on the website in the near future. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter.