It’s normal for sleep struggles to go beyond the baby phase. So let’s talk about it more.
When we talk about a lack of sleep as a parent, most of us think of those new baby days — when you’re getting up to feed a newborn at all hours of the night, perfecting the “bounce and walk” across your bedroom floor, or resorting to the midnight drive to soothe a colicky little one.
But the truth is, there are many different types and season of sleep challenges for parents with older children too. And sometimes, when you’re outside the baby stage and still dealing with a child who won’t sleep, it can feel like a lonely place to be. After all, only parents of babies are supposed to be sleep-deprived, right?
Of course, that’s not true. There are many situations in the cycle of childhood that sleep may present a challenge for both you and your child. Let’s explore some of the stages and sleep challenges you may encounter.
The first and most obvious stage in a parent’s life when sleep can be challenging is infancy. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), newborns sleep about 16 to 17 hours a day. However, that sleep is completely irregular, and their sleep periods may be as little as a few minutes to a few hours.
How’s that for completely unhelpful information, huh? Essentially, when you’re a new parent, you most likely have no idea what to expect from sleep and it can take a while to figure out your own baby’s sleep cycle patterns, which will change every few weeks anyways.
I can speak from experience here with four babies who were pretty decent sleepers and then one who refused to sleep or nap, ever, and assure you that sometimes, you get a baby who won’t sleep — and it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily doing anything wrong.
Yes, routines and recognizing baby sleep cues can help, but in the newborn stage, sleep-wake patterns in the brain just aren’t established yet, so it’s something you just have to navigate through.
So you get through the baby stage and then you’re free, right? Sleep is finally in your future, right?
Unfortunately, not exactly.
The sometimes very difficult aspect of sleep in the toddler stage are the expectations involved. You think your child should be sleeping better, but they’re not, which leads to frustration on your end, which makes putting them to bed stressful, which worsens their sleep, and you end up trapped in a horrible cycle of no sleep.
The truth is, the toddler stage is a common time for sleep disruptions. Toddlers may resist going to bed, have frequent nighttime awakenings, go through sleep regressions, and experience nighttime fears and even real nightmares.
Toddler sleep may actually be more difficult to deal with, because of the incredible growth and development that is happening in their little brains and bodies, along with your struggle to teach them healthy sleep skills.
Although it can be challenging to deal with toddler sleep disruptions, and difficult to enter yet another stage of poor sleep for you, it might be helpful to understand some of the factors behind toddler sleep interruptions.
For example, your toddler may be experiencing:
- newfound independence
- being overtired
- separation anxiety
- changes in nap schedule
And they’re growing! They may literally be able to climb out of their cribs now — why sleep when you can climb and play? (The AAP recommends making the move out of a crib to a toddler bed when your child is 35 inches (89 centimeters) tall.)
Defined as the stage between 3 and 5 years old, the preschool years aren’t exactly restful ones either. Many of the same challenges that toddlers face, preschoolers may deal with too.
They may continue to (or start to) have a hard time falling asleep or have frequent nighttime wakings. At this age, they may drop napping completely, throwing off their schedule and leading to overtired and challenging bedtimes.
And as a fun bonus, sleepwalking and night terrors may actually come into play around age 4, so if you’re dealing with sudden instances of a child waking up screaming in the night, it’s a real (and normal) part of this stage.
Once your child enters into school and as they grow, the sleep disturbances can often shift from internal challenges to external ones.
For example, while a toddler may have dealt with nightmares stemming from growth, a teen may deal with brain disturbances from screens and cellphone use.
Additionally, there is an uptick in caffeine consumption (from things like sodas, specialty coffee drinks, and “cool” energy drinks) and packed school and extracurricular activities that can make even fitting in the necessary amount of sleep very challenging.
Along with the developmental changes that can occur as a child grows and disrupt sleep, children with special needs will also often face unique challenges to their sleep patterns.
For example, a 2014 study found that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have more sleep problems than children of the same age without ASD that can affect their overall quality of life.
It’s important to recognize that the challenges of parenting a child with special needs along with the sleep disturbances and the lack of “camaraderie” that often accompanies the sleep deprivation stage of parents with newborns can make any parent facing this situation feel isolated and overwhelmed.
Overall, as parents, we need to start talking about the different sleep challenges we encounter at every stage, not just the baby stage. All parents can recognize and be aware that sleep disturbances are common at any age.
Sure, the baby stage of sleep deprivation gets a lot of attention. For many parents, that stage is a temporary one that they can look back and joke about — but when you’re dealing with serious sleep issues years later, it doesn’t feel so funny.
It’s easy for a parent — especially a first-time parent or one facing a new situation, such as a recent ASD diagnosis — to feel like they are doing something “wrong” when they’re struggling with sleep. This feeling may cause them to avoid speaking out about their sleep challenges out of fear of being judged.
No matter how old your child is or what stage you may be dealing with in the sleep stages, the important thing to remember is to talk to your doctor about what might be causing any underlying sleep challenges, connect with resources that can help, and reach out to parents who are in a similar position.
Because for every 3 a.m. that rolls by when you’re still awake, there is always another parent looking up at the stars, wishing they were sleeping too.
Chaunie Brusie is a labor and delivery nurse turned writer and a newly minted mom of five. She writes about everything from finance to health to how to survive those early days of parenting when all you can do is think about all the sleep you aren’t getting. Follow her here.