When our nine year-old Mr Hare was the grand old age of three, and dropping his last daytime nap, he often couldn’t sleep at night. It used to do my head in. I remember getting extremely anxious for myself (surely ‘good’ parents had their small children asleep early); I became extremely cross with him (why wouldn’t he just go to sleep when he was clearly tired); and fed-up with Craig (just because).
I am still a strong supporter of children getting lotsof sleep. (The Real amount of Sleep Children NEED. ) And now I don’t get stressed about those sometimes late nights when they’re dropping their final nap. Here’s why…
Sleep is controlled by two major rhythms. The first is circadian rhythm, the one most of us have heard of, and means that well parented children can fall asleep at around the same time each night and will wake at around the same time each morning. In winter they might sleep longer and in summer not quite so long.
But our brains also follow a homeostatic rhythm. That is: our children can only sleep after they have done a certain amount of learning. Often we don’t think of just living as learning, but any organising or problem solving we do during the day (even learning how towers made of blocks work) involves learning or modifying pervious knowledge.
It would be impossible to tell how much our child has learned in any set period of time, so instead we can usually use the clock to indicate s/he is ready for a nap or sleep. A small baby will want to sleep after they have been awake for around an hour and a half. They’ve absorbed whatever information they need to absorb (and can manage) and need to process it. (Sleep being the time we organise and make sense of our waking experiences.) By around nine months of age many babies are down to two naps during the day and can manage to be awake for three hours or so at a time. During those three hours they learn what they need to learn about Mum and Dad, about daily patterns in their house, about the terrain they have to explore. A two-year old can usually manage five hours or so of awake time before they need to sleep. This still can work with their circadian rhythm – e.g. wake at around 7am sleep from 12pm to 2pm, sleep again at around 7.00pm. (Example!)
When we have a three-year old who is moving into the one sleep in 24 hours pattern the two rhythms don’t always work in sync, which is where the problems occur. The child is definitely tired due to circadian rhythm but they can’t drop off due to homeostatic rhythm. If we put them to bed alone, they have separation tantrums and do anything to get us to reconnect with them. They will destroy their rooms if they are left alone and often are found in the hallway or on the bedroom floor asleep after making a lot of noise – if parents choose to ignore them. Rewards and punishment won’t have any long-term effect. If we choose to lie down with our children while they drop off to sleep, they will bounce, sing, play and generally drive us insane with their antics. This is what I experienced with our lovely Mr Hare – and it didn’t help our relationship at all.
With knowledge comes the ability to adapt our parenting!
The answer is to modify our approach for the period (often around a year) they are dropping their final nap. As an example:
1. Child wakes at 6.30am, on the days s/he doesn’t need a nap, s/he easily goes to sleep at 6.30pm at night. This is a great normal pattern for a child younger than six.
2. Child wakes at 6.30am, sleeps at 3pm and wakes at 4pm. They appear tired at 6.30pm (circadian rhythm) but can’t sleep because of homeostatic rhythm. So THAT night only they stay up until 9pm or 9.30pm. The next day they sleep from 2pm until 3pm (because of the late night) and go to bed at 8pm or 8.30pm, the third day they will manage (with a bit of grumpiness) to stay awake and will be asleep at 6.30pm again. They can then continue with the 6.30pm normal sleep time until they have another late nap, then just repeat.
Yes, it is a pain if we want this time for adult time or head-space, but if we take this approach for this short period of time, it means a lot less short-term stress and long-term separation issues.
(I do know parents who say their children can sleep when they’ve had a late nap. None of those children have lived at our house and I believe there are far more who cannot. )
Hope this idea takes some stress out of parenting your three year-olds!
For more innovative ideas about dealing with tantrums buy my book,