Better Bedtimes Q&A (with guest Sleep Consultant, Alexandra Collingbourne)
Hello, and welcome to this bedtimes-based blog post, featuring all my very best tips for improving bedtimes, and providing answers to several of the most common questions from my free online "Better Bedtimes" parenting surgery earlier this month! This Q&A is extra special, because it features not only my own answers to your questions, but each question is also answered by my special guest, Hertfordshire based mum of two, Child Sleep Consultant Alexandra Collingbourne, aka Sleep by Alexandra. Alexandra specialises in safe, holistic methods of getting your baby, toddler or child to sleep in a way that empowers parents to live better, happier, and with more energy! She also provides postnatal depression and anxiety support if needed. Thank you Alexandra in advance for your time and words of sleep-wisdom!
Before we get to the Q&A featuring advice from both myself and Alexandra, I would like to share with you my 5 top tips for making sure your bedtime routine is really calm, consistent and positive, which I like to go through with all parents who are experiencing problems with their child's sleep and bedtimes. If you would like more personal advice on any of these themes, please get in touch! Parental sleeplessness, child bedtime refusal, and night wakings are some of the most stressful, and most often discussed issues in parenthood, so rest assured, you are not alone, and there is always someone there to talk to (a friend, family member, a health professional, or somebody like myself or Alexandra).
Top 5 Tips for Better Bedtimes
1. Be gentle at bedtime
If your child is acting up at the moment at bedtime, seems a little more demanding, is taking longer to settle, wants to sleep in your bed with you, or is asking for an old comforter back, try not to get frustrated – this is their way of showing you that they need a little more love and reassurance right now. As we go in and out of lockdown, and try to adapt to new ways of living and working, we are all going through a very stressful time, and children will have been picking up on all the stress and anxiety around them. They are having to deal with regular changes to their daily routine, and emotional ups and downs from those around them, and it is unsurprising if they need a little more reassurance at bedtime. Be gentle with them, and try not to lose patience.
2. Daylight and exercise
Make sure your child gets plenty of natural daylight and exercise during the daytime (winter time included - there is no "wrong weather" for going outside, only the "wrong clothing"!). You will find this makes a big difference to how well (and for how long) they sleep, and how sleepy they feel at bedtime. Make sure they get outside during the daytime and are exposed to lots of natural daylight. Get them running around, skipping, jumping, cycling, playing catch, and generally doing as much exercise as possible. In addition to this, try to limit the amount of screen time and sugary foods they are given, especially the closer you get to bedtime because these things are not going to help them feel sleepy.
3. Don’t rush the bedtime routine
Your bedtime routine is a transition period that takes your child from the “awake” part of their day, to the “asleep” part of your day, and it is very important that you don’t try to rush it. This transition period needs to be consistent and should begin and end at roughly the same time every day. Make sure you do the same things each day – a warm bath, putting on clean pyjamas, having a bedtime snack or milk, having a quiet play, and then finally having a bedtime story and some one-to-one time together. Your child will sense if you are trying to rush things, and this will put them on edge, and probably make them more resistant (any parent who has ever tried to get their child ready for bed quickly before going out for the evening will know this never works!). Take your time, and keep things calm.
4. Reading at bedtime
Bedtime stories are a really important part of bedtime, and all parents should aim to read to their child every night before bed. You can take turns with your partner, encourage an older sibling to read to a younger sibling or let your child take a turn at reading out loud themselves. Reading just before bed is an extremely calming, soothing activity that encourages closeness and bonding, and also improves literacy skills. So choose a few favourite books, get nice and cosy on your child’s bed, and spend some time reading together. If you want some great story book recommendations, get in touch (or I may do a top ten of my personal favourites for reading to young children in the future!).
5. Unpack your child’s “emotional backpack”. The last thing you should do before saying goodnight and turning out the lights is to help your child to unpack their “emotional backpack”. Children generally start each day afresh with a blank slate (think of them with an empty “backpack” on their back). By the end of the day they have accumulated all kinds of thoughts, worries, fears, memories, and experiences, that they are now carrying around with them (their “backpack” is now full and weighing them down). To help them relax and feel at peace, have a little talk with them about all the things they might be carrying with them in their “backpack” – maybe they got very upset during the day, or had a tantrum, maybe you had an argument, or they fell over and got hurt. Maybe they watched a really scary movie or heard something disturbing on the news. Maybe they heard you and your partner arguing, or are nervous about something that is going to happen tomorrow. Gently talk through whatever might be in their “backpack”, and reassure them that they have nothing to worry about, that you still love them, and that everything is going to be alright. This will help them to feel much more at peace and will make it easier for them to fall asleep (it may also give you a new insight into what is going on in their life, and how they are feeling).
Now, for our Better Bedtimes Q&A, featuring your questions answered by both myself, and Child Sleep Consultant Alexandra:
1. My child is hungry at bedtime, I don't want to start giving snacks or it will become a habit, but I feel guilty making him go to sleep hungry. Is he really hungry, or just delaying bedtime?
Isobel: Children definitely seem to have growth spurts when they go through periods of needing to eat a lot more than at other times, and seem able to eat more than their body weight in food! As long as your child has had a good dinner (by which I mean they are not waiting for the snack, instead of finishing their dinner!) I don't see a problem with giving them a healthy and nutritious bedtime snack. The bedtime snack shouldn't be a sugary or chocolatey, and should be something that will aid their sleep (certain foods encourage melatonin production, which is what our body needs to help us fall asleep). A good bedtime snack could be something like some banana, some wholewheat crackers with peanut butter, and some milk. Don't let the snack get out of hand by letting it be a choice, a preference, or something fun! If they are not truly hungry your child will probably get bored of it once the novelty factor has worn off!!
Sleep Consultant Alexandra*: Giving your child a snack before bed isn’t uncommon or unhealthy. As long as you give a small snack that is conducive to sleep and isn’t bad for them such as a banana, carrot cake bar (Goodies) or peanut butter on a cracker. I recommend you give them a small snack around 30 mins before bed, obviously age dependant - 2years +.
2. My 8 month baby screams in the night, most nights, for an hour or two without stopping, at around 2am or 3am. There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with her, maybe she just needs some comfort, but her screams are deafening, it is ruining my own sleep and I am exhausted!
Sleep Consultant Alexandra*: Unfortunately this is common, especially for this age. However, I have found that 6-12 months is the best age to work on a great sleep routine to encourage good sleep habits. I would look at her day routine, is she sleeping the correct amount? Try and see if her naps need reducing or increasing. Also I try to encourage putting baby down awake or sleepy at this age to help her learn to self settle. I have a blog post with tips for this age that can help too….Good Luck!!
Isobel: My goodness, this sounds tough! But trust me, this is just one of many phases that will pass. You will have better nights! You just have to get through this phase. First of all, make sure your bedtime routine is sound: peaceful transition, dim lighting, warm bath, clean pajamas and nappy, full tummy, story, cuddles, pacifier, transitional object (favourite teddy or muslin) and white noise if preferred. Then, when your baby wakes in the night, do the basic checks (as I am sure you already do!): wet nappy? Is baby too hot and sweaty or too cold? Have they lost their pacifier or teddy? We can't ask babies why they are awake and crying, so we have to play detective and try to guess! Has there been a sudden noise outside, a dog barking, or a rain storm? Try to be patient and stay calm (admittedly hard to do in the middle of the night!), and work your way through the obvious clues. If you feel annoyed or frustrated your baby will pick up on your tension and this will make things worse, her screams will probably escalate. She may just need a little reassurance (separation anxiety kicks in from around 9 months). Try not to lift your baby of cot if possible, just place a reassuring hand on her and give her a soothing stroke - and if you do need feel the need to lift her out, don't leave the room with her or turn on any bright lights, and make sure you place her back in the cot when she has calmed down. Like all phases, this too shall pass.
3. How to discourage co-sleeping with an older child? My six year old still regularly gets into bed with my partner and I.
Isobel: Some parents choose to co-sleep, and others find themselves co-sleeping unintentionally, and feel that it will help their child through a stressful period in their lives. Evidence suggests that the older a child gets, the more important it becomes for them to be able to naturally fall asleep in their own bed. So how to break a habit? Breaking habits is always hard, and there are usually steps forwards and steps backwards, triumphs and tears. Once you have decided to begin, explain your decision kindly and in words your child will understand. It might be nice to mark this new phase by letting your child choose new bedding, new pajamas, a new teddy, or a cool new lamp. You are going to have to be firm, and be consistent. You (and your partner) need to be the leaders here. Each time your child leaves their own bed, calmly and kindly explain that they need to sleep in their own bed, and that you need to sleep in your own bed, so that both your and their own body can rest and grown and be healthy at night. Return them to their own bed. Make their bedroom a very warm, cosy, safe environment. You might need to spend more time in the bedroom so it becomes a more familiar environment (spend time playing in the bedroom). Consider introducing a transitional bedtime object if your child doesn't already have one (a teddy bear or similar) or an object of your own that will smell like you (a soft jumper or cardigan), and perhaps child could wear one of your t-shirts to bed. Other options to consider introducing are a nightlight, a weighted blanket, a body pillow (to create the feeling of "closeness"), or white noise. Make sure the bedtime transition is relaxed and peaceful and not rushed. Unpack their "emotional backpack" (see tips above) last thing before saying goodnight, and then explain gently that you are going to another room, and what you are going to do there (e.g. "I am going downstairs to make a cup of tea", or "I am going to go and have a bath now"). Gently return them to their room each time they get out of bed. Reward them when they get it right with a special treat the following day!
Sleep Consultant Alexandra*: If you feel your co-sleeping journey has come to an end, then I would first try by creating positive associations with your child’s room i.e playing with their favourite toy in their room during the day. It will be a tough habit to break, however if you are consistent then it can be done in 3-5 days. I have a great technique for older children so if you feel you need extra guidance, I am here to help :)
4. My 6 year old child doesn't seem to need sleep (she lies awake in bed for ages, and wakes up early). She often has bags under her eyes but just doesn't seem to sleep! The rest of the family do, and I also worry about her lack of sleep!
Sleep Consultant Alexandra*: It sounds like she may be overtired. I would first try by bringing her bedtime forward. Studies show that putting bedtime’s later only encourage early wakings more due to over tiredness. I would also encourage a relaxing bedtime, no screen time at least an hour before bed and add lavender oil drops to her bath with a nice gentle massage after. This will help her release melatonin, the sleep hormone.
If you are concerned there may be a deeper issue regarding sleep then definitely contact your GP as they will be able to help fully understand her needs.
Isobel: I love Alexandra's tips about the lavender oil in the bath and the gentle massage! It is certainly true that some children sleep more than others! Just like adults, children are all unique and have their own unique sleep patterns and habits. These will differ enormously as their bodies grow and they go through different developmental stages. The first thing I would suggest (after the lavender oil and massage, of course!) is increasing the amount of daylight and exercise your child is getting during the day. Maybe introduce a walk in the afternoons, or a session in the playground. Then think about reducing screen time down to zero for at least an hour and a half before lights out. Make sure the bedtime environment and routine are conducive to sleep. Consider making the bedroom darker, or introducing white noise. Unpack your child's "emotional backpack" (see tips above) before saying goodnight - perhaps they have a headful of complicated thoughts keeping them awake! If you don't already have one, a Groclock or similar could help your child to understand when it is time to stay in bed, and when it is time to get up. Explain to them kindly and in words they will understand that their body needs rest and sleep, to be able to learn and grow and mend, and so do the rest of the family! Perhaps as a compromise they could have a basket of quiet toys and books beside the bed to keep them occupied for dawn wake-ups!
5. My children (3 and 5) go bonkers at bedtime (excited, laughing, jumping, giggling), it drives me mad, I end up shouting at them, and they seem to be at their naughtiest, just when I am trying to make them sleepy! How can I prevent this? They don't eat lots of sugary food or watch much TV in the evenings.
Isobel: Try not to worry, kids often go a little crazy before bedtime, what they are doing is letting out all the tension and nervous energy that they have built up during the day. You often find siblings going into slightly crazy bouts of play fighting and giggling and general hysterics before bedtime, and this is simply a healthy release of tension. Try not to take it as a rebellion against bedtime, just wait it out and it will usually pass, and you will be left with a tired, physically at rest child (a little like a deflated balloon!), who will be more willing to lie down and be tucked in. Often tears are the signal that the craziness is over, so keep an eye out for when the fun is coming to an end! To make sure your bedtime transition is as helpful as possible, follow the my five top tips as detailed above, and just try to turn a blind eye if your children need to let off steam for a little while before bed! Be there ready with a book and a cuddle when they are ready to calm down.
Sleep Consultant Alexandra*: Ah yes, the witching hour!! Unfortunately it’s something we all have to deal with. I encourage an early bath time, then downstairs in pjs with no screen time, a healthy snack and a calm activity such as a puzzle, colouring, reading. You are not alone. If that doesn’t work, the threat of an early bedtime normally calms the storm for me haha!
6. How to encourage my toddler to settle themselves back to sleep rather than coming into my room?
Isobel: Talking this through always helps. Try to explain to your toddler in words that they will understand what you would like them to do. You can even act this out for them by pretending to wake up, looking around, seeing that it is still dark, finding teddy, and snuggling down under the covers and closing your eyes again. You child will absorb what you are saying, although you may need to repeat the message on numerous different occasions. Try to maintain a good bedtime routine as outlined above, and be firm and consistent in your message about going back to sleep. Explain that everybody needs sleep to be happy and healthy in the morning. Make sure your child has had enough exercise and daylight during the day, and is going to bed with a full tummy (this should help them to sleep through the night). You could also try a Groclock or similar, or white noise. Make sure the room is not too dark (scary) or too bright (doesn't aid sleep!). Reward your child when they get it right with a special treat the following day.
Sleep Consultant Alexandra*: There is a great routine for this called ‘Gradual Retreat’. It encourages your little one to stay in their bed whilst also knowing you are close. Have a Google or contact me for more details.
7. How to drop the dummy at night-time? My child is nearly one.
Sleep Consultant Alexandra*: There is no need to rush this. If your little one is sleeping and happy then I would hold off until they are able to better understand. When they are ready, I would encourage swapping the dummy for something they like such as a toy or book. With my eldest, who was obsessed with his dummy, we took him to the shop and ‘paid’ for his new scooter with it. I politely asked the lady at the til to play along and he was very happy with himself. Only make this transition when you are both ready, because once you’ve taken it away, the worst thing you can do is give it back as it will be harder to take away the next time.
Isobel: I would also suggest not rushing this one. Toddlers have so many difficult transitions to make (bottle and breastfeeding ends, they are expected to eat like a grown-up, potty training happens, starting nursery, stopping naps, often new siblings arrive) that parents often seem to go straight from one thing to the next, often before a specific deadline (such as the new arrival!). The "dummy fairy" can be helpful sometimes (a little like the lady at the til in Alexandra's story!), as can some story books about children who are ready to stop having a dummy (try the award winning Bea a Gives Up Her Dummy by Jenny Album). The "dummy fairy" can bring a very desirable new toy in exchange for the dummy! It can also be good to mark the transition to this exciting new grown-up phase with some new pajamas, a cool new lamp, and a special new teddy. Changes and transitions are hard, and always take time to get used to. Talk it through as often as your child needs to in words that they will understand (they are getting too old for a dummy, and they will be fine, and they will get used to it soon). It might be a bumpy ride, so be strong and prepared! You guys can do this!
8. How to break the habit of rocking and singing child to sleep? My child is nearly 2 now, and will only fall asleep when held, sung to and rocked! It is becoming ridiculous! The only other time she falls asleep is in the back of the car.
Sleep Consultant Alexandra*: It is a hard habit to break, however I do not know of a single parent who hasn’t had to face this obstacle. I would encourage putting your little one to bed awake for day naps as well as night time sleep, again a routine called ‘Gradual Retreat’ will work wonders. It encourages your little one to stay in their bed whilst also knowing you are close. Have a Google or contact me for more details.
Isobel: As Alexandra says, this is very common, and all it means is that you have a child who is extremely well-loved and cared for! The problem is that children become very used to things, and little ones can be surprisingly manipulative to get things to continue in exactly the way they want to! (usually by screaming very loudly!). As with all changes and transitions, this can be a tricky transition to make, and it will take time, but it will happen, and it you and your child will probably both be glad when it does, and forget that things were ever that way! It seems like you and your child need a total revamp of your bedtime routine, and to mark this new phase a new bed, new pajamas, new lamp or special teddy might be in order! Just like with potty training, this needs to be spoken about as a very positive and exciting new phase in your child's life! Get them involved in choosing their new pajamas or teddy, and perhaps some new story books. Then give yourself (and your partner if present) a good pep talk about how you are going to stay strong, keep calm, and be consistent in NOT singing, holding and rocking your child to sleep. Instead you are going to give your child a calm, peaceful bedtime transition, which ends with bedtime stories, and cuddles in their bed. I suggest that white noise might help in this situation, because that is what your child is getting when they fall asleep in the car! Make sure your child has had enough exercise and daylight during the daytime, limit screens and sugary at least an hour and a half before bedtime, and calmly and kindly put your child back to bed if she gets out of bed, and comfort her with gentle strokes and a cuddle if she becomes upset. It may not happen eventually, but it will happen! Stay strong!
9. My baby is 7 months now. How to break the habit of breastfeeding to sleep at night?
Sleep Consultant Alexandra*: My question would be are they sleeping through the night? If so then I don’t see the need to break the habit. However if your baby wakes in the night to be breastfed back to sleep then I would encourage putting baby down sleepy but not fully asleep, if baby stirs then try a routine called ‘Pick up, Put down’. It is a great routine for this age range. Have a google or contact me for more details.
Isobel: This can be a very hard transition to make, and it will take time, but it does happen, and it will happen eventually! All transitions are hard, and all come with ups and downs, tears, worries and guilt! But you can do it, and you and your baby will work things out together. My first question would be, is there somebody else in the house who can put the baby to bed, with a bottle or pacifier? (your partner/a nanny/a grandparent?) - and does this ever happen on occasion? If so, it is worth reminding yourself that it can be done, and your child's sleep is not totally reliant on your breastmilk. If this has never happened before, then now might be the time to take a break for a night, go out for the evening, and let somebody else put the baby to sleep. Prepare your calm, quiet, peaceful bedtime routine, prepare a bottle and/or pacifier, and hand over to your significant other. Once this has happened once (no matter how well or how badly it went!), you will know that it can be done, and it is simply a matter of being firm, and loving, both with yourself and your baby! Don't be too hard on yourself if you can't go through with it straight away, it will happen eventually, it is just one of those transitions you and your child will have to make together, and it's all part of the growing-up process! It can be hard, just remember, one day you will be waving your child of as they leave for university, and that transition will probably be just as hard!
10. I have three kids who all go to bed at different times, and I find it really hard to get the little one (aged 4) to stay in bed and go to sleep. He keeps popping out of his bed, and he seems to think it is a game, he keeps coming out, we keep putting him back to bed, nothing seems to keep him in! What can I do?
Isobel: I think the first trick here is to make sure that there is nothing fun going on in the rest of the house that will tempt him out of his room. Make sure that after the little one's bedtime, the rest of the house is quiet, calm, and serious. His older siblings should stick to quiet, solitary activities like homework, drawing, model-making, bath-times, or listening to something like an audio book on headphones. No screens, no noisy play, no eating! This will be a good bedtime routine for the older children too! Each time your little one pops out of bed, calmly, and kindly return him into bed. Don't let it turn into a game with laughing, surprise and noisy voices. Keep things calm and quiet, and remind him that his body needs to rest. Your second trick is to make sure that the little one has had enough daylight and exercise during the day, and that he himself has had a good bedtime routine as detailed above (don't try to go straight from TV to bed, it won't work!). You could consider using white noise, and making his room a little darker. You could also consider going out for a walk as a family after dinner, to give him a little more fresh air and exercise, and to spend some time together before his bedtime. On Fridays or at the weekend make a big deal out of letting him stay up later, letting him have some special treats, or a movie with his older siblings, and let him enjoy himself!
Sleep Consultant Alexandra*: First of all, hats off to you for coping with 3 different bedtimes. One is hard enough! Second, could you maybe combine two bedtimes to help you focus more on your 4 year old? It sounds like he may not be tired enough for bed or you could try the ‘Door Closing’ technique. You simply say the door will stay open if you stay in bed, however if you do not then I will close the door. And then repeat. It encourages your little one to stay in their bed whilst also knowing you are close. Have a Google or contact me for more details.
*Please note, all Alexandra’s responses are how she would typically deal with that particular issue. Alexandra can not know exactly how to help without a full consultation. Contact her for more details.
Visit Alexandra's website Sleep by Alexandra for a range of services to fit your time and lifestyle. She offers personalised one-on-one packages that you can work through together, regular online coaching to empower you to get through the difficult stages of your routine, and soon will be offering digital packages for you to work through at your own pace. Get in touch to talk about how your child is sleeping!
Check back soon for my Winter newsletter, and more advice from my Pre- and Post-Natal Fitness and Nutrition expert, Emma West (in the meantime why not read our two latest blog posts, about Pre-and Post-Natal Exercise, and Pre- and Post-Natal Nutrition)! Read my other posts for more info and advice on screen time, dinner times, fussy eaters, buying pre-loved children's clothing, decluttering before your new baby, and thinking about whether or not your family could foster a child.
Visit the rest of my website to find out more about my parenting coaching services, child development, child behaviour, and positive parenting! Get in touch for more information on any of the topics mentioned here or elsewhere on my site, I would love to hear from you!