By Diana Julian, certified child sleep consultant and owner of Big Sky Lullaby Sleep Consulting
If you are a parent of a high need child, I don’t have to tell you that when your child is tired their challenging temperament becomes even more challenging. This is because they are more sensitive to stimulation, so if their body needs to sleep and they are being stimulated it will cause extreme overtired behavior. This can have a snowball effect and turn into a chronic sleep deficit. The good news is this can be turned around.
How to Reverse a Chronic Sleep Deficit
Establishing healthy sleep habits is critical to helping a child overcome a chronic sleep deficit. There are five key pieces that need to be addressed to help a high needs child get the sleep they need.
1. Age Appropriate Wake Times
It is important that wake times are kept appropriate for the child’s age. If a child is kept awake too long, they reach the overtired state, which then makes it even harder for them to fall asleep. Here are the general guidelines for wake times:
- A newborn can only handle a one-hour wake period. This means that as soon as they wake you will feed them, go straight to tummy time/play time, and then begin your soothing routine 15 minutes prior to the one-hour mark.
- A four-month old can only handle a maximum of two hours of wake time.
- At six months, they are able to tolerate about 2.5 hours of wake time.
- At 18 months, they can typically stay awake between six and seven hours.
2. Sleepy Cues Vigilante
Most children give us hints when they are starting to get sleepy, and are entering their natural biological sleep wave. We call these hints “sleepy cues”. Once a parent starts observing these sleepy cues, this is the ideal time to start a sleep soothing routine.
When the sleep wave is missed, the child goes into an overtired state. This is when cortisol, the “second wind” hormone, starts to kick in and then it can be very difficult to get a child to sleep.
Typically, high needs children either don’t give sleep cues at all and go straight to overtired signs. Or sometimes, sleepy cues are given and then the child quickly becomes overtired, leaving a very small window. This why I always tell parents of high needs children that they need to be vigilantes when it comes to sleepy cues. They must start identifying that small window before they hit the overtired stage.
Some sleepy cues include:
- Becoming drowsy
- Decreased activity
- Slower motions
- Less vocal
- Sucking is weaker or slower
- Appears disinterested in surrounding
- Eyes are less focused
- Eyelids drooping
- A lull in energy
Unfortunately, it is easy to confuse sleepy cues with signs of being overtired. Some potential overtired signs are:
- Rubbing eyes
- Inability to entertain themselves
3. No More Motion Sleep
It’s common for parents to use motion to help their children sleep, whether that is in a swing, stroller or car. When a child sleeps while they are in motion, they will not reach the deep sleep phase. It is during this phase of sleep that mental and physical restoration takes place. Proper melatonin production does not occur during motion sleep, which will increase the overtired state at the next sleep period.
4. Create a Healthy Sleep Environment
Your child’s sleep environment can have a significant influence on his or her sleeping pattern. Being mindful of the temperature, distractions, and light can help ensure a peaceful atmosphere conducive to healthy sleep.
Temperature: The temperature in your baby’s nursery should remain between 68-70 degrees.
Distractions: Keeping your child’s bed free from distractions lets them focus on sleep. Having toys or other novelties around (such as a mobile) can confuse them and make them think it’s playtime.
Light: A child needs complete darkness in order to fall asleep and stay asleep. The darkness helps start a baby’s melatonin production, which promotes sleep. I recommend the use of blackout curtains and not using a nightlight.
5. The Right Number of Naps
It’s important that a child is offered the appropriate amount of naps for their age. At 4 months, a baby should be taking four naps a day, with a limit of 2.5 hours per nap.
- At 4 months, a baby should be taking four naps a day, with a limit of 2.5 hours per nap.
- Once a baby reaches 6 months, it’s time to start evaluating the number of naps per day that is right for your child. Some babies do better with a third nap, while others favor an earlier bedtime.
- At about 18 months the transition from two naps to one should take place.
It will be more difficult to establish healthy sleep habits for an older high needs child who is more set in their ways, although it’s not impossible. So it is always recommended to start implementing these sleep strategies as early as possible.
Once healthy sleep is established, it’s easier to see what’s causing the child such discomfort. In many instances the child was not actually high needs, but just incredibly overtired. Or if there is a specific reason that is causing a chronically fussy child, once the sleep deficit is eliminated, it is easier to uncover what is really going on.
Looking for more guidance with your high need baby’s sleep? In my 60-page Sleep Training and High Need Babies eBook, I answer questions like:
- Does sleep training even work for high need babies?
- Are there any truly “no cry” options I can use?
- How long does it take high need babies to catch on?
- What strategies have other parents of high need babies used successful?
Diana Julian is a child sleep consultant, certified with the Family Sleep Institute, and the founder of Big Sky Lullaby. Diana works with sleep-deprived families and provides them customized sleep plans, so they have the tools they need to get the sleep they deserve. She specializes in working with high needs children, and has a passion for helping families solve the sleep piece of the high needs puzzle. Diana provides tips and suggestions on sleep for parents on her website, Bigskylullaby.com.