Diary of a Night Nanny – troubleshooting a 3 year old with sleep problems

Diary of a Night Nanny

The story so far:  Millie is three years old and has struggled with disrupted sleep for several months, usually meaning she ends up in her parents’ bed.  Her mum, Joanna, and I had tackled Monday night together when Millie had been gently returned to her bed 32 times in 50 minutes before finally staying in her own bed for the rest of the night (see previous entries of my Diary on our website).  Now, we need to make sure we can reinforce the lessons of last night.

Tuesday night:  During one of our many conversations, Joanna had asked why Millie suddenly developed such bad sleep habits.  “She used to be a really good sleeper as a baby; I remember being amazed when we lived in our first tiny flat and we could hear every noise the neighbours made, that she wasn’t disturbed by them.  And then we found ourselves with such an appalling sleeper, and I can’t pinpoint exactly when it all went wrong.”  We discuss the changes in Millie’s life and the development from a baby to a toddler.  The progressive maturity of a baby’s brain is something which fascinates me; I love noting the changes from the baby who is aware of nothing more than her own immediate needs to the older baby who notices that the world doesn’t revolve around her.  The point at which a baby realises that when a toy drops off the table, it hasn’t actually vanished altogether and forever, it is just out of sight; when she gets older and realises that when Mummy leaves the room she hasn’t gone completely, she will actually return; the lovely story of the little girl who moved house around the time of her third birthday and was being taught her new address and her new age – when she was asked her name, answered uncertainly, “Well, it used to be Katie…” All these are milestones in a child’s awareness of the world and her place in it, and if some event happens which the child can’t make sense of, this can often manifest itself in the beginning of broken sleep.  A new baby or a house move are the most common upsets, and can often happen at around the same time since a second or third baby means the current home is not big enough for the growing family.  Parents will correctly put the behaviour down to the recent upheaval and therefore indulge it, since it isn’t the child’s fault.  However, habits tend to become enforced very quickly so it is better to nip bad ones in the bud.  Nevertheless, good habits can also be quickly taught and entrenched by parents and professionals, particularly since the brain, our third partner, will recognise the benefits of good sleep habits and grab onto them.

Joanna agrees with all of this, and adds: “When we moved, just before baby Jack was born, Simon got a promotion which means he is travelling a lot, so when Millie began coming into my bed there was room for her, and I was so tired trying to sort out the new house, deal with the new baby, meet people and make friends, find out about things we could do together, I just let her stay.  I suppose part of me felt this could count as “quality time” – now I can see much more clearly, but then it was through a fog of exhaustion.”

I explain to Joanna that she should always tell Millie what is happening.  Millie may not have the words to articulate her worries, but she will understand what Joanna is saying, with the added benefit of expanding her vocabulary at the same time.  If she is told in the morning that Daddy is going to be away tonight, it won’t come as a surprise to her.  Millie must also have been confused as to when she was allowed in Mummy’s bed and when she wasn’t, so that will have added to her sleep disruption.  “Now, though,” Joanna says firmly, “the answer is simple – she’s never allowed in!”

Finally I head upstairs to my familiar bedroom beside Millie’s.  Tonight I am expecting great things of her and I am not disappointed.  She wakes up three times in total; the first time around 1am, which means she has completed several sleep cycles before the disruption kicks in.  I have heard her on the baby monitor several times and she has settled herself without my intervention, but this time she calls out, groggily: “Mummy?” so I go into her room.  She has her legs over the side of the bed and is automatically getting out without really being conscious of what she is doing.  I come to her side and repeat the mantra she is so familiar with: “Night, night, sleep tight.”  No conversation, no explanation.  She looks at me sleepily and allows me to tuck her back into bed without demur.

The next waking happens at 4am; I listen to the snuffles on the baby monitor turning into grizzles and wonder if she will self-settle again.  It seems not; after a couple of minutes the grizzles begin to rise in intensity and I leap to my feet before she wakes herself up too much.  I go into her room.  Millie’s eyes are wide open, her body is tense and her breathing faster than normal, so she is very awake, but she hasn’t got out of bed.  I stroke her hair off her forehead several times to soothe her, and after three minutes she is calm again.  I say “Night, night, sleep tight,” and leave the room before she has fallen properly back to sleep, so she knows what has happened.

The final waking happens only an hour later at 5.15 am, and this can often be the tricky one.  Children have had nearly their full quota of sleep so they don’t feel tired; in the summer, early morning light coming through the window wakens them; and parents can begin to feel that their children are simply “early risers”.  The trick is to ignore the time on the clock and imagine that it is still 3am, so you expect the child to return to sleep.  They don’t know what the time is and will take their clues from you, and they still have two sleep cycles left to run.  The lack of these final few hours of sleep will build up and have the same consequences as waking in the middle of the night.

So Millie gets the same treatment as she has had before; the same soothing techniques, the same mantra, the same departure from her room just before she falls back to sleep.  And at 7am she wakes normally after her full night’s sleep, bright, bubbly and smiling – just like her mother.  I will be back tonight, however, as we need to make sure this behaviour is forever, not just a flash in the pan.

For more information on anything mentioned in this article contact Georgie Bateman at Night Nannies on 01794 301762 or georgie@nightnannies.com.  The website is www.nightnannies.com. Other useful organisations are FSID (www.fsid.org.uk), the Department of Health (www.dh.gov.uk) and UNICEF (www.babyfriendlyorg.uk).

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