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Sleep Problems in One-Year-Olds

A baby's sleep is one of the biggest challenges for a parent. All children are different and this also applies to how they sleep. Unfortunately, you can't expect to sleep as well as you did before having children, and one-year-olds sleep particularly badly.

According to experts, every other one-year-old has problems sleeping or getting to sleep. It's completely normal and just part of a baby's life. However, when you're up in the night with a one-year-old that's waking up every other hour, you can feel lonely and unsupported. Here are some tips for how to cope with your one-year-old's sleep problems.

How Much Does a One-Year-Old Sleep?

A one-year-old needs on average twelve to fourteen hours of sleep per day. Unfortunately, it's rare for a one-year-old to sleep through the night.  A little child like this will sleep on average five hours without waking up.  However, all children really are different the next. Some sleep through the night when they're just a few months old, whereas others wake during the night until they are several years old. They may need help to fall asleep again.

A One-Year-Old's Sleep Cycles

We all sleep in four different sleep cycles, and these repeat several times each night. The cycles are the same for children and adults, but a one-year-old's sleep cycles are significantly shorter than an adult's. One-year-olds also have more stages of shallow sleep, which explains why they wake up more easily.

Stage one: The child is drowsy and falls asleep. They are in a shallow sleep and wake up easily.

Stage two: Light sleep. The body relaxes and the brain is less active.

Stage three: Deep sleep. It's more difficult to wake a baby in this stage of sleep, and this phase is important for the baby's development and recuperation.

Stage Four: REM sleep is the period of sleep when we usually dream. REM is an acronym for 'Rapid Eye  Movement'. Research has shown that REM sleep is important for creativity.

Is an Afternoon Nap a Good Idea or not?

Many children aged one still take naps twice a day, cutting down to one nap per day around one and a half to two years old. It's still important for children as little as this to sleep during the day. Some children even find it easier to rest in the evening and sleep better if they've slept in the afternoon, because they're not over-tired.

You can have a little rest while your baby naps, to help you cope with difficult nights.

What If My Baby Doesn't Get Enough Sleep?

Sleep lets your child rest, both physically and mentally and improves their concentration and memory, as well as their ability to learn and to focus. The growth hormone is also secreted, and their immune system is strengthened. Lack of sleep can not only make your child whiny and grumpy, but their development, which takes place during nighttime sleep, could be disturbed. However, don't worry too much - new research from Canada shows that the development of children who don't sleep well is not inhibited by their poor sleeping.

How Your Baby Develops

Anyone who has a one-year-old at home knows how incredibly quickly they develop. From six to twelve months children learn so much, including 'gross motor skills', which they need to sit up, pull themselves up, stand and even walk. As for 'fine' motor skills, you've probably noticed that your child has suddenly started playing with toys and other objects, in new ways such as turning, pulling, poking and tearing things apart. Their cognitive abilities are also developing at record speed. Suddenly they want to look at picture books, play peek-a-boo, point and imitate what their parents say to them and teach them. Your child also becomes more independent and can suddenly hold a bottle or spoon by themselves or eat with their hands. All of this can affect their sleep.

In connection with these enormous developments, your child may become anxious and need to be close to you. One-year-olds also have a lively imagination that can interfere with their nightly rest. It's not uncommon for young children to have nightmares and these can last well into old age. Comfort and speak calmly to your child, until they have calmed down, but don't make too much of it, as that could cause the child to believe there really is something to be afraid of.

Lots of children start going to nursery when they're one.  This is a huge change in their lives. Many children can suffer from separation anxiety, so it can feel especially important to be close to a parent during bedtime and at night.

The Most Common Sleep Problems for One-Year-Olds

Sometimes it's difficult to know why one-year-olds wake up. Here are some of the most usual factors to consider.

  • Does the baby have a full tummy and a dry nappy? Make sure your one-year-old eats properly during the day and goes to sleep on a full stomach. You don't want your baby to wake up hungry in the middle of the night. Also, make sure their nappy is dry. If you do need to change the baby during the night, do it in bed with the lights dimmed, so they know it's not time to get up yet.
  • Are you putting the baby to bed at the right time? Many parents keep their children awake late at night in the hope that they'll be completely exhausted and sleep longer. However, research has shown that it can have the opposite effect. According to recent studies, children who fall asleep later sleep less on average and children who have a parent near them when they fall asleep tend to wake more often during the night. Gradually get the child used to going to bed earlier. Some people think that sleep schedules work well for creating routines and having fixed sleeping times.
  • Do you have a good bedtime routine? Security and predictability are a signal to the brain that it's time to sleep. Choose three to four things you always do together every night so the child understands what comes next - sleep! Be clear and consistent.
  • Lots of closeness. A child who is around one is developing at a fast rate, and this often comes with a need for closeness and connection. Try to give your child what they need by being there for them. This can mean skin-to-skin contact, sleeping in the same room, on a mattress beside the child's bed or even in the same bed.  Try different things and see what your child needs. And remember that this is a phase that will pass. It's unlikely you'll end up having a teenager in your bed!
  • Teach your child to fall asleep (and get back to sleep) without help. Gradually, you can help your child fall asleep on their own. The point is not to abandon the child in any way, but to teach the child to trust themselves and fall asleep again on their own if they wake up during the night. If you have a habit of rocking your child to sleep, try to do that less and less. Put your child in their bed when they're full and drowsy and sit next to them on the edge of the bed, then pat them and whisper to them. If your child wakes up when you lay them down, you may need to calm them by holding them in your arms for a while before you try putting them down again. This is a step-by-step process that doesn't happen overnight.

Sleep With Your Child

Opinions are currently divided about sleeping with your child. Some people find it both comforting and practical, especially when breastfeeding, and the child automatically gets the close contact it needs. However, many healthcare specialists do not recommend co-sleeping with very young babies due to the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (a.k.a. cot death). For a one-year-old, however, the risk is not as great. Others feel there are disadvantages to sleeping together because it's too easy to wake each other up, especially if there are other siblings in bed. It's very much an individual decision. A compromise could be to let the child sleep on a mattress next to the parents' bed or for the parent who has the 'night shift' to put a mattress next to the child's bed.

Tips: What to Do if Your Child Wakes up at Night

Children who learn to fall asleep by themselves in the evening find it easier to get back to sleep again if they wake up in the night.

Get the child used to falling asleep with stuffed animals or blankets that they can find during the night if they wake up. Many children fall asleep more easily sucking a dummy or their thumb. Make sure there are several dummies in the bed in case they drop one. If your child wakes up and cries, you can calmly go to them without turning on the light and place a hand gently on them so that they feel your presence without you lifting them up. When your child starts to fall asleep again, remove your hand. Repeat until they have fallen asleep.

How to Cope as the Parent of a One-Year-Old With a Sleep Problem

It's important that you as a parent don't forget your own needs and make sure you get the sleep you need to function properly as a parent. If you live with a partner, talk about how you're going to take turns with a baby that won't sleep at night. Will you alternate nights with your child, or will you take different shifts in the same night? Can the baby stay awake in bed with both of you if one of you manages to fall asleep, or will the one taking care of the baby that night sleep in the guest room or child's bedroom? Try and find out which works best for you. Ask for help from a relative or friend from time to time so you can get some proper sleep. This means really using your network of friends, especially if you're a single parent. Remember that it will get better with time. Be patient, but also don't be afraid to ask for help if you're struggling. You can ask your health visitor for help. And do yourself a favour - stop comparing yourself to others. Both you and the child are individuals, and everyone is different. Being a parent is one of the hardest roles to take on. You're doing the best you can and that's good enough.


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