Unraveling children’s nighttime awakenings - Cappe Education

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Cappe Education - Canadian Parental and Professional Education


Unraveling children’s nighttime awakenings

Author: Dr. Bárbara Bechtlufft

Night awakenings are natural processes occurring in both adult and infant sleep. When we experience a high-quality sleep, these awakenings are so brief that we even notice their occurrence. Our sleep occurs in cycles, and at the end of each cycle, we undergo a brief awakening before embarking on a new sleep cycle. However, this is not what usually happens for many babies and children, right? Here are the most common causes of infant night awakenings:

  1. Hunger: More prevalent in the first 12 months of life. After one year, most infants can generally sleep for at least 8 consecutive hours at night without feeding.
  2. Pain/Discomfort: teething, nasal congestion, coughing, pain, hot or cold are frequently identifiable causes.
  3. Overtired: When a child does not sleep enough during the day or exceeds their bedtime, their body produces a surge of cortisol – the stress hormone – coupled with an adrenaline spike, a substance that promotes agitation, making falling asleep more challenging. Moreover, an excess of these substances in the blood can induce numerous awakenings in the first half of the night, accompanied by irritability and restlessness, further complicating the child’s ability to return to sleep.
  4.  Insufficient Sleep: When a child sleeps beyond their basal daytime requirements. In this scenario, the child typically awakens peacefully, wanting to play without irritability or stress.
  5. Sleep Associations: When a child has developed a habit of falling asleep with the aid of a particular stimulus. For example, if they only fall asleep when carried, rocked, while nursing, or with some physical touch from the caregiver. In this case, when the child completes the sleep cycle, they realize that their external stimulus is no longer present and wakes up crying, seeking more of that assistance to return to sleep. To prevent this type of awakening, we need to assist them in developing autonomy in falling asleep.
  6. Emotional demand: Occurs during phases of separation anxiety, significant life changes, like school adaptation, or a change in caregivers, for example. In this case, they wake up simply wanting to be close to their parents. To prevent this type of awakening, intensify moments of quality and connection with your child throughout the day.

Understanding the causes of nighttime awakenings is the initial step toward enhancing the sleep quality of our children. Having a structured routine with appropriate sleep and wake times, along with a daily designated time to connect with your child, proves to be extremely beneficial. Lastly, and no less important, is assisting them in developing autonomy in falling asleep. It is not an easy task but one that must be cultivated over time with a great deal of love, patience, and persistence.

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