Helping your little ones achieve stable, adequate sleep each night is hard even during the best of circumstances. When you add stress and anxiety into the mix it can make it even harder to build and maintain consistent sleep patterns with your child. This blog will help you decide whether you need to change your approach to your child’s sleep issues when you or your child are stressed or anxious.
The Science. Stress and anxiety can cause transient insomnia in adults. When stressful events happen, the release of stress hormones causes hyper-arousal which can make it harder to both fall asleep and stay asleep. Adults with a history of insomnia are more susceptible to re-developing insomnia and they also perceive that impact of stressful events as greater than people who are normally good sleepers, but even adults who normally sleep really well can have trouble during stressful times.
There are no studies that have shown a direct link between how transient stress or insomnia experienced by adults may affect children or vice versa, but current evidence suggests that these factors probably interact. Insomnia in one parent can induce insomnia in the other, and infant sleep problems can amplify insomnia in both parents. In addition, several studies have demonstrated that sleep problems in children are more common among parents who are stressed or anxious, particularly among moms who have post-partum anxiety or depression.
Babies and toddlers go through episodes of normal separation anxiety, typically around 9 months and around 18 months. During these phases of development sleep can become disrupted and many children will have difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. There is not a lot of information on how external stressors and community trauma may influence sleep in young children, but most evidence suggests that babies and toddlers react to their parents’ emotional state. One qualitative study of 104 children conducted among families after the September 11th attacks found that children under age 5 had increased separation anxiety, more difficulty falling asleep alone, increased night waking, increased nightmares, and increased crying during sleep during the eight months following the attack.
The bottom line is that it’s normal to be stressed and anxious during times of crisis. It’s also normal for your stress to affect your sleep and your child’s sleep. There are several things you can do to help get yourself and your child on track. We’ve listed many of the things that you can do to help your baby or toddler sleep better and we’ve included resources for you to explore if you need more help for yourself.
What can you do to help your child maintain stable sleep?
First, you need to determine the likely cause of your child’s sleep difficulty. If your child was sleeping well, then suddenly started having sleep disruption it could relate to stress, but it might just be part of a normal developmental change. Here are some of the common sleep regressions (with hyperlinks to blogs describing them).
There is a normal change in sleep architecture around 4 months that causes a sleep regression.
There is a sleep regression between 8-10 months that is associated with separation anxiety.
Motor skill development (learning to sit up, walk, crawl) can cause a sleep regression.
Could your child be sick or teething? These both cause a temporary sleep disruption.
Lastly, if your child is not able to fall asleep independently then your child’s sleep trouble might be due to a sleep association.
If your child’s sleep trouble can’t be explained by any of the above “typical” causes, then your child may be reacting to the stress of being stuck at home all of the time or reacting to stress from caregivers. If you think this is the case, then try the following:
Keep a regular bed and wake time for your child.
We say this under normal circumstances, but these days it’s easy to get off schedule. Getting off schedule means that you lose the ability to predict when your child’s body (circadian rhythm) is ready for sleep. If you put your child down at a time that s/he can’t sleep it will amplify any underlying stress.