You’ve tried everything from shushing and patting to lullaby lights and dummies -
but still your child won’t sleep. If this is you, then you’re not alone.
writes Lucy Jolin
An investigation by the BBC’s Panorama programme recently found that hospital attendances
for children under 14 with sleep deprivation issues have tripled in the last 10 years.
It can be hard to admit that we can’t cope - but could seeking help from sleep coaches
and clinics be the answer?
The Sleep Clinic
In 2012, former teacher Vicky Dawson set up the Children’s Sleep Charity after experiencing
sleep problems with her son. The charity provides support for families and training
for professionals and commercial organisations, enabling them to offer sleep services
in their own communities. Its sleep clinics currently have a success rate of over
90 per cent.
The charity doesn’t operate across the country, but it does offer a full sleep service
in Doncaster. Parents who contact the service will be offered an appointment at one
of their sleep clinics within 5 weeks. A sleep practitioner will then discuss their
issues and design an individual sleep programme for them. That practitioner will
give them support by text, email or telephone for five weeks following the initial
‘We’re very respectful of parenting styles,’ says Vicky, who is also on the board
of the British Paediatric Sleep Association Board. ‘The key approach is that the
parents decide how they want to tackle the issue. The first thing we do is look at
why the sleep issue is happening and then we can start to look at the strategy.
‘Parents say they’ve tried a sleep routine and it’s not working,’ adds Vicky. ‘But
if the problem isn’t a routine issue, it won’t work. We’ll look at things like the
bedroom environment, or the screen time, or what the child is eating just before
bed, changes within the family such as a new baby. There can be any number of reasons
why the child isn’t sleeping.’
Vicky says that she’s inundated with calls from desperate parents. ’We don’t take
sleep seriously as a society. We don’t understand how to encourage children to sleep
better, and we don’t have a great number of practitioners trained to help. That’s
why I set the charity up, as I’ve been a desperate mum myself. It’s really about
educating children, parents and health professionals.’
Visit www.thechildrenssleepcharity.org.uk or call 01302 751 416
• Keep conditions the same throughout the night. If your child falls asleep with
a lullaby light on and then the light goes off, chances are they’ll wake up.
• Think about food before bed. Hot chocolate sounds nice, but it contains caffeine
and sugar. Go for slow-release carbs like porridge to keep little tummies full.
• Choose gentle activities before bed, such as those involving hand-eye co-ordination.
Jigsaws, colouring and playdough are perfect.
• Try to wake your child up at roughly the same time each day to help set their body
• Don’t wait until you’re at crisis point to seek help. Lack of sleep can affect
everyone in the family.
All about sleep...
How long should my child sleep for?
There’s no set time for the amount of sleep children need, but as a general guideline,
a one-year-old will need around 11 hours at night, a two-year-old around 11 hours
30 minutes, a three-year-old 11 to 12 hours and a four-year-old 11 hours 30 minutes.
But some children are quite happy with more or less. Look at your child’s behaviour
and mood to gauge how much sleep is needed, and don’t beat yourself up over 30 minutes
here and there.
Why are children sleeping less these days?
Experts cite increased screen time, and less activity, as a big
factor. Parents might also get home later, meaning children are staying up late to
When should I seek help?
Again, it’s all to do with your individual situation. If your child is grumpy and
miserable on little sleep, and the whole family is grumpy and miserable as a result,
it’s probably time to seek help before things get even worse.
What are the risks of sleep deprivation?
It can affect the whole family. Parents might be cross and miserable. Siblings will
also have disturbed nights, and resent the non-sleeping child. Lack of sleep can
seriously affect a parent’s performance at work. There are also physical and mental
risks – a child who doesn’t sleep is more likely to have behaviour problems,
problems learning and concentrating at school, and to be overweight or obese.
The Sleep Coach
NNEB-qualified nursery nurse Jan Harrison has worked with children for 38 years.
She began offering sleep coach services 20 years ago, when she was working as a maternity
nurse. ‘The mum I worked for had a friend whose baby wasn’t sleeping, so I helped
her,’ she says. ‘She told a friend, that friend told someone else,
and before I knew it, being a sleep coach was my job.’
Jan usually starts by asking parents to keep a diary of their child’s day for two
days. ‘With little ones, poor sleep may be the symptom rather than the problem itself.
Sometimes when you correct something that’s going on during the day, the sleep actually
fixes itself. For example, a child may be doing things that don’t wear them out,
but make them over-tired and wired instead.’
She’ll then work with parents to find a suitable plan that fits the
family and the child. ‘It’s no good going into a family that wants
to be completely baby-led and saying that they need a routine.
Parents have to feel comfortable with a plan, as they are the ones
who will be carrying it through.’
Jan offers several packages: parents can choose from just
telephone support following the initial consultation, or support in person overnight.
‘If they are committed, then I am committed.
As long as we are working together as a team and success rates are high I don’t give
up until it’s done.’
Lack of sleep is far more widespread than it was a few years ago, says Jan. ‘You
expect sleepless nights with children – it comes with the territory! But I think
it has got worse, and it’s possibly to do with increased use of screens, children
spending less time outside, and the way we discipline or don’t discipline our children.
We offer them choices and try to negotiate with them, but that can contribute to
a child not wanting to go to bed.’
• Think about your child’s day as well as their behaviour at night: are they getting
enough exercise and fresh air, or do they have too many activities?
• Be consistent around bedtime. Put a routine in place, such as bath, quiet time,
story – and stick to it.
• Avoid screens for at least an hour before bedtime.
• Don’t be a martyr. There’s no shame in asking for help.
‘I tried everything, but he would wake up nearly every hour’
When her son Ben, now two, was very young, Lucy Griffiths and her husband Tim took
a late honeymoon, driving around California in a camper van. It was a wonderful holiday
– but little Ben got used to sleeping in their bed. And when they returned home,
he didn’t want to get back into his sleep routine. ‘He would wake up
almost every hour,’ says Lucy, who runs her own coaching for mums business at www.dreamitdoitloveit.com.
‘I tried everything – eventually, a friend of mine recommended sleep coach, Jan Harrison
at Night Owls (www.nightowls.agency). My mum’s not nearby and when you’re sleep deprived,
someone who is a bit detached from the situation.’
Lucy already had a bedtime routine in place, so Jan stayed with the family for two
nights to help put that into practice. ‘We’d put Ben down as normal, and then when
he woke up Jan went into the
bedroom with me. I’d give him a cuddle, calm him down, she’d set a timer on her phone
timer and we’d leave the room for 30 seconds. Then, when he woke again, we’d do the
same thing but for 60 seconds, and so on. That first night, after about five goes,
he slept through till five!’ It took around two weeks for Ben to adjust to the new
routine. He’s still waking early at six, but now sleeps through the night. ‘Knowing
I can get six or seven hours’ sleep makes a huge difference,’ says Lucy. ‘Jan’s approach
worked for us.’