My child won’t go to sleep!

Is it a full moon…as my child won’t go to sleep?!

One of the most demanding challenges for all parents is that of the unsettled child that just won’t go to sleep. Having two children I’ve had first-hand experience of this and the flow on effect of how distressing a crying baby, toddler or unsettled child is for parents.

Sleep deprived parents (as a result of a sleep deprived child) can lead to fatigue, mood disruptions, conflict within the family unit and also result in relationship difficulties for couples.

And it literally drives parents crazy looking for a reason as to why their child won’t go to sleep…

Are they hungry?

Is it too hot or cold?

Maybe they’ve had a nightmare?

Are they sick?

Is it because they’ve just started childcare, kindy or school?

Are they scared of the dark?

Is it a full moon? (Some still believe in this debunked myth)

And the list goes on…

So what can you do if your child won’t go to sleep?

• Eliminate a medical reason (e.g. sick, infant not gaining weight, developmental delays)
• Explore if there any disruptions to your normal routine that could be having an impact (e.g. changes to normal routines, travelling)
• Ensure they are in a comfortable environment (not too hot, cold, noisy, need a nappy change)

But if the above doesn’t apply…and the distress is related to your child seeking comfort/reassurance…you (and if you have a partner) need to decide on a strategy that suits.

Broadly speaking there are two main strategies based on philosophies of child care that you can choose.

These can be viewed on a continuum with Attachment Parenting on one end and Behaviour Modification on the other:


Using an Attachment Parenting approach you would:

Ensure safe sleep both physically and emotionally by helping your child to regulate and sooth when they call out, cry or are distressed – this includes holding, cuddling, rocking, sleeping in close proximity and bed-sharing (depending on the age of the child).

Using a Behaviour Modification approach you would:

Create a routine that allows your child to learn how to self-settle whereby they do not rely on a parent to attain sleep – sleep cues are learned and are parent independent. In infants  this involves ensuring your child is safe both physically and emotionally by settling – but then leaving your child even if they cry or call out (after about 6 months of age). This approach usually takes about 4 consecutive nights and can be very demanding on parents. Once they are asleep you can check to see that they are safe. In toddlers and children (as long as they are safe and well) it would mean returning the child to bed and closing their door without responding or reasoning.

An alternative to the above (somewhere in-between) is Minimal Handling:

This strategy involves a regime of decreased responsiveness when your child is unsettled by providing 1-2 minutes of reassurance in the first instance and then steadily increasing the time before responding (e.g. 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 minutes gaps between contacts).

However, it’s only a problem if it’s a problem…

So, if your strategy doesn’t work for your child (or for you and your family) you may need to re-evaluate and try a different approach that best suits your needs.

Good luck and I hope you have success with whatever approach you use.  If you do need support during this process or more advice then please feel free to contact the practice, a session with a Psychologist may help.

John Pertl

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