Natural Sleep Rhythms for babies, toddlers and young children
Sleep seems to be one of the hot topics of parenthood, and with good reason; we all need sleep to be happy, healthy and functional and so do children.
Nannies are often asked for advice and support with children’s sleep, so it’s important to be educated on what is normal, and expected and how we can support families to get the sleep that they need.
Sleep is especially important for children in the early years of life who are in a stage of rapid physical and cognitive growth, but their sleep doesn’t always look like we expect it to or fit neatly with their parents’ sleep needs, and this can be both tiring and frustrating.
Humans’ natural sleep rhythms change throughout our lives, so it’s unlikely that a baby, toddler or young child is being deliberately difficult, or that anything is ‘wrong’ with them or their sleeping habits. It’s more likely that their natural sleep rhythm, or ‘body clock’ is simply out of sync with the needs of the adults in their lives.
Here we explore natural sleep rhythms at different ages and what we, as nannies, can do to ‘hack’ these to support parents and get the most out of children’s sleep patterns.
What is the body clock?
The body clock is a term that we often hear as adults and a great example of how the body clock works can be seen when we consider how older adults who have spent their working lives waking at 7 am to get ready for work find that in retirement they continue to wake naturally around 7 am even though they don’t need to.
When we repeatedly wake up at the same time for work or school, our bodies fall into a rhythm of wake and sleep that coincides with this.
This is often referred to as ‘the body clock’ and it’s why we experience jet lag when travelling because when we travel to different time zones our bodies are forced into waking or sleeping at different times to those they have come to expect.
What is the science behind this?
Behind the experience of the ‘body clock’ there are two bodily systems that largely regulate our sleep. These systems are the circadian biological clock and sleep/wake homeostasis. These two systems together mean that we experience fluctuating levels of sleepiness and alertness throughout the day and night.
Sleep/wake homeostasis is the system that helps us to feel sleepy and sense the need to sleep at night to make up for our activities during the day. This system is designed to balance our sleep and wakefulness.
The circadian biological clock, on the other hand, is responsible for regulating the timings of alertness throughout a 24-hour period. This means that we often have periods of higher and lower alertness as we go through the day and night.
For adults, the pressure to sleep is greatest between 2 and 4 am, and between 1 and 3 pm. When we are sleep-deprived, the urge to sleep in the afternoon is much stronger, but when we are well-rested we may not even notice this.
Natural sleep rhythms for newborn babies
As nannies, when we hear the phrase “sleeping like a baby” we can conclude that whoever invented this phrase, probably didn’t have a baby.
Newborn babies, from 0 to 3 months, typically don’t have great nighttime sleep, instead for newborns, sleep can occur day or night, and most newborns will total about 18 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period.
However, this doesn’t always occur in long blocks or exclusively at nighttime, and plenty of babies have their day and night muddled up!
Most babies need to learn the difference between daytime and nighttime, and set their circadian biological clock to meet their sleep needs.
However, newborns can’t be forced to sleep at the right time. Instead, nannies can support parents by gently encouraging newborns to differentiate between day and night.
One way to do this is to make daytime and nighttime very separate experiences; The daytime should be light and bright with all the usual comings and goings of the day, plenty of natural light in the house, and lots of interaction.
Taking a walk outside during the day will also help as even at this age exposure to different amounts and types of light affects the hormones that our bodies produce.
Evening and nighttime on the other hand should be dimly light, and quieter with less playful interaction. This helps the body to produce melatonin, which makes humans feel sleepy.
Natural sleep rhythms for infants
Most nannies are familiar with, or have at least heard of, the 4-month sleep regression.
Around this time, babies will typically become more aware of their surroundings and find it more difficult to get to sleep as they are busy finding out more about the world.
This stands at odds with the fact that they still need plenty of sleep and will need to take up to 4 naps a day, gradually decreasing to just 1 or 2 as they approach their first birthday.
Some babies may begin to sleep through the night during this period of time, but this is not a universal trait, and the majority of babies still wake for feeds throughout their first year.
This is normal and a protective factor against SIDS.
In fact, humans used to have a period of time awake in the middle of the night, with 2 blocks of sleep either side up, so sometimes we see this evolutionary hard-wiring reflected in infant sleep patterns.
This can be difficult for parents to deal with, so nannies must work hard to reassure parents that this is very normal and that it is not their fault.
Natural sleep rhythms for toddlers
Toddlers, from about 1 to 3 years old, need about 11–14 hours of sleep per 24-hour period, but this won’t occur as one solid block of sleep, so napping in the afternoon is still important at this stage.
Having a nap in the afternoon works with the circadian biological clock, as it is around this time that we experience natural sleepiness.
An afternoon nap is a simple way to make sure that toddlers are getting the rest they need without the pressure to sleep in a huge block at night.
The nap should occur as close to the same time every day as possible to help set and keep a regular circadian biological clock.
Nannies can help parents to set and maintain a solid nap schedule to ensure that children are getting the sleep they need.
Natural sleep rhythms for young children
Between the ages of 3 and 5 young children need to sleep between 11 and 13 hours.
This might all happen at night, or they may maintain an afternoon nap, though this gradually gets shorter and generally stops before age 5. This age group is particularly sensitive to different colours of light, so this is a good way that nannies can help parents to ‘hack’ preschoolers’ sleep rhythm.
Blue light such as that from a computer, tablet or television screen can cause wakeful hormones to rise and make it more difficult for young children to sleep.
Nannies can ensure that screens are limited in general, but particularly in the hour before bedtime, in order to help young children to fall asleep more easily.
The blue light filters on devices can also be used to help keep blue light to a minimum throughout the day.
Nannies may also be familiar with the concept of ‘bedtime protest’, which is particularly characteristic of this age group and is where children refuse to go to bed at the time set by parents; this might result in children having tantrums, becoming very distressed or simply exhibiting challenging behaviour.
Some of this is likely to be a boundary-pushing behaviour, but it may also be the effect of the inbuilt circadian biological clock conflicting with modern or cultural schedules.
For example, whilst many societies expect children to go to bed at about 7 pm, other cultures, like that in Spain, allow children to stay up much later and enjoy extra time with the family whilst having an extended sleep in the afternoon called ‘siesta’.
However, since other societies are arranged to have children awake during the majority of the day and asleep all night ready to wake early, adjusting their biological circadian clock to be more compatible with our needs and expectations may be necessary.
Some of the tips here may be helpful, or you may want to check out our blog post on sleep tips to help babies, toddlers and young children to get a good night’s sleep.