By Jessie Kasiguran, Sleep Consultant with Tiny Transitions 

Is your toddler struggling with sleep in new ways over these last months?  Having a harder time falling asleep, increased night wakings, or not taking their nap?  With all of the shifts to schedules, outings, people, and environment in these times, it’s no wonder that the little person in your life might be facing disruptions to their typical sleep patterns. The good news is that you’re not alone, and we are helping caregivers all over who are facing the same struggles.  

My six-year old complained to me the other day, “This virus has lasted for like half my life!”  And while he has not been as affected as much as many around the world, even he was feeling the strain of life as a result of the virus.  I am sure that many of us can relate, including the children in our lives.  

As we age, sleep is a reflection of what’s happening in our external and internal landscape.  What happens in and around our body, mind, and environment affects both the quality and quantity of our solid sleep.  We sleep our best when we are feeling peaceful, engaged, calm, consistent, and happy.  Conversely, we are less likely to sleep as well when we face new stressors, unresolved issues, changes in habit or rhythm, and when we are in a state of disruption or tension.  Our toddlers are no different from us in this way, which is why recent shifts in their life may be affecting their sleep. 

Because of this, let’s look at 3 areas of your toddler’s life where some simple shifts could make the difference for you both getting that much-needed solid sleep.  

  1. THE OUTDOORS

Many of our schedules have shifted over the last several months, creating more time at home, less errands, less social activities, and a decrease in daycare and school hours.  Many of us are naturally more homebound.  In the midst of this shift, ensuring that your little one is still getting time outside will serve them well in their sleep.  Why is that?  When being exposed to the bright light of the sun and sky, our brains are hormonally stimulated towards alertness.  As the sun sets and the light decreases, the stimulant hormones naturally decrease, and our body releases calming hormones, such as melatonin, to cue our body towards sleep.  It is this natural shift in hormone production, between the daylight and nighttime hours, which aids our bodies towards their best sleep as we engage with our natural circadian rhythm.  Without this, you might see your child displaying increased hyperactivity, having a harder time falling asleep, and even increased tiredness in the daytime hours.  

Sneak in those bits of outside time wherever you can, even for just several minutes.  Go outside to look for a bird, walk down to the corner and back, get out that sidewalk chalk, or collect some of your favorite Fall leaves.  Whatever it is, both you and your child will benefit from those moments in nature, even long into your nighttime hours.  

  1. SCREENS

For many families during this time, a pandemic means an increase in screen time as we learn to juggle the requirements of work-from-home and virtual schooling.  Many of us are doing what we can, how we can, and screen time can be a helpful resource during this time.  That being said, providing structure around screen time is helpful in supporting your child’s best sleep.  Because of how our brains are naturally stimulated with daylight, the same is true when we look at a screen and expose ourselves to blue light.  This blue light increases our alertness, while decreasing the production of melatonin, interrupting our body’s natural circadian rhythm.  If you are seeing your toddler having a harder time falling asleep, experiencing an increase in night wakings, and sleepier upon waking, look at the screen time they are exposed to in the later part of the day.  Try to avoid screens within an hour or two of their bedtime, ensuring that their body is able to naturally calm and move towards a restful state.  

  1. PHYSICAL CONTACT & AFFECTION

With all this information on the effect of light on our sleep hormones, let’s shift to the topic of how physical affection can also affect our sleep-promoting hormones.  People everywhere, inclusive of our toddlers, may be experiencing increased stress due to changes to our routine and environment.  Stress-inducing hormones can inhibit the sleep of our children, making it near impossible to coax them to sleep at the right time, encourage sleep through the night, or have them sleep in until the age-appropriate time.  Thankfully, there is something we can do as caretakers that can help provide direct relief to our children—showing them physical affection.  Did you know that research shows that regular physical contact given to our children is able to decrease their stress hormones and increase their calming hormones?  Oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone”, is released as we give and receive affection, which naturally promotes sleep.  Oxytocin also decreases our production of stress hormones, which can inhibit our sleep.  Just by filling up your child’s love tank with cuddles and love, you are able to better their chances of a good night’s sleep and encourage their body towards rest, relaxation, and calm. 

How can you show extra physical affection to your toddler today?  Maybe think of some fun finger games, set “hug alarms” in your phone as a reminder, give them a piggyback ride or a little back massage, or play some hand-clapping games.  However you get it in, enjoy the physical affection with your child and the ways in which it can directly benefit their shut-eye at night.  

I hope that as a result of this article, you feel empowered to go out and love your little one well, doing what you can to improve their sleep even in such trying times.  Go get some sunshine and give some hugs!  We are always here to support you and your children towards their best sleep. 

Related Resources: 

https://www.gottman.com/blog/how-a-parents-affection-shapes-a-childs-happiness-for-life/

https://www.sleepfoundation.org/children-and-sleep/how-blue-light-affects-kids-sleep

https://www.livescience.com/35219-11-effects-of-oxytocin.html#:~:text=Oxytocin%20induces%20sleep&text=Oxytocin%20released%20in%20the%20brain,known%20as%20the%20stress%20hormone

Jessie Kasiguran is a Sleep Consultant on the team at Tiny Transitions. Her background as a Clinical Social Worker and Sleep Coach provide parents with a solution to their sleep struggles, that is backed by science and balanced with your love and support. 

Jessie’s mission is to teach healthy sleep hygiene and parenting education to parents and their babies, toddlers and young adults who struggle to sleep through the night, nap on a consistent schedule and balance bedtime with enjoyment over stress. 

Courtney resides just outside Philadelphia, PA. She has always felt passionate about making sleep & healthy living a priority in her family’s life and Tiny Transitions looks forward to working with you. Setup a Free Preliminary Sleep Evaluation with Jessie today.