Monday, May 19, 2014

Solutions to Toddler Sleep Issues

You would think your sleep deprivation would be over once your baby grows into a toddler, right? Not so fast! I have learned with both my children that so many factors affect the length and quality of their sleep. Through trial and error with outdoor time, the food we eat, and screen time, I've adjusted our daily routine for optimal sleep for all of us. Do I get it perfect every day? Uhm, no. Children change, we change, and it's always a learning process.

We talk about this with other moms and these five issues I am summarizing below are a common thread for negatively and positively affecting our children's sleep, of course besides the obvious - a regular bedtime (which hopefully isn't too early). 

I would love it if you chime in with a comment on how you've found any of these helping or hindering your child's quality of sleep!

Fresh Air and Sunshine

I am sure you've noticed that your kids sleep better when they spend time outdoors. Our Western lifestyle has robbed us of the natural rhythm of wake/sleep cycles. Spending most of our days indoors puts us in a state of "light deficiency", then our sleep cycle is further messed up by too much artificial light in the evening when natural light has faded. This reversed light exposure actually directly affects a group of cells in our brain, the suprachiasmatic nuclei, that synchronize to the light-dark cycle of your environment when light enters your eye. It's pretty amazing! You can read more about it here.  

From my own experience and that of many moms, outdoor time is crucial for kids (and adults!) to sleep well. Fresh air = healthier cells! Simply put, it brings more oxygen to the body's cells, which results in better function of all body systems including digestion, brain/cognitive function, increased growth due to healthier cells, improves the action of the lungs, etc. After five years of learning from my own children, there is no denying they sleep and behave better when they have ample outdoor time. Now I'm not going to go into how hard New England winters make this for us!

In simple terms, this means that it's crucial for both you and your kids to spend time outdoors during the morning and daytime, and then to wind down indoors without too many bright lights and no screen time before bed. Which brings us to the next factor...

Zero Screens

Okay, so zero screen time may be harsh. Staring at a screen for at least some part of the day is crucial for your well being, right? While technological advances are awesome and useful, we need to look at how screen time affects kids (and us!) 

Do my kids get zero screen time? Currently my toddler who is 2 years and 7 months old usually gets zero screen time, with the occasional 15 minutes of The Piano Guys music videos or some animal videos on the computer. My five year old gets no more than an hour of screen time each day (while her brother is napping) and it usually pertains to homeschooling, learning videos, or interactive learning games. Sometimes I make her nap with him if necessary, or spend one-on-one time with her, which eliminates screen time on those days. 

Toddlers and screen time don't mix. At least that's what I experienced with both my son and daughter. Our screen time limits are just a result of what we've experienced when we had no particular limits, to put it simply - it was chaos. Daily screen time affected both my toddlers negatively and resulted in epic tantrums, poor eating habits, short attention span, night terrors and sleep problems, behavior issues, and pretty much zero desire for anything but screen time. 

We don't have a TV in the house, and I'm glad we don't. I don't miss anything by not watching it and according to statistics I gain about 5 hours a day - the average amount of TV an American watches every day! That's 35 hours a week that I instead spend with my kids, cooking simple healthy meals, and working on my home-based businesses. Instead of watching TV and having it show me what my life could be like, what I should buy, or what will 'make me happy', I spend that time creating the life I enjoy and spending quality time with actual people. 

I have to say, it isn't easier for me or particularly convenient to not be able to rely on television to occupy my children when I shower, cook meals, clean the house, or have a phone conversation. It forces me to get really creative and it forces my kids to interact with each other more and to learn to get along. It can be tough sometimes going against the grain of what our society deems necessary. In the long run, limiting screen time get everyone more and better quality sleep and makes parenting easier in many tangible ways.

Social Interaction

I am an introvert. I prefer to spend time with very few people I am close with. I really don't like crowds. But all humans are social beings and we all in one way or another crave meaningful interaction. Childhood is the perfect time to demonstrate to your kids how to build relationships by example. I can't tell you how many kids I meet are clueless about how to properly interact with children of various ages or adults. I really believe it's beneficial for children to play and interact with those older and younger than them, in the presence of their parents that can gently direct them and at the same time demonstrate their relationship to the adults present.

I've noticed this so many times, playing with other kids tires my children out immensely! Social interaction fuels their developing mind. Everything is new to toddlers in the world around them, so is interacting and learning about relationships! Granted you know your child best, some may benefit from one-on-one play dates and others may enjoy a large group setting more. Try both and see what works for you.  

Mind Work 

When kids participate in passive activities all day as onlookers, they are missing out and likely they will not sleep as well as they could. I'm sure you notice that when you leave a child with a few hands on toys, blocks, and tactile items, they'll go explore them right away. Yes, some mind work may happen with a screen and an interactive game, but the developing minds of toddlers need real-life 3D exploration. They instinctively crave it. Just watch them play in the dirt with rocks, sticks, and grass. 

Toddlers learn through play - hey, kids of all ages do! Even adults learn best through hands on and visual activities than just lectures or textbooks. Present your toddlers with ample opportunities to use their mind creatively throughout the day. Some of our favorite aides in this, items they play with regularly is the Haba Indian Summer Magnetic Game, alphabet blocks, City Blocs, Lego Duplo, IKEA train sets and abacus, geometric stacker, and a shape sorting cube, to name a few. 

Of course books are in a category of their own when it comes to mind work. We regularly use our library card because I could never own all the books they want me to read to them and explore on their own! It does wonders for developing their vocabulary and language skills. We don't go to bed without reading. We do have quite a few favorites though that have a permanent place on our shelves (like this one and this one). 

Watch the Ingredients

Reading nutrition facts is not enough these days, the ingredient label is just as if not more important. I wish I was making this up, but we truly live in a world where 'food' marketed to kids and their parents hardly resembles real food. It's usually a mixture of sugar, artificial flavoring, coloring, additives and GMOs. I'm sure you already know this. 

What's our story? Before kids we lived mostly off of processed foods and when I bought boxes labeled "all natural" I really thought it was in fact natural. Pregnant with my first, I learned a lot I didn't know. We slowly switched to real foods and simpler meals, as a result our food budget actually shrunk. Many health problems diminished or disappeared. We started feeling a lot better overall. Little by little we started buying more organic produce and looking for healthier meats, and we still spend far less than we did on food before we had children. Processed foods are expensive!

Our bodies are used to feeling well when we eat meals at home since we consume very little added sugar (which is a lot like cocaine) and nothing artificial. When we travel and visit people however, I allow my children to eat a certain amount of whatever is served and it usually involves sugar-loaded dessert. Without fail, every single time their behavior changes and they do not sleep well after consuming these kinds of foods. It's just a personal observation, but I know I'm not alone in my findings. A lot of moms that feed their kids more/less healthy on a daily basis will tell you what too much sugar, colors, and flavors does to their kids when they allow it on occasion! 

If your family is still living off of the SAD (Standard American Diet) consisting mostly of processed foods and sugars, don't despair. You can change things a little at a time and gradually substitute processed packaged foods for things more wholesome and natural. You'd be amazed at how much money it will save you too, along with better health and sleep for everyone. 

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Does your toddler have sleep issues? Have you tried all this and still having trouble? Maybe you have more ideas to share with other moms? Let us know below!

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  1. All my 3 kids had sleeping problems passed 1 year old, my 2 1/2 still wakes up at times. Hardly want to take a nap now. I do believe its food related, as much as i try know we need more stricter diet.
    I hear you on screen time, i absolutely avoid as much as possible. My toddler would find my phone and get into it before i know it. Good thing we have no cable, TV is on for a movie on weekends and its off. My 9 year old loves science and uses computer for science experiments, and lots of mess cleaning afterwards. My 6 year old always likes to write and make crafts or keep up with her brother on science projects.

    Outdoor time is crucial, i hear you on that, now that its warm and we have a playground in our backyard, its a joy, and additional to that weeds and garden, living on the farm its a lot of work and sometimes overwhelming.

    1. I know same here, I try to be more strict on the diet but it doesn't always happen. I notice how gluten and sugar affect them negatively all the time.
      That's great your two older ones are using technology in a positive way and learning.
      I can't imagine the work involved in growing a garden! I don't think I could do it! As is I'm overwhelmed just by the house, never mind growing anything :)

  2. Truly thanks ~ my grand daughter has troubles sleeping. My daughter doesn't get much rest.
    Will definitely share information ♥

    1. Thank you for the comment Cindy, I hope she finds this helpful and everyone can get some better sleep! :)


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