Sleep and Temperament

Baby Sleep and Temperament

Written by Gentle Sleep Coach, Janet Mercer

“My daughter is VERY active and the pediatrician calls her a motor baby”.   

“My daughter’s eating has been tricky… not so much nursing… very feisty… so she eats at night.  She used to nap next to me but is easily disturbed.  She is happy, feisty, sweet, energetic, and present”.  

“He is a high need child, always busy, always moving, but fairly easygoing”.

When I ask parents who contact me to describe their children, these are some of the responses I hear.  It doesn’t surprise me that these children who are very active, busy, extremely involved with their world, and racing to reach developmental milestones have a hard time sleeping.    In Kim West’s book The Sleep Lady’s Good Night, Sleep Tight she comments “Often in my practice I’ve found the unusually alert, bright, and aware children tend to have a little more trouble learning to sleep” (p. 41).  This does not mean that they CANNOT learn to sleep, but that it may take them a little longer than other children to do it and that they may need more assistance from their parents to help them enter a calm and relaxed state so that they can be ready to fall asleep.

I find that it can be extremely helpful to consider a child’s temperament when determining the best baby sleep strategies.  Temperament is nature, not nurture, and influences the way that a child interacts with her environment.  It can also impact a child’s ability to self-soothe.  Some elements of temperament include activity level, distractibility, persistence, approach-withdrawal, intensity, adaptability, regularity, sensory threshold, and mood.  (T. Berry Brazelton, MD, Touchpoints, p. 103).  When parents are able to step back and observe their child, they can begin to think about how to best organize their daily routines and environment to maximize their child’s ability to sleep.

Mary Sheedy Kurcinka uses the term the “spirited child” to describe children who may (among other things) be slow to adapt to change, sensitive to smell/taste/touch/sound/sight, and intense and persistent in their reactions.  I feel quite familiar with spirited children, since I have been living with one (my oldest child) for more than 9 years now. I’ve learned (often the hard way) that I need to make a lot of extra effort to ensure that he gets the sleep that he needs.  Here are some strategies that can be helpful to all children, and are especially helpful to these spirited children:

  •  Transition time.  For the slow to adapt child, they need to be given notice and preparation in order to shift from one activity to another.  This includes getting ready to leave the house in the morning AND getting ready for naps and bedtime.   My oldest child seems to require a long, extended bedtime routine.  This means that we start our bath time early so that he can spend quite a while doing calmer activities in order to be ready for sleep.  My daughter, on the other hand, used to announce “It’s nap time” immediately after she finished her lunch when she was a toddler.  We would walk upstairs for a quick change into pajamas (our naptime ritual) and she would be ready to go.
  • Relaxation techniques The more intense, active child may need more help getting into a relaxed state.  For babies and younger children, this might include some massage or a few moments of rocking.  Older children can learn relaxation techniques and begin to relax their own bodies.
  • The right environment.  I am always advising parents to carefully examine their child’s sleep space and ensure that it is calm, uncluttered, and quiet.  Some children may find certain fabrics or styles of pajamas uncomfortable.  Others (when they are old enough) like to sleep under heavy blankets even in the warmer months of the year.  For example, last year I bought a set of flannel sheets for my son, thinking that they would be perfect for the colder winter nights.  After lying in his bed for a while, he told me that he did not like the texture and wanted to return to his other well-worn cotton sheets.
  • Help with anxieties.  MANY children go through times when they fear the dark, have nightmares, and ponder other worries.  Highly sensitive children may have even more difficulty shutting these feelings out when it is time to go to sleep.  Guided meditations can be one way of helping children put different pictures in their heads when they are getting ready for bedtime.   As my children get older, I have found that they have new worries and concerns, including preoccupation with peer relationships and school demands as well as world events.  It is of course important to process these together, but sometimes their experiences feel too private to share with me.   I’ve brought out my Guatemalan worry dolls.  They’ve whispered their worries to the dolls, and the dolls have held them while they are sleeping.
  • Attention to schedule and activity.  Was your morning filled with errands and your afternoon busy with outings in bright, loud, crowded places?  Some children love to be “on the go” and are easily able to decompress when they come home, but others become so “wired” by all of these experiences that it is challenging for them to settle down at bedtime even though they are clearly tired.  If this is your child, consider doing less.

For more information regarding children and temperament, I have found Mary Sheedy Kurcinka’s Sleepless in America to be helpful.  I believe that one of the (many) challenges of parenting is learning to work with your child’s unique temperament and adapt your lifestyle to accommodate their needs.   Making your baby’s sleep a priority helps everyone manage their emotions, cope with frustration, and enjoy everyday experiences more.  I find that everything is better with a well-rested child.  Sweet dreams!

To learn more about Janet Mercer, visit her website 

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Photography by By 0_kelso_0 on Flickr


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