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From 6 to 18 months of age children show rapid advances in growth and independence. Sometimes this is a 'perfect storm' for sleep problems to develop.

Children at this age are experiencing rapid growth and increased independence. At the same time, they may feel vulnerable with all the new-found exploration. Meanwhile, parents may not be as well-rested (ok, even sleep-deprived sometimes). This combination is sometimes a recipe for sleep problems and power struggles as the child needs to learn self-control for the first time.

12 months of rapid motor-skill development

Children from 6 to 18 months of age show rapid advances in motor development - going from sitting to rolling to crawling and ultimately walking in a short period of time. When the child is able to explore and interact with the world beyond their parent’s lap they become driven to move. 

While they may feel vulnerable at times, they are also developing independence. To stay safe they will need to learn self-control.

This rapid growth, move to independence, vulnerability and need to learn self control create a perfect storm for sleep problems to develop. How you react as a parent is critical.

A child's vulnerability & night-time waking

The passion to move creates conflict in the child. To explore, the infant must move away from the protective security of the parent's lap. The child begins to realize the parent(s) cannot constantly be by his/her side and begins to look at the world in a more cautious manner.  For the first time the child feels vulnerable.

Children from 6 to 15 months of age often cry and refuse to go to anyone other than the parent - referred to as "stranger anxiety”.

When a child at this stage wakes in the middle of the night, he/she may bring themselves to a higher level of wakefulness as they search the room looking for the parent. When the child doesn’t see the parent he/she may cry out for them.  If the parent goes to check on the child, they now have to deal with an awake child.  It is at this point that sleep problems can develop. 

Children with sleep problems have not learned to put themselves to sleep.  If the child is picked-up, fed, or taken to the parent’s bed; then the child becomes dependent on the parent to go to sleep.

A need for independence

As a child’s motor skills become more refined, the child will become more confident.  They need to know their parents will be there when they need them, but they no longer constantly look to the parent to meet their every need. Toddlers begin seeking independence in feeding, dressing, and play.  It is entirely appropriate at this time for the parent to encourage independence in sleep.

Teaching self-control

6- to 18-month-olds move about with total abandonment, as if the world revolves around them.  As a result they are fearless, egocentric and self-centered.  Property, pets and other people may need to be protected from the inquisitive child.  While experience can teach children about danger, they could become seriously injured in the process.

We all have limitations on our behavior dictated by society’s rules and expectations.  Children need to learn this.  They cannot be allowed to do what ever they want to do (throw a toy at a window to see what happens, run into traffic because it looks like fun, hit another person because they are angry, or dump their food on the floor).  Altering the environment can make it safer, but there is only so much that can be changed. To keep safe, and learn to be considerate and respectful of others, a child ultimately needs to learn self-control.  Parents teach self-control by saying “No” to unreasonable and unsafe behaviors.

Property, pets and other people may need to be protected from the inquisitive child.

The sleep-deprived parent and the independent child

Being a good parent (keeping your child safe and teaching the child to respect others) can be a challenge and at times unpleasant.  Parents are often sleep deprived.  When told “No” their child will protest; sometimes to the point of crying, screaming, throwing a tantrum, or telling the parent, “I hate you”.  The protests may occur at inconvenient times (in public, or the middle of the night).  The parent may feel embarrassed or hurt by the comments.  It is easy to misinterpret what these outbursts mean. 

Parents need to remind themselves; the child does not feel neglected or unloved, and doesn’t really hate the parent or think the parent hates him.  The child is upset because while asserting their independence, the parent prevented the child from getting or doing something they wanted. 

It is OK for children to cry and often unavoidable if they are to learn to control their behavior.   It is crucial that parents be firm and persistent in their stance. If the parent softens and gives in to the crying and protests, then the child learns if you cry long enough you get want you want.

So, you may have an independent, rapidly-growing child feeling vulnerable. You need to teach the child self-control while you are sleep-deprived.

Sleep independence & the advantage to your child

Even though in many European countries young children sleep with their parents in the “Family Bed” until they wean themselves around the time they start school, there are some concrete advantages your growing child learns from sleeping in his own bed:

  • It teaches children about boundaries.
  • The child gains his/her “own space”. 
  • It tells the child their parent who loves them feels they are safe.
  • The child learns their parent feels they are becoming grown-up, and able to sleep on their own. 
  • It leads to self-confidence and nurtures independence.    

This change will not be quick or easy, however.

If the child has been sleeping in the parent’s bed for some time, he/she does not want to give up the physical comfort and security of being there. Changing a child’s sleep habits will take time, will likely lead to frequent protests and outbursts by the child, and will lead to interruptions in the parent’s sleep. 

A parent will only successfully get a child out of their bed if they are willing to deal with the child’s crying.  The child who screams when placed back in their bed when they would prefer to be in the parent bed, is no different than the child who screams when the parent removes a shiny sharp knife from the child’s hand. 

The parent must be more stubborn than the child.  With patience and time the problem will resolve. 

Read steps you can take if you are faced with the problem of getting your child to sleep in Dr. Severson's answer to a parent.

Greg Severson, MD

Methodist Physicians Clinic HealthWest

Dr. Severson answers your questions about child development and parenting. One of the most gratifying aspects of pediatrics, for Dr. Severson, is watching an infant grow and change into a young adult. He is a natural teacher and he enjoys teaching parents how to provide the best care for their children. Dr. Severson loves kids and he is enriched by his interactions with them every day. He recognizes that children are unique and special. He hopes that his recommendations will help parents m ...

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