Is your child experiencing winter sleep regression? Or is it something more?

Dressing your children for sleep during winter impacts sleep health.
Dressing your children for sleep during winter impacts sleep health. Photo: Shutterstock

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Has the arrival of cooler weather and longer, darker nights turned your little one into a night waker or worse – a night walker? According to the experts, there are certainly some things we can do to help little ones adjust to the cooler weather.

Are they overdressed for bed?

According to Dr Carmel Harrington, managing director of Sleep for Health, the rule for dressing children for bed is simple. "Dress them in what you would wear plus one layer. You don't want them to be overdressed or underdressed, because when we go into REM sleep we can't shiver or sweat, which is why we tend to wake up at 4am cold or hot. Don't overdress a child or they will get too hot and wake up." And be aware, if a toddler does wake in the middle of dream sleep thanks to overheating in this way, it can lead to nightmares or night terrors.

Oh, and if you're worried about making sure they stay an even temperature between bath time and bedtime, don't be. "It shouldn't make any difference really," says Scott Dunlop, a consultant paediatrician with Sydney Paediatrics. "All babies are going to be a little cool after they are out of the bath but will warm up quickly with clothing."

Is the room too warm or too cold?

Here's a fun fact for you: all of us (little ones and adults alike) tend to sleep more deeply when the temperature is cool. "The optimum room temperature for sleep is actually around 20 degrees centigrade," says Carmel.

If you're heating the room, you may want to invest in a purifying fan heater to circulate and clean the air children are breathing in. As well as maintaining a comfortable temperature, these clever machines will also capture allergens, pollutants and odours, in turn helping to provide a restful night's sleep.

Is it too light?

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One good thing about winter and getting kids to sleep is the shorter days. "As the sun goes down, melatonin is released by the brain, which makes your baby or toddler sleepy," says co-founder of The Goodnight Company, Shea Morrison. "Therefore, with cooler weather and shorter days, you may find they sleep a little longer and potentially a little deeper." Of course, while winter means darkness falls a lot earlier, that doesn't mean that ambient light can't disturb your family's sleep. Block out blinds can help maintain a restful sleeping environment for adults and kids alike.

Are they hungry?

Do we need to ensure little ones go to bed with a full tummy in the colder months? Well, yes and no. "Half a banana or a warm cup of milk can help them sleep through the night," advises Carmel. "There is a lot of the amino acid tryptophan in milk – tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin which is our relaxing hormone, which itself is a precursor to melatonin. Amino acids don't cross the blood/brain barrier unless they're attached to a simple sugar, and in milk you have tryptophan attached to lactose, so that crosses the blood/brain barrier, which is important."

Do you need to stop with the noise?

While it's important not to have too much noise while your young ones are trying to sleep, you don't have to skip Netflix and sit in silence every night to make sure they drop off undisturbed.

"Just stick with normal environmental noise, whatever that is for your home," advises Scott Dunlop. "They will get used to it."

Are you in a good routine?

"The calmer children are when they go to bed, the easier it will be to settle them," says Scott. "Watch for tired signs and establish a fairly strict bed routine." Carmel Harrington agrees. "To me it doesn't matter if it's winter or summer, you have to prepare yourself for bed. In winter, even though the sun goes down earlier, you can keep your mind active and alert by being in front of screens and technology right up to bedtime - and you won't be able to sleep. You need to prepare your body and mind for sleep and develop a routine. This is especially important for children. Get them in a pattern - we have a bath, a story, a glass of milk and then we go to sleep."

Adds Shea, "Maintaining a normal sleep-wake schedule, particularly on weekends, and staying active during winter is also very important to support your sleep cycle."

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