Child Not Sleeping Now I am Back At Work

Posted: Wednesday June 26 2019

By: Guest Blogger

Child Not Sleeping Now I am Back At Work

(and what you can do to get through this tricky milestone as smoothly as possible!)


By Little Sleep Stars

Often families expect (and certainly hope!) that by the time mum returns to work, their little one will be sleeping through the night. But for many this simply isn’t the case! When a child is sleeping well a family might reasonably expect this to continue. Yet even the “best sleepers” often hit a bump on the sleep path when mum returns to work. For those families where sleep was already challenging, things tend to go from bad to worse which can be particularly hard at a time that is often stressful enough without upping the ante through sleep-deprivation…

What mum’s return to work means for a baby

Prior to a mum’s return to work, she has usually been her baby’s biggest constant. Even if there have been sleepovers at grandma’s house or the odd day with daddy whilst mummy (hopefully) luxuriated in a spa or (more likely) spent a KIT day realising how much pre-baby knowledge somehow departed with her placenta, mummy has rarely been away for long. The switch from leisurely days of playdates and baby groups to spending significant chunks of time away from mum places a child into unchartered waters. Whilst little ones undoubtedly adapt, it’s hardly surprising that sleep is often impacted during the period of adjustment.

Where’s Mummy?

A little one who spends all day every day with mum has a huge amount of time to check-in and connect with her. When a child first begins to spend extended time away from mum, it’s actually not too surprising that he might look to reconnect when he gets the chance – even if that means doing it at 2am! It is very common, and indeed very normal, for a child who has previously slept well to start waking in the night and to stay awake for longer periods when this change happens. Babies, particularly breastfed little ones, who have previously night-weaned, commonly want to feed again during the night. These are all mechanisms to reconnect with mum – to spend time with her and to enjoy her company.

Handled sensitively and supportively, this period of reconnecting will pass. As a child settles into his new routine and realises that mummy always comes back, the “me and mummy time” tank will more easily be refuelled during daylight hours. To handle the night-waking I typically advise parents to avoid reintroducing night feeds but to offer lots of extra reassurance to navigate this tricky period. This can be hard for a mum who is trying to manage her return into the workplace, as sitting on a child’s bedroom floor for an hour at 3am is never likely to have been less appealing!

However, harsher methods such as controlled crying will be particularly hard on a little one during this unsettling time. On the other hand, feeding a little one back to sleep, whilst likely to be the quickest way for mum to get back to her own bed, will create a habit which can then be tricky to change. Hence the most gentle and effective way to handle things is to tread the middle-ground through this period of transition.

Disturbed sleep can be made easier to bear with some careful diary-planning. If mum is able to return initially on a phased basis, and particularly if working days can be spread across the week rather than clustered together, this will mean more chance to recover after a night of broken sleep. At the very least, temporarily keeping weekends relatively clear can make a huge difference as it provides downtime for a family and relieves some pressure. It also provides an opportunity for mum to raise her presence with her little one during the daytime. Lots of close play, getting down to baby’s level, eye-contact and cuddles will help meet a child’s need to connect on a one-to-one basis with his favourite person.

The impact of childcare

For most children with working parents, childcare becomes a way of life. The knowledge around sleep across nurseries and childminders varies greatly. The biggest stumbling block I see is dropping to one nap before a little one is developmentally ready. Typically children sit best on two naps until around 15 months and those who drop to one nap much before this almost always struggle.

The rationale for a one-nap schedule is often that the two-to-one nap transition is inevitable and so little ones may as well settle into a consistent pattern. Unfortunately, this ignores that younger children do not have a comfortable awake window that is long enough to make a one-nap schedule feasible. Keeping a child awake for longer than is comfortable for them leads to overtiredness, which in turn undermines their ability to sleep well. This commonly leads to children fighting sleep at bedtime, waking more frequently through the night, finding it hard to return to sleep once awake or waking for the day at a time starting with a 5. Add into the mix the stimulatory effect of childcare and quite often little ones are sleeping less when they really need to be sleeping more.

If you notice that your little one is giddy in the run-up to bed, it’s a strong sign that they are overtired, which suggests daytime sleep is not optimised. Whilst this may lead to a little one “crashing out” initially, over time this is ticking sleep time bomb, which will explode – often in spectacular fashion! Whilst sleep expertise varies amongst childcare providers, most are usually willing to accommodate parents’ requests so it’s always worth being clear about how you want the daytime schedule to look.

A changing routine

Changes, even subtle ones, to the time a little one is up for the day and even when they eat their meals has the potential to affect their sleep. This is because the circadian rhythm is anchored by environmental factors such as exposure to light and also meal times. Babies and toddlers clearly don’t have the benefit of being able to tell the time – rather they are driven by what time it feels like. As such, if the circadian rhythm cues move, little ones will typically be ready to sleep for the night earlier or later than you are used to – either of which can make bedtime challenging.
Childcare providers are clearly unlikely to move mealtimes to suit one child so the best way to approach this is to understand exactly what your child’s new schedule will be and to make gradual adjustments so as to ultimately implement those timings at home ahead of your return to work.

Limit the changes

A common theme running through all of these tips is to limit the number of changes a little one is exposed to in one go. Some children are naturally more adaptable than others but almost all deal with change better when it is incremental. Mapping out everything that will be different for your little one upon your return to work enables you to manage the process as a series of smaller changes as opposed to asking a child to deal with a much larger, and therefore more unsettling, shift.

The time is right

It is always worth understanding where your little one’s critical milestones are likely to fall. Whilst I’m not suggesting a parent plans a return to work around them it sometimes just helps to understand why a little one is being especially challenging!

From a sleep point of view the 8 to 10 month window can be tricky, even without significant upheaval. At this age little ones are experiencing huge development both cognitively and physically and this can affect sleep. In addition, separation anxiety can kick in with a vengeance which can cause a child to seek extra reassurance during both the day and night. Further sleep challenges commonly arise around a little one’s first birthday, and particularly if they are close to walking – of all of the physical milestones this is the one that tends to affect sleep the most in my experience.

The most reliable way of maintaining great sleep for a child as maternity leave comes to an end is to have equipped your little one with the skills they need to sleep soundly well in advance. A child who has the skills, confidence and security to steer through night-wakings without significant parental input will generally recover more quickly from disturbances to their sleep. However, if you are reading this through a sleep-deprived haze be reassured that it is never too late for a little one to learn to sleep well – and teaching them the skills they need is often nowhere near as hard as a parent expects!