Baby Sleep and Temperament: How it Affects Sleep and Everything Else
Did your baby come out of the womb ready to take on the world? Alert babies are fun, smart, and often have a hard time with sleep. Baby sleep and temperament are so connected that it often requires some different strategies to get the sleep your family needs.
Does this sound like you?
- “I have to bounce her on the ball to go to sleep.”
- “It’s like he has FOMO. He just doesn’t want to waste time sleeping.”
- “She notices EVERYTHING. She doesn’t miss a thing.”
- “The second I try to lay him down, his eyes pop open and I have to start all over again.”
- “Sleep has been hard since the moment they were born. They just do not want to sleep…ever.”
From the moment my daughter was born, she was not like other babies I had seen. Instead of the usual fuzzy, unfocused newborn gaze, hers was like a laser beam — wide open, focused, intent. “Huh, that’s not normal, is it?” She did not “drift” into sleep; it was like she had an on/off switch. She was clear about what she wanted and that was almost always me. She couldn’t (or wouldn’t) stay asleep for long. I remember when she was about 10 months old, sitting up past David Letterman with a baby who was wide awake — not at all fussy. It was 1:00 am. “This isn’t normal either, right?” This was not at all like the books said it would be, but there we were.
I’ve researched and worked with hundreds of parents of children with sleep problems. I’m increasingly convinced that an alert, intense, sensitive temperament may be the dividing line between children who sleep easily — and those who really don’t.
How are Baby Sleep and Temperament Related?
Temperament is a hard-wired system for taking in, processing, and reacting to stimuli and events from both the inner and outer environment. Some children are able to react less strongly to this input and they can generally stay on a fairly even keel. For them, sleep is not a huge issue because they are able to buffer out a lot of the external input and turn toward sleep.
Other children — I call them “livewires” — have a much thinner barrier. They detect and perceive more of the incoming information, and they react more strongly to it. For these children, sleep is a challenge because they are bombarded by sensory and other information and have a lot more of it to manage. If you have tried sleep training before and it just hasn’t worked — at all — chances are, you have a livewire.
It really isn’t you! Many babies have trouble sleeping:
Read: We Must Stop Blaming Parents for Baby Sleep Problems
Traits that Impact Sleep
Everything is bigger. If they’re happy, they’re really happy. Once they get upset, they take off like a rocket. These are the babies whose parents say, “If I don’t get to her in a few seconds, all bets are off.” Intensity is the key trait that throws sleep training off track. These powerhouses don’t just “fuss for 15 minutes,” it can be an hour or more of hysterical crying, for many nights in a row, without any change. It’s no wonder that parents of livewires abandon the typical sleep training methods. A more gradual approach, like the Sleep Lady Shuffle, gives you the opportunity to keep your child within a tolerable zone of challenge.
“Easy going” and “flexible” are not in their vocabulary. They can outlast you and do not give up easily on what they want. This is an amazing trait for an adult to have, but in children, it can wear parents out. It’s important to know that, when you try to change their familiar patterns, they are going to fight you. That’s okay. If you can stay present, supportive, and consistent, they will be able to detect the new pattern and settle in.
They notice everything — I mean, everything. In the big picture, this can be a stunning skill. These brilliant little ones will notice subtleties and connections. They will notice that something has been moved or slight changes in routines. They will also notice if you wobble in your approach to sleep. You will need to be more consistent than you have ever been when you work on sleep. For older livewires, “just for tonight” does not compute. You need to have a plan and a routine that is clear and repetitive.
Livewires are just “on.” It’s like their brain is working on overdrive all the time. Again, this is a tremendous talent. They are taking in more information and learning at an incredible rate. The downside is that it’s very easy for them to get overstimulated and overtired. You may have noticed that if you are late for a nap, they are into their supersonic, booster rocket, second wind, where sleep is virtually impossible to get. Knowing their awake window and watching the clock help keep you in front of their second wind.
Underlying nearly all of a livewire’s temperamental intensity and alertness stems from some amount of sensory processing sensitivity. Sensitivity to textures, noises, light, or sensations keep them from being able to shut down and sleep. It’s a little like The Princess and the Pea. A tiny pea beneath a stack of mattresses was supposed to test for sensitivity. This is exactly what parents find when trying to get a livewire to sleep: the tiniest discomfort or issue with their sleep environment means that sleep is not going to happen.
Sensory sensitivity is also more than just hating “scratchy sheets.” Sensory sensitivities can make some children very easily overwhelmed by small amounts of input (sensory defensive). Children who cover their ears when a siren goes by or has a meltdown at loud, crowded spaces are examples of being overwhelmed by input. Sensory seeking, on the other hand, refers to being under-responsive to input. These children may seek big, intense input like being bounced on a ball for sleep or needing to “crash” into things before they can calm down. Understanding sensory processing sensitivities can be key in helping you craft a bedtime routine that helps their livewire power down. The boo,k Understanding Your Baby’s Sensory Signals by Angie Voss, is a very helpful and easy guide to sensory behaviors.
There’s no reliable pattern to feeding, sleep, or activity. They do things differently every day. One night, they may sleep well and parents think “Well, A, B, and C really worked!” Then, the next night, even though they took the same steps, the baby is up every 90 minutes. If this is the case with your child, it just means that you have to trust that what you are doing for sleep is working. It won’t go in a straight line, so don’t expect it to. Have a plan, stick to the plan, and your little one will eventually get on board — mostly.
How Temperament Affects Sleep Training
Intensity, persistence, sensory sensitivities, and the other livewire traits can make for a perfect storm that not only makes sleep harder and more scarce, but it can really throw parents for a loop. The books will say that “sleep training only takes three or four days of some mild protest” and after two hours of sweating and pleading and crying, you give up and just rock them to sleep — with some certainty that maybe you just stink at parenting. Parents, it’s not you. It’s temperament.
Believe it or not, there are some specific “hacks” that you, as a parenting of a unique little livewire, need to know about. Some of these are essential keys to unlocking sleep in your nonstop kiddo.
Want to read up on the Sleep Lady Shuffle?
Read: The Sleep Lady Shuffle: How to Gently Sleep Train your Baby
Stay Ahead of the Second Wind
Look at the sample sleep schedules here and understand how much sleep your livewire needs. Alert children often seem like they don’t need as much sleep, but this is typically because they are living full-time in their second wind. Get naps and a solid, early bedtime.
Be More Consistent Than You’ve Ever Been
It’s important to pick something that you know your child can handle and that you can handle (just bedtime?) and just do exactly the same thing for at least three nights to see if a consistent approach will kick in.
Push Through the Pushback
When you change familiar patterns, these smart little cookies will let you know that they notice. They will also let you know, loud and clear, that they don’t like it. As long as you are present and supportive, it’s okay for them to hate the change. If you can acknowledge their difficulty and just keep going, they will use their powerful brain to pick up on the new pattern — and livewires love a good pattern.
The other important aspect of pushing through is that the worst thing you can do with a livewire is to work and work — and then just give up and do whatever works. When baby sleep and temperament meet, sleep has to win. If you’re inconsistent, your child will not overlook this. You cannot sneak this past them. If you try and try and then just feed them, for example, they will know that feeding is somewhere “on the table” as a possibility and they just have to find it. The next time you try to hold out, it can be ten times harder. Set your mind to whatever you are choosing to do and try not to waffle. Remember, you have to stay one step ahead of your alert, doesn’t-miss-a-thing child.
Try the Sleep Lady Shuffle for Sleep Skills
The Shuffle is gradual and allows for a lot of support and help with calming down—two things that are critical for livewires. The Shuffle allows you as a parent to methodically reduce what you are doing. It also allows you to keep your livewire from getting hysterical. We don’t want that, and it doesn’t work. The Shuffle really, really works for livewires.
The very traits that make livewires amazing, also make sleep really difficult. Knowing that temperament plays a huge part in sleep challenges accomplishes two things:
- It helps take away the worry that you, as a parent, have caused the problem
- Allows you to move forward on sleep training with an understanding of the parts of temperament you need to work with or work around.
Getting better sleep with livewires is possible—if you know about the ins and outs of temperament.
Do you need help? Consider a Certified Gentle Sleep Coach:
Read: When to Hire a Sleep Coach — 9 Reasons it will Help