• Good sleep is a vital part of good health – as a parent to young children you might be all too familiar with the strain caused by disrupted sleep

  • Lynsey Hookway shares four tips to boost your chances of a good night's sleep for you and your child


Being sleep deprived is never much fun, but when there are situational stresses, it can feel like the straw that breaks the camel's back. Sometimes stressful events such as relationship breakdown, house moves, and illness can worsen sleep. Other times, they are not necessarily the cause of the sleep drama, but merely in addition to sleep fragmentation and deprivation.

Of course, it is not realistic to expect a life free from stressful events, so having a plan for how to manage the situation can be really helpful. I can’t possibly know what your exact situation is. Nobody’s relationship drama, removal van screw-up, illness or other catastrophe is the same. Our lives are busy, complex and sometimes messy. But I probably know what the overarching problem that all difficult situations have in common is, and that’s why these tips will apply to you whatever scenario you’re facing.

You see, what all situational challenges have in common is stress. Of course, the thing that would really help when you have a lot on your plate is a good night’s sleep! Which may the one thing that you can’t make happen. But the truth is, a lot of people come at this problem from the wrong way around. For example, many people focus on trying to get their child to sleep, so that they can all calm down a bit. But what if I suggested that you flip this on it’s head? Instead of trying to get your child to sleep to reduce your stress, try focusing on maintaining calm, to facilitate sleep.

Creating the right environment for sleep

I often explain that you can’t sleep with your foot on the gas pedal. What I mean by that is that sleep does not occur in a stress state. You probably know that your stress response is always waiting in the background, ready to act if needed during a fight, flight or freeze situation. When the threat or stress passes, your body can stand down, and move into the ‘rest and digest’ or parasympathetic state. Sleep occurs in the parasympathetic state, and not in the stress state. This makes a lot of sense if you think about it. If you had to run for a bus, escape a scary situation or react to someone being threatening, that is no time for a nap.

The problem is that when we are in a stressful longer term situation, our stress response can become activated on a more long-term basis. Essentially, our gas pedal is down more than it should be, leaving us feeling wired, on edge, and anxious. It’s much harder to calm down, never mind sleep, when we are in this state. This means we will probably not get as much sleep – because feeling stressed can mean that we lie awake worrying. We achieve less good quality sleep – because anxiety can change the state of sleep we achieve and leave us feeling unrefreshed in the morning even if we manage to sleep. But also, the stress response itself is tiring, so we may feel more run-down than usual.

If we add in a child waking up, the situation can reach breaking point, because our reserves at this point are depleted due to poor quality and insufficient sleep.

But, how are children affected by these situations? 

Well, of course children can find stressful situations stressful. But they also pick up on the vibe and the tensions, and they take their cue from those they trust. This is where we can make a positive impact. If you focus on trying to get your child to sleep, you may not manage it, because there are many other factors at play, not least your own stress response, and theirs. Instead, if you shift your priority to trying to calm both you and your child down, you may find that sleep improves without you focusing directly on sleep. At the very least, you may find that your child’s sleep stresses you out less.

Whether your child’s sleep has deteriorated as a consequence of a stressful life event, or it is about the same as ever, and you are struggling more in the context of the situation, there are many small changes you can make.

1. Try to find ways to create calm

Try meditation, mindfulness, music, or journaling. Some parents find having a bath with their child calms everyone down. Work on making your environment soothing and relaxing. We are sensory beings, so tap into as many senses as you can. Many people prefer dim lighting, as well as pleasant smells, and reducing the volume of unnecessary background noise.

2. Maintain connection

Children who are stressed and not sleeping usually need more connection, not less. Provide plenty of reassurance, and one-to-one time.

3. Keep things familiar and safe

When the environment is necessarily chaotic, such as during a house move, or moving between separated parents, keep familiar routines going, and keep comforting objects close by. It can also help to have some items of clothing that smell familiar.

4. Reduce small situational stresses

I’m not saying that you can stop stressful things from being stressful, but try to reduce the total stress load. For example, make sure you have the items you need close by. If you have to make a middle of the night trip to hospital with a child who is chronically ill, it helps to have an emergency bag packed for example. If you are moving house, keep the things you will need accessible. Hire packers if you can afford to – it massively reduces the stress of packing things up for several weeks, and reduces the chaos to just 48 hours.

I can’t promise that all your stresses will be gone, but sometimes, knowing what to concentrate our efforts on can reduce unnecessary stress. Focus on the aspects of your child’s care that are within your control, and you will be able to let go of factors that are difficult or impossible to change. This can bring some peace and calm in the chaos. Good luck!

Lyndsey Hookway is the author of Let’s Talk About Your New Family’s Sleeppublished by Pinter & Martin 

Further reading

Why is sleep so important?

7 tips to manage the intensity of being a new mother

Can you sleep yourself healthy?

Parenting in lockdown: managing changing roles 

7 tips for mindful parenting