It is a researched fact that from around the age of 3 years, most children stop requiring a day time sleep. There have been multiple studies done by multiple sources. Yet, many early childhood services continue to control children and ignore their natural urges. They use the premise of “children need rest” and “we know best because we are adults” to coerce children into unnatural sleep patterns. It is then noted that they must need it, otherwise they’d not have fallen asleep. I wonder – if you are put in a dark room, on a mat or bed, soft music playing, not allowed to move or make a sound – what else IS there, but to go to sleep. Often there is soothing, rubbing and patting backs involved also. Quite frankly – this might be categorised as abuse. Enforcing a child to partake in a routine act that they neither want, nor need. Usually this is for adult privilege. Time to do cleaning, paperwork, or just have a break from active supervision in the day. Is this by any stretch of the imagination ethical practice?
I’m not sure why “now” is a thing either. Like, this time of year? Why are people talking about culling and reducing rest for children who are going to be starting their transition to school in a few months? Either children need sleep or they don’t. Right? Shouldn’t it be cut and dried and simple? If children need sleep, they sleep – if not……. well……
By “encouraging” them into sleep, we are breaking the natural human rhythms of life. It is no wonder that parents complain about their child being up at night, not getting good sleep, etc. Because the balance has been interfered with. Yes, I completely agree that a child who has not had sleep and needs it, is also placed at a disadvantage. Because once again – the natural rhythms are being interfered with. It is a fine line we walk. So how do we get it right?
First things first – are that in a service, we need to build relationships. With children AND with their family. We need to spend time getting to know them – who they are, and what their primary care needs are. What is their normal natural pattern of wake and sleep? And what are the things that they need for sleep to happen (i.e. – comfort items, etc)? And this is the base from which we start. We also need to have some basic trust and knowledge that children are the boss of their body. Ultimately, they are the only one who knows what they truly need.
We need to know a child. And we need to be tuned into them. Very young children are often unable to recognise or give voice to their body’s state of tiredness. So initially, it really is up to us to recognise the very first sign of tiredness in a child, and act on it straight away. Getting this right, is key. There is such a fine line. If we don’t bring a child to rest when it is needed can be as detrimental as forcing a child to sleep when they don’t need it! In partnership with families, we need to work with a child’s own rhythms. It is really for this reason, that a prescribed time of rest for all children in a group does not work.
From the age of 15 months in our service, children are given autonomy over rest. There is no such thing as lying on a bed because it is “rest time”. You lie on a bed if and when you are tired and need a rest or sleep. We need to tune in to children. We need to know them well. Especially for the very young. I find even at 15 months of age, when you help a child to recognise their need for sleep, they are competently aware of their body’s needs. They may not come to us and say “I need a sleep”, but they certainly come looking for guidance, displaying all the signs we come to know of each child’s tiredness.
It is likewise our responsibility to stop forcing sleep on children who don’t need it. Rooms full of beds after lunch are so completely unnecessary. And what a waste of time! Getting beds out, cleaning them, putting them away. All for nothing – and sometimes at a big cost to children’s wellbeing.
So what can rest for young children look like? Of course – even those who don’t need sleep, will often require periods of down time during the day. So we need to make sure that there is space for that to occur. This can be done by thoughtfully providing spaces around our environment for children to just be and give their body and mind the time it needs to refresh a little. Comfortable couches, swing chairs, mats and cushions, hammocks, trees to climb up and sit in for a while, secluded spots in the outdoors….. anywhere a body can just be in a position of relaxation. So this means we have to stop thinking that children need to be constantly engaged or entertained. When we see a child off sitting on their own – we leave them the heck alone! When we let them take care of their body’s own needs – their body gets what it needs. It also needs to be, that there ARE spaces for a child to have a bed and sleep in a non-traffic space – when they need it, not when it is convenient for us.
Children are capable human beings. They have a brain, and like us – they are the best judge of what their body needs. When we trust them enough to allow them autonomy, we are not just showing them the respect they deserve as a human being, we are setting them up to become confident and resilient. I am not advocating that we stop being the adult guide that they need through their childhood. I am not suggesting we just allow them to do “whatever they want”. As always, children need us, they need firm boundaries, they need order in their life. They need US to help teach them how to be the makers of their own destiny. But ultimately they also need to be in charge of just that.
Sometimes we just do things – and we don’t really think about the impact or the specialness, until somebody else brings it to the fore.
We have always celebrated children’s birthdays in our service, by sharing a cake (or something) with them – that they bring in from home. They usually sit with their room group to do this at afternoon tea time.We’ve always come together as a whole service for staff birthdays to sing and recognise. (When I say always – I am referring to since before I was at my service (so longer than 6 years).
While doing our reflections together late last year, we considered why we didn’t come together as a whole service for children also? Our shift has been to a very open program, that is multi aged. So children spend less and less time in age groupings for us. Why were we still scaling it back to celebrate birthdays? Were we really making this a special day for children?
We decided to try coming together for children also. All of us. It was rather spontaneous the first time we were doing it – and we looked around for something that would bring attention and let everyone know – and be fun.
We plucked the bells that were hanging on a hook on one of the verandahs. They were so perfect, that they immediately took on the new role, as the “Birthday Bells”. Coupled with the “Birthday Hat” which has also been around for many years…… a new tradition was born.
The birthday child circles the playground and the rooms wearing the Birthday Hat and ringing the Birthday Bells, gathering everyone together. We all head up to the yarning circle, where there is recognition of the special birthday we are coming together for, coupled with a choir to be reckoned with singing “Happy Birthday”! The cheers echo throughout the neighbourhood.
A parent approached me recently, quite anxious as to whether her little boy would get to do the birthday bells and hat, because he didn’t come to care on his actual birthday. She said it was all he talked about in relation to his birthday, and his excitement outweighed any requests for gifts. She was terribly concerned. And of course – it doesn’t have to be the actual day. The closest day they come to care is the best pick.
I do really love the creation of our new tradition. And the sense of togetherness it gives us all. But more so, the sense of belonging and specialness a child gets when we recognise their special day with them. They get to be the centre of the universe for just a while.
This custom and tradition has another spin for me too. A child with autism, who has been with us for a few years now – yesterday gave me the warmest glow inside. As he heard the bells ringing – he skipped his way up to the yarning circle. As I got closer to him, I heard the soft singing of Happy Birthday. And the little grin across his face showed me how much he was with us all in that moment.
Having been thrown the opportunity to reflect on this new little tradition, which is now only a few months young – I sit with a tear in my eye. Realising and understanding that we have seamlessly formed something not only very special for children – but something that will likely form one of their early childhood memories.
And that little grin creeps across my face, as I understand fully, that we got this one right.
It is the special times in a child’s life, that will become the memories that stay with them as an adult.
“We didn’t realise we were making memories. We thought we were just having fun.”