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The Sleep System: Why your child can't "just fall asleep"

Baby peeking over the top of a yellow blanket
Some children are just not wired for easy sleep.

As parents, we all have "those friends" whose baby can fall asleep anywhere during the day and stay asleep through the night by the time they are three-months-old. The parent swears it’s because they did “that one method” and now their baby sleeps all the time. You may be asking yourself, why can't my child fall asleep?

I promise you…this baby came into this world wired to be a good sleeper. I would bet that it had very little to do with what that parent did or didn’t do. That baby just has an innate ability power down when they’re tired and ignore outside noise or sensations.

As adults, we actually experience this. You know that there are “light sleepers” and those who can sleep through a fire alarm. Just look at the people on a red-eye flight. You can immediately tell the good sleepers (sitting up, arms folded, snoring away) from the bad ones (eye mask, headphones, blanket, pillow that they brought from home). Why do we think that babies or children are any different?

Livewires, or alert babies, have more trouble with just about every aspect of sleep because their internal wiring is more active and more sensitive. They not only take in more information, but they have a harder time buffering it out. Sleep is both harder to achieve and harder to maintain. With mellower children, the road to sleep may not be a cakewalk, but it’s straighter, flatter, and shorter than the one for livewires.

Parents of livewires: I’m not gonna lie. Your trek to sleep is steeper, rockier and requires more skill, preparation, and stamina.

You are going to need different tools, a better map, and maybe a Sherpa or two to get to your destination. Here’s the good news: understanding how temperament can affect the process and mechanics of sleep is the first step to figuring out what’s been getting in the way. It can be a game-changer for your alert baby.

The Sleep System for Alert Babies and Children

Falling asleep (even when you’re really tired) involves several steps that we may not be fully aware of. If you’ve ever had insomnia, you know how difficult falling asleep can be. You may really want to sleep, but your body or brain will not power down. We think babies should just have more powerful sleep pressures…but not all of them do.

So, let’s look at what it takes to fall asleep, and it may become clear why livewires have so much trouble with it.

1. You are able to notice that you feel tired/sleepy.

When it’s time to power down for a rest, the body sends out biochemical signals (melatonin, etc.) to help it slow down and get ready for sleep. Most children are able to pick up on that signal, and their body lets them clearly know they are tired. They yawn. They rub their eyes. They look droopy. They feel sleepy.

Some of you might be thinking, “What’s this yawning thing you’re talking about? I’ve never seen it.”

Livewires do not get the memo from their brain that they need a break. They may not miss a beat and they sail right through the moment when they should be starting to slow down. Instead of getting droopier, livewires power up. When this happens, their body sends out a different signal that tells them

“Okay! We’re staying up! Commence second wind!”

The upshot here is that, if you have been waiting for them to give you sleepy signals, you may be waiting a long time. If you do happen to see a fleeting yawn or an eye rub, you’re probably already too late. This is why pushing sleep until they act tired is a losing battle. Livewires don’t seem to get tired; they get wired.

2. You are willing and able to disconnect from the waking world.

Typically, once a tired signal is sent and is detected by the brain, the body takes processing systems offline for a bit and turns attention away from external input so it can start giving in to the need for sleep.

Well, this one is just nearly impossible for livewires. Their desire to be in the world overrides their need for rest. Even when they are in the crib or bed and getting ready to sleep, they can fight it with all they’ve got. I’ve seen small babies on the brink of sleep, eyes half-closed, force them open to keep looking around. It seems like they can't fall asleep, but it's simply because they're more interested in being awake.

Amazing, yes?

They are so invested in their waking experiences that they just don’t want to give them up, even when they’re really pooped. This is when parents will say, “It’s like he just doesn’t want to waste time with sleep. He wants to be doing.

How incredible. Think of how much this livewire is taking in and what they’re learning. But this is exactly why sleep is a much bigger mountain, and why it feels like you have to drag your child up it with you.

3. You can ignore or at least not notice external stimuli.

All that most babies need for sleep are soft jammies, a firm mattress, and a somewhat darkened room because their sleep drive has them halfway to Sleepytown by the time they’re in bed. Noise machine/no noise machine, dark/not dark, pacifier/no pacifier… doesn’t really matter a ton.

For livewires, it can be like The Princess and the Pea.

Tiiiny variations in light, sound, temperature cause them to shift their attention away from sleep and back to the world. These are babies that pop awake the second you’ve tried to lay them down like they’re a live grenade. Even if they’re cosleeping, the noise and movement of the family bed can just be too much.

For good sleepers, it doesn’t take much and—poof! They’re asleep. Livewires struggle big-time with every aspect of going from awake to asleep. They don’t detect signals that they should (tiredness), and they pay attention to input that they should ignore (light, temperature, sound).

This is why it seems like your child just can't fall asleep...

So, if you have wondered why sleep is harder for you than most of the other parents you know—this is why. The challenges exist, not because of your behavior as a parent, but because of how your amazing, non-sleepy child is wired. Does that mean there’s nothing you can do? NO! It just means we know where the road hazards are, and we can then plot a course around them, or we have the right tools to navigate through them. It’s important to know that your path to sleep is a little different from the others. It’s bumpier, yes; but the views are amazing.

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Macall Gordon, M.A. has a B.S. from Stanford in Human Biology and an M.A. from Antioch University, Seattle in Applied Psychology, where she is currently a Sr. Lecturer. She researches and writes about temperament, sleep, and the gap between research and advice. She is also a certified pediatric sleep consultant working with parents of alert, non-sleeping children. She comes to this work because she had two sensitive, intense children and she didn’t sleep for 18 years.
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