Not all sleep needs are created equal: temperament can significantly affect your sleep, and sleep trainers have been misusing the research for years. Here’s what you need to know.
Sleep is a fundamental aspect of our well-being, and its importance is underscored by its impact on our physical, mental, and emotional health. However, not all sleep needs are created equal. Your temperament, the unique way you respond to the world around you, can significantly affect your sleep requirements. In fact, temperament influences sleep needs in different ways at different stages of life, from infancy to adulthood, and adopting a holistic approach to improving sleep can help you to better understand how to work with your sleep needs, rather than against them.
Infancy: The Foundation of Sleep
Babies are known for their unpredictable sleep patterns, and much of this can be attributed to their temperament. Some infants are naturally more adaptable and can sleep longer stretches at night, needing less support to get to sleep and to stay asleep. Others are more sensitive, and may have a particular set of circumstances they need in order to fall asleep, and generally tend to need less overall sleep while also waking more frequently. Understanding your baby’s temperament can help you create a sleep routine that works for them.
Generally speaking, temperament is the leading consideration when making any changes with your child, whether it be sleep specific, setting boundaries, or managing conflict as they grow. Your child’s temperament is the embodiment of who they are as a person, and their unique personality will drive the approach that will best meet their needs.
Interestingly, the research on temperament and sleep has been widely misused by sleep trainers. In 1976, Dr. Thomas Anders conducted research aimed at observing nighttime behaviours in babies1. Dr. Anders and his colleagues observed that all babies wake throughout the night. Some go back to sleep on their own (he named these babies “soothers”), and some cried out for help from their parents (the “signalers”). Though Dr. Anders was the first to use the term “self soothers”, this study didn’t actually document any self calming behaviour, and Dr. Anders has since noted that the term has been used out of context2.
When sleep trainers relay the expectation that babies should be taught to ‘self soothe’, they are, in effect, expecting babies to be capable of self regulation. This isn’t an attainable goal for babies and most children (many adults struggle with this!), and so parents are set up to fail when their babies cannot achieve this unattainable holy grail of sleep. This is of particular significance for more highly sensitive babies, the signalers, who will need a much higher level of support than their super chill, ‘soother’ counterparts.
A holistic approach to infant sleep considers not only their physical comfort but also their emotional needs. Gentle sleep techniques, soothing bedtime rituals, and creating a calming sleep environment can all promote better sleep for your little one.
Toddlerhood: The Age of Independence
As your child grows into toddlerhood, their temperament becomes even more evident. Some toddlers have high energy levels and a strong need for stimulation, which can make bedtime a challenge. For these children, integrating a variety of sensory activities (for example, rough and tumble play; a longer bath; a massage; or some tickles) can ensure their sensory needs are being met, allowing them to settle to sleep more easily.
On the other hand, more introverted children, the ones I like to call the observers, may have lower than average sleep needs. These children may drop their naps sooner; are less likely to sleep in unfamiliar environments; and are generally described by their parents as having FoMo (fear of missing out). These more highly sensitive children were likely the babies who needed a lot of bouncing, rocking, and holding to get them to sleep as infants.
A third common temperament, the ‘unicorn sleepers’, are the kids who are very go-with-the-flow; these kids are not incensed by change, and typically find the transition to sleep smoother, and overall, sleep longer.
In this stage, a holistic sleep approach can involve incorporating calming activities into the bedtime routine, like reading a book or practicing relaxation techniques. Encouraging physical activity during the day can help expend energy, making it easier for your toddler to settle at night. And, as toddlers are well known for pushing boundaries, knowing how to give your child choice within boundaries that you set can give them a sense of autonomy, and give you a sense of control. You can learn more about how to integrate this into the bedtime routine by downloading this free Toddler Bedtime Guide.
Adulthood: Navigating Life’s Challenges
Temperament continues to play a role in sleep patterns throughout adulthood. Highly sensitive adults might be more prone to sleep disturbances due to environmental factors, while those with an adaptable temperament may have an easier time adjusting to changes in their sleep schedule.
A holistic approach to sleep in adulthood takes into account various factors like stress management, nutrition, and daily routines. By adopting mindfulness practices, creating a tranquil sleep environment, and maintaining a regular sleep schedule, adults can better align their sleep needs with their temperament.
Holistic Approach to Sleep
Regardless of age, a holistic approach to sleep takes into account the mind, body, and soul. Here are some key principles for integrating this holistic perspective into your sleep routine:
- Mindfulness and Relaxation: Practice meditation or deep-breathing exercises to calm the mind before bedtime. I personally recommend the 4-7-8 breathing technique to my clients (inhale for a slow count of 4, hold for 7, and exhale for 8; then repeat 4 times), or left nostril breathing (intentional breathwork through your left nostril by blocking the right nostril, as the left side of the body is focused on calming, while the right side is focused on re-energizing).
- Nutrition: We all strive for a good night’s sleep, but many don’t realize the importance of a healthy diet rich in sleep promoting foods and nutrients in order to achieve a more restful night’s sleep. Specifically, our diet needs to include sleep boosting foods that help to promote the production of serotonin and melatonin. To learn more about pro-sleep and anti-sleep foods, check out this article.
- Environment: Create a sleep-conducive environment by keeping the bedroom dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature. Many are under the impression that the bedroom should be warmer, but ideal temperature for sleep is between 68-72F, or 18-22C.
- Physical Activity: Incorporate regular physical activity into your daily routine, but avoid intense workouts close to bedtime. Working out in the morning, when cortisol is highest and melatonin is lowest, is ideal. Generally speaking, most people have a dip in energy between 1-3pm, making it a less than ideal time to get that activity in.
- Emotional Well-being: Manage stress through relaxation techniques, therapy, or engaging in hobbies that bring joy.
- Routine: Maintain a consistent sleep schedule, even on weekends, to regulate your body’s internal clock. “Catching up” on sleep may feel productive, but can often backfire by throwing off your circadian rhythm.
- Respect Your Temperament: Tailor your sleep routine to align with your unique temperament, whether you’re introverted, extroverted, sensitive, or adaptable. Pay close attention to whether you are a high, average, or low sleep needs person – and the same goes for children, too.
Understanding how temperament can impact sleep needs is essential for achieving restful and rejuvenating sleep throughout life. By adopting a holistic approach to sleep, which encompasses physical, mental, and emotional well-being, you can make better choices that align with your temperament. Remember, everyone’s sleep needs are unique, and embracing these differences can lead to a more fulfilling and restorative night’s sleep.
The key to healthy sleep is not one-size-fits-all; it’s about honouring your temperament and embracing a holistic perspective to find the perfect balance. Sweet dreams are within reach, no matter your age or temperament.
If you’re struggling to find sleep solutions to meet your family’s needs, please reach out! Book your free discovery call today.
- Anders TF, Sostek AM. (1976). The use of time-lapse video recording of sleep-wake behavior in human infants. Psychophysiology. 13:155–158.
- Dr. Thomas Anders (2014) as cited in Uncommon Sense, The Researcher Who Coined The Term Self-Soothing Weighs In. Retrieved from https://uncommonjohn.wordpress.com/2014/09/27/the-researcher-who-help-coined-the-term-self-soothing-weighs-in/