Early Intervention, Early Intervention Clearinghouse

Healthy Sleep Key to First Few Years

You give your toddler a kiss, tuck her in her little bed, and then she cries, “No! No night night! Don’t go!” You hand her a favorite toy bunny, tell her you will be around the corner, and close the door. You hear tiny feet shuffling down the hallway just as you enter the kitchen to finish the dinner dishes. Your toddler is out of bed. You walk her back to her bed. You tuck her in and close the door. She returns a few minutes later. You let out a big sigh and walk her down the hall again.

Tonight’s game of bedtime ping-pong is going strong. Your child is the ball and she’s bouncing between her bed and the kitchen. You are frustrated and tired. You start to wonder whether the bedtime fight is worth your energy. Where is the coach with a pep talk that can keep you motivated in this tough moment so you can help your child sleep? Here are a few reasons to keep trying to win the bedtime game:

Healthy sleep promotes brain development. The brains of infants and toddlers are growing during sleep times. The brain grows rapidly during this time of life. Sleep times during the first three years of life are especially important for healthy brain development.

Healthy sleep promotes self-regulation. Self-regulation refers to how the brain and body work together to control emotions, attention, and thoughts. Self-regulation is the foundation of early childhood development. A well-rested child has an easier time coping with big emotions and transitions through the day. Proper rest helps children sustain attention during play. Well-rested children have an easier time learning and exploring new things because of their increased ability to self-regulate.

Healthy sleep is important for physical health. New research indicates proper rest is connected to healthy growth patterns. A well-rested child is better able to fight off illness, maintain a healthy body weight, and have better overall physical health. Certain hormones that help with the repair and growth of cells are only released during deep sleep. Research also indicates that the whole family’s health is improved when parents and other adults who live with young children get healthy sleep.

Mindfulness, or being aware of our own feelings in the moment, can be an important way to manage stress. Bedtime battles are stressful for caregivers during all stages of early development.

Challenges can begin from the newborn days with a fussy baby who is difficult to soothe, into the infant stage when your baby stands in the crib crying, and continue to the toddler times when your child keeps leaving his bed for one more kiss or hug.

If your child was in the neonatal intensive care unit or has had health issues that interfere with sleep such as sleep apnea, you may find yourself continuing to worry about your child’s health during sleep. Your child senses your stress level, and this can make it hard for a child to calm down. This is because young children and their caregivers are connected through emotions.

As a caregiver, try taking a few deep breaths and saying to yourself or your child, “I’m helping you with sleep so your brain and body can grow.” Imagine warm and cozy thoughts. Remember that your children’s sleep space is a haven that allows them time to grow and develop.

This mindful self-talk can help you keep focused on your goal of helping your child sleep. Being calm in the moment can help you soothe your child. Talk with your child’s health care providers or your EI providers to come up with a sleep plan that is workable for your family.

This issue’s EI Note contains ideas for creating a healthy sleep space and routine for your child, and we hope you will find many ideas that will help your family have restful and restorative sleep so you will have energy to play and learn together.

Originally written for the Illinois Early Intervention Clearinghouse Fall 2015 Newsletter

Illinois Early Learning Project

Cherishing Children’s Treasures Can Create Many Opportunities to Learn

When you read the word treasure, what images come to mind? Oftentimes, something is considered a treasure if it has some sort of monetary value. Perhaps you think of diamonds, gold coins, or a delicate china doll. Family photographs, letters, or quilts may also be considered treasures. As adults, we may have our notions of what makes something a treasure. In addition to being a noun, treasure is also a verb. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb treasure as “to hold or keep as precious; to cherish; to prize.”

Adult definitions of what makes something a treasure may differ from what a child would consider a treasure. Children find treasures everywhere. Some treasures that excite children are sparkly sequins for a craft project, pebbles, pinecones, seeds, beloved toys, or a tattered blanket. The items that capture the attention of children may be different than those adults may focus upon.

We can capitalize on children’s natural motivation and desire to learn when we as adults choose to follow the lead of children as they explore. With found materials, children have a natural desire to sort, classify, talk, and write about their discoveries. These found objects are sometimes referred to as “loose parts” that can be incorporated with more traditional classroom materials, such as blocks or items in the dramatic play areas, and they can spur children’s creativity.

I was fortunate in the spring of 2014 to travel to Pistoia and Reggio Emilia, Italy, with other early childhood educators. There, we visited the municipal early childhood centers. In these centers, I saw examples of how teachers capitalized upon the treasures children had discovered and encouraged children to incorporate their treasures into their play and learning. One school I visited was La Coccinella, a program for children ages 3–6.

My fellow travelers and I noticed that in each classroom there was a shelf filled with small cardboard boxes labeled with children’s names. In the classroom for 4-year-olds, the teachers allowed us to peek into a few of the boxes, and we were delighted to see that the children used these boxes to collect items they treasured. The boxes were filled with natural objects such as stones, seashells, and pinecones. We also saw tiny dolls, toy cars, and other small treasured objects such as coins and marbles.

When we looked at some classroom displays of children’s work, we saw similar materials. For example, we saw a display the children had created that sorted stones and shells by type, shade, and size. Through this creation, the children developed several early math skills such as counting, creating and recognizing sets, and comparing the attributes of objects.

Another impressive display was an entire fairytale village that had been built by the children out of clay, recycled materials, and many treasures such as figurines and little toys similar those we had seen in the children’s treasure boxes. The fairytale village provided an opportunity for storytelling and dictation of stories, and the children used their emergent writing skills to label their creations.

I wonder what kinds of opportunities we can create for children to learn with treasures in our classrooms, family child care programs, and homes. Our first challenge is to “treasure” or cherish children’s perspectives. We can tune into what they find fascinating. We can provide containers and spaces for collecting items, write down children’s words, and encourage children to use their emergent writing skills to label their collections. We can let them play with these items and bring various objects for children to explore in small group activities rather than using “boxed” manipulatives.

Even older infants and toddlers can join in joyful exploration of treasures, provided we plan for their safety. Boxes, containers, large plastic lids, scarves, measuring cups, and spoons can be left for discovery in special treasure baskets or boxes in their play areas. You could even encourage older children to create a treasure basket for infants and toddlers. With your guidance, they can help classify items first as safe for a baby (e.g., smooth edges, large enough not to choke on) or unsafe for a baby (e.g., sharp edges, very small items) and then by other attributes such as the material the objects are created from or their color.

Written for the Illinois Early Learning Project: Cherishing Children’s Treasures Can Create Many Opportunities to Learn