Teachable Moments

Neuroscience of Sleep Part 2: Challenging Sleep Behaviors in Children

Sleep as a Nutrient for the Early Years

As you read in my article, Neuroscience of Sleep Part 1: Rock the Baby, the dream world, where children spend 40% of their childhood, can be better understood with an understanding of the neuroscience of challenging sleep behaviors in children. Sleep is a nurturing nutrient that is essential for empowered child development. However, some children experience challenges in getting sufficient sleep. Many children have a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep.

We live in a world built on balance. Opposites create opportunities for us to thrive. Universally, we have night and day. Humans are aligned with this balance, as we need restorative sleep in order to flow with life force energy that keeps us moving throughout the day.

Sleep is the foundation for life.

Science of Sleep

There are numerous studies that have underscored the role of sleep for children’s development. The following are a few select studies that look at the neuroscience of sleep and its importance for a child’s well-being.

It is important to note that many studies have found proper sleep to be a preventing factor in the development of cognitive and behavioral problems in mid-childhood.

University of Colorado Boulder

While children slumber their brains work to build and solidify neural connections between the brain hemispheres creating a bridge between the left and right brain. This bridge is the corpus callosum. This bridge serves as the infrastructure for speedy communication between brain hemispheres as an adult. When the brain hemispheres are symmetrically aligned and connected learning, creativity, and memory are optimized.

A study by the, University of Colorado Boulder, found that the strength of connectivity between the left and right hemispheres grew 20% in one night’s sleep. This study also demonstrated that neural pruning occurred at great levels during a child’s sleep. I discuss the importance of neural pruning in my article, Authentic Alignment & Modeling Self-Regulation.

Michigan State University

The University of Colorado Boulder’s study findings are synergistic to a research published by Michigan State. This research demonstrated that alignment between the left and right hemispheres is crucial in preventing learning disabilities.

“The Sleeping Child Outplays the Adult’s Capacity to Convert Implicit into Explicit Knowledge”

This paper published in, Nature Neuroscience, established that as we sleep our brains process and program what we have learned during the day into our brain. Children are able to do this more efficiently than adults thanks to a greater amount of deep sleep. At the end of the day when children are asleep, they are able to turn short-term memories into long-term knowledge. They are able to turn implicit information into explicit knowledge. This creates a foundation for all future learning. Having a strong foundation will lead to a child’s ability to learn easily later on.

Massachusetts General Hospital Academic Pediatrics Study

A research study published in, Academic Pediatrics, found that children age 3-7 who had insufficient sleep had problems with attention, peer relationships, and emotional control.

Elsie Taveras, the leading researcher of this study, reported…

“We found that children who get an insufficient amount of sleep in their preschool and early school-age years have a higher risk of poor neurobehavioral function at around age 7”

Many studies have also analyzed the link between a lack of sleep and a heightened risk for obesity. Taveras notes that the effects of insufficient sleep for cognitive and behavioral functioning, such as inhibition and impulsivity, may lead to obesity. Children who are not receiving enough sleep may consume high-caloric foods in unhealthy amounts.

Sleep Deprivation or ADHD?

When adults are overtired, they become irritable and lethargic. When children are overtired, they seem to be bouncing off the walls with energy. A child who is overtired may display signs such as waking up frequently through the night, waking up early at night and during naps, night terrors, crying, hyperactivity, and uncontrollable laughing.

I will briefly discuss the role sleep plays in ADHD and ADHD type behaviors for early childhood. ADHD is a widely discussed topic and there are many varying beliefs and attitudes about its diagnoses and treatment. My perspective is that there are many possible contributing factors that play into the behaviors that are diagnosed as ADHD. ADHD cannot be officially diagnosed until age 4 but before that there can be signs of ADHD.

There are many common behaviors that have been identified as correlates of sleep deprivation or disrupted sleep in children. These behaviors are very similar to the symptoms of ADHD.

These symptoms are:

Problems paying attention

Problems focusing



Disturbed mood


Lack of impulse control

It is important to recognize that if your child is demonstrating any of these behaviors it may be due to a lack of sleep rather than ADHD. If you are concerned that your child may have ADHD work on improving his or her sleep to see if the symptoms resolve naturally.

Some children are misdiagnosed with ADHD when the root cause of their behavior is a sleep disorder. ADHD is the most commonly misdiagnosed behavior disorder.

If you choose to consult a pediatrician or family doctor request an in-depth analysis of alternate explanations for the symptoms your child is expressing. Also, ensure that the professional is looking at all of the child’s symptoms as a whole rather than focusing on hyperactivity, distractibility, and inattention. It is becoming increasingly common for inattention to be seen as an apparent sign of ADHD. While inattention is one of the three primary symptoms of ADHD it can also be due to a whole host of other possibilities.

*If you decide that your child would benefit from taking ADHD medication it is important to note that one of the most common side effects is trouble sleeping.

Magnesium Deficiency

Behavior is not only a communication of internal feeling states but can also be a communication of healthy nutrition or a lack thereof.

Magnesium is a magical nutrient required for peaceful sleep.

Signs of magnesium deficiency include:




Poor sleep


Cramps or stomach aches

Growing pains




Magnesium works to calm the central nervous system. It is a natural sedative, resulting in the ability to relax into deep sleep that lasts all night!

For children, magnesium is especially important as it is a potential cause of growing pains. Growing pains are often what wakes children up in the middle of the night.

Magnesium is an essential nutrient that is required for the health of bones, teeth, muscles, and joints.

Children can take a magnesium supplement for sleep but my favorite way to use magnesium for sleep is to create a magic magnesium oil spray or lotion. Applying the oil transdermally can be a fun addition to your child’s bedtime routine.

Here is a link that will show you how to create the oil:

Riveting Routine

Consistency is central to an effective routine. Once the routine has been established it is essential that it is employed consistently, every time. Children need time to adapt to a new routine. On average, it takes a few weeks for a child to fully adjust to a new routine. When working through this adjustment period there may be small changes to the routine that will help it to flow more naturally. Only make one change at a time and make sure you allow your child enough time to adapt before implementing another change.

Step 1: Review your current routine, write it down if that works for you. Think about when your child begins to display signs of sleepiness. If there is challenging behavior, when does it typically start? What time(s) does your child wake in the night? What times does your child usually wake up? Does your child seem well-rested in the morning?

Step 2: Decide what time you want your child to be asleep at. Watch your child’s behavior during the evening (typically 4-6pm) for signs of tiredness and note around what time these signs begin to show. When signs begin to arise begin the bedtime routine. In the future, plan your routine to start about 30-45 minutes before you want your child to be asleep. The goal is to get your child in bed before he or she is overtired.

You can keep a log of when your child falls asleep and compare the nights to identify which time resulted in the best sleep.

When you decide the time, stick to it! Your child will be able to adapt to this new bedtime much faster if there is consistency and predictability.

Step 3: Find a bed time ritual that works for your family.

Give your child a verbal warning that it is about to be time to get ready for bed. This can be a 10 or 5 minute warning given at the same time every day.

Suggestions for bedtime:

Warm bath

Put on pajamas

Read a story

Play soothing music

Pick out a favorite stuffed animal

Sing a song


Special goodnight as you leave



A New Theory About ADHD and Sleep

ADHD and Sleep Disorders: Are Kids Getting Misdiagnosed?

The Most Common Misdiagnoses in Children

Poor Sleep in Early Childhood Linked to Later Congnitive and Behavioral Problems

Sleep Strengthens Healthy Brain Connectivity

The Sleeping Child Outplays the Adult’s Capacity to Convert Implicit into Explicit Knowledge

Shedding New Light on Learning Disorders

Connections in the Brains of Young Children Strengthens During Sleep, CU-Boulder Study Finds

What is the Relationship Between Sleep and Brain Development in Infants and Young Children?

Teachable Moments

Neuroscience of Sleep Part 1: Rock the Baby

Sleep as a Nutrient for Babies

Watching a sleeping baby can be a truly joyful experience. No matter how challenging the day has been or how sleep deprived you are, watching your sleeping baby melts the day away.

“There was never a child so lovely but his mother was glad to get him to sleep.”


Ralph Waldo Emerson


The serenity of sleep can make it seem simple, but sleep is one of the most nurturing necessities for a child’s healthy development.

Sleeping is an act that all humans engage in and yet, it still has to be learned. Most children need guidance on how to recognize and honor their natural sleep cycles. Children need to learn from loved ones how to self-soothe so they can fall asleep and stay asleep.

While every child is unique, most children begin to develop a personal circadian rhythm (a cycle of sleep-wake) around 6 weeks. A newborn will still have an irregular sleep schedule. Around 6 months, a baby’s sleep schedule will become more regular.

This information can act as a general guideline for understanding development but actually surviving through the night the first few years can be quite challenging for many sleep deprived caregivers.

There are some strategies that can be of use to help get your baby to sleep but for the most part the goal of this article is to provide neurobiological information on child development that will support you as a parent.

It may seem crazy but when it comes to rocking a baby to sleep I bet you are already doing what is best and do not need any parenting advice. Caregivers all around the world rock their babies in very similar ways. Soothing, rocking, and carrying babies until they fall asleep is part of our collective wisdom that has evolved over time.

My goal is to honor your innate intelligence as a parent to inspire your family’s ability to thrive. I will offer paradigm shifts on how you think of your child’s behavior and it is in these shifts that you will learn effective parenting strategies.

Rocking the Baby to Sleep

Moving towards a time when your child sleeps through the night can be an overwhelming hurdle. You may want to sprint to the finish line where your bed and a full night’s sleep awaits. Oh what a dream…

Your baby may wake up numerous times throughout the night crying for you. This behavior is communicating to you that he or she has just moved through a sleep cycle! We all, regardless of our age, enter into a moment of wakefulness after the completion of a sleep cycle. However, as adults we know how to fall right back asleep and so we barely notice this pattern. When a child finishes a sleep cycle and is awake he or she will scan the room looking for comfort from a loved one. When the child does not see a caregiver, the result may be cries of distress.

This means that getting your baby to sleep includes helping him or her learn to self-soothe through sleep cycles as the night progresses. As I discussed in my article, Authentic Alignment, a bawling baby depends on the parasympathetic nervous system of a caregiver to regulate. When you rock your baby or carry your baby as your pace around the room you are training her brain to recognize moving from high arousal to low arousal. This will help strengthen neural connections that will later result in an ability to self-soothe independently.

The process of picking up a baby, rocking, and carrying is a universal recipe for relaxation. Many caregivers have found that once their baby has been soothed and an attempt is made to lay their baby down to sleep he or she instantly wakes up crying again. Especially for an already sleep deprived caregiver, the result may be a desire to explode in frustration or puddle into a pool of self-doubt.

This behavior is not your babies attempt to control you or demand all your attention at the cost of a good night’s sleep as strategies like the “cry it out” method may purpose. It is a phenomenon that happens in all babies around the world and can be explained by an understanding of what is going on in the brain!

Neuroscience can nurture your understanding of your baby’s brain and empower you to see the importance of soothing your baby to sleep even when you are exhausted. I will then offer strategies that will support your stresses as you sway through your child’s sleep symphony.

In 2013, a research study was published in the journal, Current Biology, reporting the universal similarity of soothing that occurs when a caregiver is trying to put a baby to sleep. They found that all mammalian infants have an automatic calming response when carried. Babies have been neurobiologically designed by nature, over the span of evolution, to stop crying when carried. This response is caused by an interplay of cardiac, motor, and central regulations.

Kumi Kuroda, from the RIKEN Brain Science Institute, found that this occurrence is orchestrated by the parasympathetic nervous system in a concerto inside the cerebellum. Babies detect sensory input from the biofield as well as the external senses such as touch and sound. One of the jobs of the cerebellum is to keep you safe. It is located in the reptilian brain, which is your place of autonomic function regulation. The cerebellum is constantly vigilant for anything that may put you in danger. If something is detected it will send your body into fight-or-flight mode. The only time that the cerebellum has a chance to rest is during REM sleep. When a baby is picked up and gently rocked a signal is sent to the cerebellum to simmer down, resulting in a soothing effect (including a lower heart rate). Sometimes when a baby is set down the cerebellum kicks back up into high gear causing the baby to cry once again.

In addition, babies are calmed when held due to the processes of proprioception. Proprioception describes the ability to sense and orient body movements. Proprioception is driven by the central nervous system and aids in coordinating movements. Proprioception is at play at times when your body sends warning signals to your brain, for example, when your finger is getting close to a flaming candle.

A baby who wakes up multiple times in the night and needs a caregiver’s love to soothe is displaying the beauty of brain development. Even though this process may be frustrating it is a natural and universal aspect of a child’s healthy development.

Trust in your wisdom as a parent. Allow your knowledge of brain development to guide you. Melt away your frustration and stress with the serenity of your sleeping baby.

Tips and Tricks for Soothing the Baby to Sleep

When you are struggling to soothe your baby to sleep or back to sleep there are some strategies you can try. The goal of these tools is to ensure that you are still nurturing your child’s brain. You want to empower your child’s ability to fall asleep independently. In order to do this, the child needs experiences in regulating to a level of arousal that will allow him or her to fall asleep.  Your child needs to feel safe enough to shut down the cerebellum.

I do not recommend strategies like the “cry it out” method. In this article, I will not be going into great detail on why this method is detrimental for children, but I will touch on one of the most toxic hormones a baby can experience: cortisol. When a baby is very upset like when they are crying for a caregiver there is a possibility of synapses damage. When a baby is “crying it out” without a caregiver’s touch the hormone cortisol is released. Cortisol in excess kills neurons. A baby’s brain at 40-42 weeks is only 25% developed. We do not want to kill any of the foundational neurons of a developing brain. Proponents of this method do not often discuss the long-term outcomes for the baby. Emphasis is placed on short-term goals of getting a baby to sleep so parents can sleep or “get back to their lives.” While this method may (debatably) produce short term satisfaction there can be serious long-term side effect for the baby.

With the knowledge of brain development and neuroscience I have provided it is clear that for long-term health and well-being babies need to be soothed.


A baby whose circadian rhythms have begun to regulate can benefit greatly from a relaxing routine before naps and bedtime. Having a consistent routine provides predictability which allows a child to feel comfortable and safe. When setting up a routine take into account how long it takes for your baby to wind-down. A baby who is very active will need a longer amount of time to relax to a point where falling asleep is accessible. It may take a few days to figure out the perfect routine but go slow with changes and remember that it may take time for your baby to adapt. 

Temperament and Multiple Intelligences

Your child’s unique temperament and multiple intelligences can be a huge contributing factor to how your child would like to be soothed. Some babies respond best to physical touch while others would rather not be touched while they are calming down. A baby who is strong in natural intelligence might be most soothed by fresh air and being rocked outside. The key is to have an awareness of who your baby is and from there you can build effective strategies for soothing.


Look around your baby’s sleep space. Make sure it is a calming environment. Think about incorporating a white noise machine or gentle music to help your baby sleep. Use music to help a baby fall asleep, not a tv or iPad video program. Programs like Baby Einstein, which are used by some parents to relax babies into sleep, have been linked to autism and attention deficit disorders.


The Neuroscience of Calming a Baby

Children and Sleep

Teachable Moments

Authentic Alignment & Modeling Self-Regulation

Aligned and Attuned

Over the course of the day we all pulse through the various emotional states that comprise the rhythm of our life. We are continuously moving through alternating states of arousal, dysregulation, and regulation. We are working towards a place of balance. Often, we think of balance as a space in which we feel calm and serene. Rather, it is a place in which you are conscious of your emotions and are empowered to express them. Alignment occurs when you feel safe enough in your own skin to let who you truly are shine. Nurturing a sense of self-regulation in children sets the stage for an authentic life in which one can feel attuned to inner feeling states.

It is impossible to feel singularly serene and never deviate into dysregulation. Rather, we want to decrease the amount of time spent in dysregulation and regulation and have an abundance of time in alignment and attunement.

This is accomplished through attuned parenting and the modeling of self-regulation strategies.

Self Regulation – Use it or Lose it

The process of learning, from a neurobiological standpoint, is a process of building, strengthening, and pruning neural connections. Once a neural pathway has been established it is called a synapse. It is these neural connections that enable alignment in the brain.

Brain development in infants begins with a minimal amount of neural connections. An infant has no independent self-regulation strategies but rather relies on a caregiver to learn these skills. Within the first year of life, as a baby gains experiences, neural connections begin forming rapidly.  Infant brain development is booming with the blossoming of neural pathways. For brain development in children, these pathways resemble a mass of tangled roots. It is in the second and third year of life that these roots are pruned and organized. The neural pathways that stay in place are the ones most frequently used. If a connection is no longer actively utilized, it is pruned away; our brain employs a use it or lose it strategy.

Babies depend upon their caregivers to cope. The baby-caregiver bond is the primary means for self-regulation in children. This intimate connection also acts as the foundation for future learning and the development of self-regulation strategies. A baby borrows the parasympathetic nervous system of his or her caregiver to regulate. It is in moments of attunement that a baby will learn how to regulate arousal states. This is when neural pathways for self-regulation strategies are set in place. It is through consistently being with your child and aiding in self-regulation that these neural pathways are solidified. As a parent, you are building these connections when you rock or sing to your baby, for example. Babies need recurrent experiences of dysregulation, which may manifest in crying, and assisted self-regulation from a caregiver, which may involve holding or feeding, for example.

Authentically You

How you are coping in a given situation translates into how your child will learn to cope in the future. The ways in which you regulate your emotions models to your child the self-regulation strategies they can use.

It is of great importance to be authentic. You do not need to feel perfectly calm to help your baby cope. When a baby is crying or expressing challenging behavior you may feel dysregulated yourself. You may need to use strategies to nurture your self-regulation so you can then empower your child towards his or her own regulation. That is O.K.

It is valuable to recognize and honor your feelings and work to regulate them back to a place in which you are comfortable and fully aligned. Even if you do your best to appear cool, calm, and collected if you are screaming from stress internally your child will feel that turmoil.

If you respect your emotions and use self-regulation strategies you will be modeling that for your child. You will be strengthening neural pathways in his or her brain. If you do this consistently, those neural connections will result in your child’s ability to self-regulate independently in the future.

A caregiver who allows for authenticity teaches the value of feelings. Authenticity ensures that children develop trust and intuition. A child who has consistent experiences with an authentic adult will learn how to make sense of the world because there has been alignment between what the child feels, hears, and sees.

Honoring Emotions Verbally

The verbal messages you send your child are just as important as the nonverbal/emotional messages they are receiving from attunement with your parasympathetic nervous system.

The simple mental shift I offer for you is to add an honoring statement when disciplining your child. This means honoring the wisdom in all emotions. By doing this you are communicating with your child that you understand and respect him or her.

Example: A parent (Arthur) walks into a room and asks his daughter (Sofia age 4) to clean up her toys and come to dinner.

Sofia yells: “NO” and throws a toy.

Arthur walks over to Sofia and places a hand on her back. He says: “Wow Sofia, I see you are angry. It can be challenging to stop playing when you are having fun.”

Sofia looks at her father and quietly says: “Ya.”

Arthur responds: “It makes me sad when you yell and throw toys. We use our words when we are upset. Next time you can tell me you aren’t ready to come to dinner yet.”

In this example, the child’s anger about having to stop playing resulted in her yelling at her father and throwing a toy. Arthur takes time to connect to his daughter and honor her anger by labeling her feeling. He communicates respect for her by recognizing how difficult it can be to stop playing. Only then does he guide her behavior. Arthur was able to see the wisdom in his child’s communication and encourage her to express it more appropriately, through words instead of aggressive action.

*Bonus tip: If this example resonates with you and your child frequently has a challenging time transitioning from an enjoyed activity, begin using a timer. This allows the child’s brain time to anticipate the transition and regulate any emotions that may be bubbling up. You can tell your child he or she has 10 minutes until it is time to do another activity or clean-up. Another verbal cue can be offered at 5 minutes, 2 minutes, and 1 minute. When giving this warning make sure your child is paying attention. This will look different for all children but you can ensure attunement by making eye contact or placing a gentle hand on your child’s body. Once the timer is set, remember to follow through. After the given time has passed the child must move on and listen to your words. Do not give extra time or your child will learn that the timer tool is not consistently enforced and if they behave a certain way they will get more time. If challenges arise at the end of the time remind your child that you respected his or her time and you expect them to do the same for you.  


Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain

Helping Infants and Toddlers Learn Self-Regulation