This week is the National Sleep Foundation’s Sleep Awareness Week to provide education and to promote the importance of sleep. I will dedicate my posts this week to sleep in babies through teens. I have attended sleep workshops, panel discussions, I’ve read stacks of books on the topic and I regularly consult with families to identify strategies to improve sleep for the whole family.
Sleep is like the coveted Holy Grail of new parenthood. I’m often asked about sleep tips for and babies and toddlers and how to improve or lengthen sleep times.
Whatever your family chooses for sleeping arrangements is a personal choice, but it tends to be a hot-button issue. I work in many families’ homes and what works for one family, doesn’t work for another, what one family values another family shuns. Sleep is no exception.
If whatever you’re doing is not a problem for you, it’s not a problem. However, if something is disturbing parents or children getting solid, beneficial sleep, if sleep deprivation is creeping in through small, but regular incremental sleep deficits, perhaps it’s become a problem.
Sleep has so many benefits, both obvious and subtle, it’s worth creating and protecting healthy sleep habits for the whole family. Understanding a little bit about sleep can be useful in making sleep decisions for your family. Babies go into deep sleep state in the beginning of nighttime sleep (perhaps 7 – 10:00 pm) and then again before waking in the morning with more frequent periods of lighter sleep (and more chance for awakenings) in between (around 10 pm – 4 am).
By three-four months most healthy full-term babies are able to sleep through the night, perhaps with a single 2:00 am feeding, by six months all healthy babies can do it. Studies have shown that at four months, a baby’s nervous system is mature enough to allow him to be able to sleep at 12 hour stretch. Unlike other milestones, sleep is not fixed, there may be shifts with time change, illness, travel and as babies go through new stages and become toddlers.
7 Sleep Tips for Babies and Toddlers:
Put your baby down to sleep drowsy but awake.
I know, I know, this often doesn’t work off the bat, or it works, then it doesn’t. With newborns, parents are learning and trying out different things. Something that does the trick one day, may not work great the next, but keep it in your tool bag and try again. Always be on the look out for when you can do less as a parent and allow your baby or toddler to do more (this is good advice beyond sleep, too, but that’s another post)!
Parents with very fussy infants are accustomed to doing a lot of interventions (rocking, shushing, bouncing, driving, soothing) to calm their baby. At some point, the baby will need less and less help if we notice the signs and try to pull back little by little. I love teaching parents Harvey Karps 5 S’s for infant soothing, I think if you know you can confidently get your baby back to sleep if she wakes up after being put down, then you’re more likely to feel comfortable TRYING to put her down.
Look for these signs of drowsiness and put your baby down when you see them before she goes past sleepy to cranky. A baby may only show one or two signs. You know your baby and his sleepy signals best.
- quieting down
- a lull in movement/activity
- looking away from toys or people (losing interest)
- looking “glazed”/staring
- rubbing eyes
Try an earlier bedtime.
6:30/7:00 pm is a suggestion to begin. Often parents are fearful of putting a baby or toddler to bed earlier for fear that he’ll wake earlier or sooner in the evening, but often the opposite is true. A well-rested child has an easier time falling asleep and staying asleep, thus sleeping better and longer, then being able to better fall asleep the next sleep time, and a positive cycle continues. Being overtired is real and prevents a child (or adult for that matter) from settling and sleeping easily.
Have a regular routine.
Some families are rigid about schedules, others are quite loosey-goosey. Somewhere in the middle is ideal for healthy sleep. If you’re just starting out on a new sleep schedule, leaning toward a more regimented schedule is helpful until the baby or child has established a solid habit of sleeping well, then you can be a little more flexible. Once good sleep is in place, go ahead and spend a little longer at the park which may bump a nap back by 1/2 hour or so. Try to prevent your kiddo from dozing off in the car or stroller on the way home, it’s okay.
We have a natural 25-hour circadian rhythm, without external cues of a consistent routine day-to-day, a baby (or adult) will “float” to a 25-hour cycle so we need to “reset” each day to remain on a 24-hour pattern. Having a predictable rhythm to your day will benefit everyone’s sleep (bonus: routine also helps moods, behaviors, and promotes feelings of security for the whole family!)
Create positive sleep associations.
Sleep associations are important to independent sleep. Everyone learns to associate certain conditions with falling asleep including place, bedding, what we wear to bed, the sounds, smells and other environmental factors. Children must be able to completely recreate by themselves all the conditions under which they fell asleep when they have normal, nighttime wakings.
A child cannot fall asleep or return to sleep after a normal waking unless the conditions are “right,” meaning everything is the same as how she fell asleep. This means a baby who only falls asleep in someone’s arms, may struggle to stay asleep or may not fall back again without those rocking arms. Nursing babes often have the association of nursing to sleep (which has so many beautiful aspects to it and isn’t a negative, but could become so if you’re struggling to help a baby or toddler to sleep on his own).
Other associations may be rocking, driving, swinging or some other motion. The more help a baby needs to fall asleep, the less likely she’ll be able to fall back asleep on her own, which is required for sleeping all night long or for stretching out naps.
Learning new associations may be difficult and uncomfortable at first, and depending upon the child’s age, but it will get better with consistent practice.
Use a white noise machine. Love these! Whether you have dogs, older siblings or simply the mailman clanking on the porch each day, white noise in a sleeping child’s room helps drown out those wakeful sounds. White noise is something in a baby’s environment that will still be there when she wakes up at night (as we all do) so the circumstances under which she fell asleep are consistent. White noise can be used as a sleep association and added into your bedtime rituals.
Use a consistent bedtime routine.
Even for babies, you can begin to create a bedtime rhythm. The last part of her nap/bedtime routine must be calming and in her room or always in the exact same spot, for at least the last 10 minutes before putting her down. Read in a chair in her room, cuddle and snuggle there. A nap time routine should mimic bedtime routines but be more brief.
The bedtime routine should be about 20-25 minutes and no longer than 30 minutes. The nap time routine should be an abbreviated version of the bedtime routine lasting only 10-15 minutes.
For example, if bedtime follows this sequence: nursing, bath, massage, PJs, two books, sing a song as you turn off the light, close the shades and turn on the noise machine, put child down to sleep drowsy but awake, leave the room and close the door. Then nap time could look like this: nursing, change diaper, one book, sing a song as you turn off the light, close the shades and turn on the noise machine, put child down to sleep drowsy but awake, leave the room and close the door.
Use a transitional object.
To introduce a transitional object, keep that “lovey” close throughout this routine, read and snuggle with it and put it to bed with your baby (once he is rolling both directions on his own). You can “wear” the special item before giving it to the baby so it has your smell. Sometimes babies will attach to something of their choosing (usually between eight months and one year old), not ours, and sometimes they don’t get attached to anything. It’s something to try.
“For the baby, learning to sleep is part of becoming independent. For a parent, teaching a child to sleep means being able to separate, and to step back and allow the baby to ‘learn’ to be independent at night. …Understanding [disruptive sleep periods at times of developmental growth] may give parents a better chance to offer their baby reassurance and limits. He will need these to learn how to get himself back to sleep. Learning to sleep is a necessary step toward independence.” – T. Berry Brazelton, MD
You want the best for your child, and helping him form good sleep patterns is part of that. Your child cannot yet understand what is best for him and will cry if he doesn’t get what he wants. You have to be the judge of what he can and cannot have and do. If what he wants is bad for him or dangerous, you wont’ give it to him no matter how hard he cries, and you won’t feel guilty or be worried about possible psychological consequences. A poor sleep pattern is also bad for your child and it is your job to correct it.” – Richard Ferber, MD
“Emotionally babies need some soothing from Mom and Dad to learn how to soothe themselves. Your mantra should be: ‘I cannot fix everything for you, but while you’re learning to fix things for yourself, I will go through it with you, by your side.” – Suzy Giordano, The Baby Sleep Solution