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Wouldn’t it be nice if parenting came with a manual? I know that some days I wish I had detailed instructions to follow. One of the areas that seems to vex parents most is sleep: why doesn’t my baby sleep through the night? Why does my toddler fight bedtime so hard? How can I get my child to become a better napper? Why is my baby waking so early every morning? Is there a way to help your sleepless baby?
Although these appear to be very different problems, there are a few keys to good sleep that can solve all of these challenges and more. Follow these 4 steps and your child, too, can be a great sleeper.
1. Create a sleep-friendly environment
Kids need a space to sleep that’s conducive to good rest. That means dark, quiet, and cool (ideally about 68-72 degrees). Naps, especially, can be tough when there’s too much sunlight or commotion. I recommend blackout (not just room darkening) shades and white noise. Both of these will be even more important as summer approaches with its long days and open windows. Aim for all nighttime sleep and naps to be motionless once your baby is 6 months old (it’s fine to take the third catnap of the day on the go). Another sleep-stealer that’s becoming increasingly problematic is the blue light emitted from all kinds of screens – computers, TVs, phones. This light actually interferes with our body’s production of melatonin, the “sleepy hormone.” Be sure to shut off all electronics at least 1-2 hours before it’s time to sleep.
2. Get the timing right
If you’re waiting until your child is rubbing his eyes or fussing, you’ve missed the ideal window for getting him to sleep. Watch your baby closely for sleepy cues such as looking away or zoning out and then get him to bed right away. Young babies generally can’t stay awake more than 1-2 hours without becoming over-stimulated and over-tired. Older babies can stay awake a bit longer, but are still ready for their first nap within a couple of hours of waking in the morning. Make sure your child isn’t awake too long between his last nap and bedtime – a 9 month old may be able to go about 3 hours, a 12-month old about 4 (these numbers are general guidelines). More than that and he’ll be overtired, which leads to tough bedtimes, more waking during the night and early rising. Finally, bedtime should be early – sometime between 6:30 and 8:00 p.m. is ideal for most babies and young children. Remember, your child is going to need at least 10-12 hours of sleep each night until he’s about 10 years old! (Surprised? Your child may not be getting enough sleep.)
3. Create a soothing bedtime routine
Children thrive on routine – it gives them a sense of comfort and security. Routine is even more important at bedtime, as it helps their little bodies physically prepare for sleep. I recommend a 20-30 minute routine, with the majority taking place in the room where your child will be sleeping. Do the same steps in the same order each night, and stick with consistent limits – for example, 3 books. Don’t make this a time for negotiation and battles; it will go easier on everyone if you all know what to expect. Toddlers, especially, need 100% consistency along with lots of time for snuggles so they can prepare for bedtime separation. This can also be a good time to reinforce good hygiene skills – such as teeth brushing.
4. Instill independent sleep skills
Going to sleep is a learned skill. If you’re not convinced, consider this: a recent survey by The National Sleep Foundation’s found that 66% of adults and 47% of children rely on TV or videos to help them fall asleep. Not only is it alarming that so many people don’t have the ability to go to sleep on their own, but the blue light emitted by these screens is also interfering with their sleep quality. Don’t wait until your child is older, has engrained habits, and has already missed out on months or even years of needed sleep. Once your baby is 6 months old, she is probably ready to go to sleep on her own and sleep through the night. Sleep training does NOT have to mean leaving your child to cry it out. In my work as a sleep consultant, I recommend gentler approaches that involve staying with your child and being able to provide comfort and reassurance as she’s developing new skills. Establishing good sleep habits is absolutely compatible with attachment parenting. Good sleep is critical to good health, and it’s our job to instill in our kids the sleep habits they will need throughout their lives. Finally, as you’re working on each of these steps, be consistent!! If your child sees that you’re doing things in the same way every day and night, she’ll learn much more quickly and she’ll shed fewer tears. If she sometimes gets rocked to sleep, or gets an extra bedtime story, or gets to nurse, or gets to come into your bed, you can’t blame her for trying. If you stick with your plan in a firm but loving manner, she will learn to be a great sleeper – something that will benefit her for a lifetime.