Sleep is kind of like toilet paper: You don’t realize how much you need it until it is gone.
If someone had told me in college that one day I wouldn’t be able to function after a (mostly) all-nighter, I would have thought they were crazy. Fast forward to the birth of my first child, and I found myself scraping through the day in those early weeks as my sweet newborn slept when she felt like it. It’s too bad you can’t register at Target for extra sleep when you are pregnant because I would have been all over that!
The unfortunate thing is that you can’t store sleep for later use. You can catch up, but I am not sure you really get a good chance for that with a small, needy human in the house. So what can be done to help with the sleep debt? Yes, babies are babies and have their own schedules. They need to eat, sleep, and be loved and comforted. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t gently nudge them toward a schedule. And when they become bigger babies and toddlers, you can definitely help them sleep.
With a little work, you can have a better sleeper. One of the first things to understand is that children need more sleep than adults. Eight hours is the “standard” for adults (and even women need about nine hours until they are 25!). A newborn will actually sleep 12–18 hours in 24 hours. A good way to remember where your child falls on the sleep continuum is the 10 for 10 rule. A 10-year-old child needs about 10 hours of sleep a night. Younger children need more, and older children need less. Remember that these numbers are over 24 hours. Watch the length and time of naps, as that can affect nighttime sleep. As your child starts to outgrow naps, modify sleep at night to accommodate.
Average recommended sleep by age
Because sleep requirements vary along with age and developmental level, your bag of sleep tricks will change as your child ages. No matter the age, starting with a consistent bedtime routine is important. Think about things like the noise level, lighting, and temperature. Is your child’s room quiet, dim, and a comfortable temperature? Next, think about what you and your child do before he/she goes to bed. Try to pick calming activities that you can consistently do every night. Put on pajamas, brush teeth, read a book, sing a song, turn off the light, and leave the room. Avoid eating and watching TV/using other technology right before bed. Start to wind down about 30 minutes before you want to turn out the lights. Be consistent. This includes how you react to finding your child in your bed at 3:00 A.M. Move him/her back to bed EVERY time it happens, or your child will learn that there is a chance that he/she can stay with you.
Comfort is key when establishing sleep environment.
Most problems related to toddler and young child sleep revolve around falling asleep and staying asleep. Kids can find a lot of reasons to get out of bed and stay out of bed. As children develop sleep habits, they often learn to associate specific environmental factors with self-quieting and the induction of sleep. Sometimes parental efforts can create a bigger problem. For instance, the parent who soothes the child to sleep is able to get the child to sleep quickly. The problem is that when the child wakes in the night, he/she often has problems falling back asleep on his/her own. Some children have problems staying in bed without a parent present. These are the kids who are out of bed several times and drag out the falling asleep process.
As long as they fall asleep on their own and in their room, carefully move them back to bed!
So what can you do? The answer is that it depends on the age of the child but requires consistency from the parent. Remember that children learn through repetition, so the more opportunities a child has to learn that Mom and Dad mean business when it is bedtime, the faster he/she learns to go to sleep quickly and alone. Here are a couple of techniques for improving sleep habits in your child:
Graduated Extinction (younger children)—This is great for the child that will not fall asleep alone. Some children even want the parent to lie there with them until they fall asleep. If this is the case, you may need to slowly move yourself out of the room over the first week or so of using this drill. Start by sitting next to the bed while your child falls asleep. The next day, move your chair a little closer to the door and away from the bed. Gradually move yourself closer to the door until you are ready to say goodnight and leave the room at bedtime. Here is the trick at this point: You want to catch your child being good (e.g., staying quietly in bed) and praise him/her for it. Initially, say goodnight and shut the door. Almost immediately, open the door and quickly praise your child for staying quietly in bed. Continue to do this at longer intervals over the next several days to a week. The hope is that falling asleep will be more enticing than your praise as the nights go on. Special consideration: tantrums. Some children may tantrum as you leave the room. Try to wait out the tantrum or wait for a break in the tantrum to open the door. Remember that we don’t want to praise them for inappropriate behavior. Research actually shows that while some children will tantrum for up to 45 minutes, most do not. Also with consistency, the tantrum length will quickly decrease and hopefully disappear.
Bedtime Pass (older children)—This requires that the child get in bed and stay in bed. The child is given a “bedtime pass” that works as a ticket to get out of bed for one reason (e.g., get a drink, receive a hug, grab a tissue, etc.) at night. The child must surrender the pass if he/she gets out of bed during the night. A reward in the morning can be attached to not getting out of bed without the pass. Kids usually love this technique. The funny thing is that most children hold onto the pass all night long—possibly out of fear that something will happen and they won’t have the pass when they really need it?
The Sleep Fairy (mostly older children, but it may work on some under three)—The Sleep Fairy by Janie Peterson is a book that you read to your children before bed. It is a story about two little girls who would not go to bed. Their frustrated mother read the story of The Sleep Fairy to them. The Sleep Fairy will visit children at night who stay in bed all night and do not call out to parents and leave a SMALL prize for good sleeping behavior. The best thing about this book is that you have to read the book for the Sleep Fairy to visit. When you start sleep training, you will want to read the book every night. Then you will be able to back off on reading and prizes as your child succeeds at staying in bed and falling asleep.
These aren’t the only techniques that work, but they are ones that have worked on many children in the past. Remember that the power to create healthy sleeping children is in your hands. Be consistent and assertive when it comes to sleep, and don’t give up on your sleep technique quickly. Give it a week or two to see results. Children who get good sleep are happier, more alert, and more attentive. You have the power to help them develop these important habits.
- Good Night, Sweet Dreams, I Love You by Patrick Friman; Boys Town Press, 2005
- The No Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help your Baby Sleep Through the Night by Elizabeth Pantley and William Sears; McGraw Hill, 2002
- Sleeping Through the Night, Revised Ed: How Toddlers and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night’s Sleep by Jodi Mindell; Amazon, 2005
- The Sleep Fairy by Janie Peterson and Macy Peterson; Behave’n Kids Press, 2003
- Take Charge of Your Child’s Sleep: The All-in-One Resource for Solving Sleep Problems in Kids and Teens by Judith Owens and Jodi Mindell; Marlowe and Company, 2005
(This article is not extensive and does not address issues like infant sleep or medical issues. It is always worth talking to your pediatrician if you believe your child’s sleep behavior is out of the realm of normal childhood sleep problems.)