The best sleep advice you've ever heard
"People who say they sleep like a baby usually don't have one." – Leo J. Burke.
Ah, blessed, luxurious sleep ... remember what it was like to get eight uninterrupted hours a night? If you have young children, it probably seems like a distant memory. According to a National Sleep Foundation poll, up to 69 percent of kids age 10 and under have some type of sleep problem. As for the other 31 percent – what's their secret? We turned to leading childhood sleep experts to uncover some surprising strategies that really work.
Babies: Sleep deprivation 101
Although newborns actually sleep for 16 to 17 hours a day, they do it in maddeningly short bursts around the clock. Here's how to get your little one to put in a few of those hours (preferably in a row) during the night.
Put your baby to bed when she's drowsy, not fast asleep
This is a tall order, especially for breastfeeding moms, but master the timing and you'll score some much-needed time in the sack. Babies who drift off on their own are more likely to fall asleep quickly and learn how to soothe themselves to sleep more easily, says Kim West, author of Good Night, Sleep Tight. West is a social worker in Annapolis, Maryland, as well as a professional sleep consultant who has helped more than 2,000 families nationwide soothe troubled sleepers.
Here's her advice: Starting when your newborn is 6 to 8 weeks old, create a sleepiness scale from 1 to 10. (One is full throttle and 10 is out cold.) Wait until your baby hits 7 or 8, then lay her down to sleep. Less arm and leg movement along with diminished sucking power (from nourishing to soothing) are both reliable signs she's nearing dreamland.
Try not to look your baby in the eye
Many babies are easily stimulated. A loving look from you can take your baby from tired to wired faster than you can say, "uh oh." Seeing your baby brighten at your glance is heartwarming at noon and discouraging at midnight.
Parents who make eye contact with sleepy babies inadvertently encourage them to snap out of their sleep zone, says Claire Lerner, director of parent education at Zero to Three, a nonprofit that promotes the health of infants and toddlers. "The more interaction that takes place between you and your baby during the night, the more motivation he has to get up."
So what should you do instead? Lerner suggests keeping it low-key. If you must enter your baby's sleep space at night, don't hold his gaze, chitchat, or serenade him with your favorite Rolling Stones hit. Keep your gaze on his belly and soothe him back to sleep with a soft voice and gentle touch.
Win her over to the dark side
"Lights push your child's biological 'go' button," says Elizabeth Pantley, author of the No-Cry Sleep Solution. On the flip side, darkness triggers the brain to release melatonin, a key sleep hormone.
If your baby sleeps more during the day than at night, help her learn the difference. During the day, allow plenty of sunlight into the house or take her outside. Put your baby down for daytime naps in well-lighted rooms (unless she has trouble with naps).
To induce nighttime sleepiness, consider installing dimmers on the lights not only in your baby's room, but also in other rooms where you both spend a lot of time. Lower the lights in the evening (up to two hours before bedtime) to set the mood.
A nightlight in her room is okay, but choose a small, dim one with a bluish tone that's cool to the touch. (The vivid yellow and bright white varieties are more stimulating.)
If your child wakes up during the night, don't turn on the lights or carry her into a brightly lighted room. The shift from dark to light tells her brain it's time to rise and shine. Instead, soothe her back to sleep in her bedroom. If early morning sunlight prompts your child to wake too early or if she has trouble napping in the afternoon, install room-darkening shades.
Cut your tie to the baby monitor
A mom who jumps at every squeak transmitted over the baby monitorwill teach her child to wake up more often, says Pantley. Instead, time your entrance so that you go to your child between the moment you know for sure he's awake and the moment he escalates into a full-blown howl. Waiting a few minutes gives him a chance to soothe himself back to sleep. And stepping in before a meltdown means you'll catch him before he's too worked up to fall back asleep.
Either way, it's okay to turn down the sensitivity on your baby monitor. Set the volume so you'll hear him when he's distressed, but you won't be privy to every gurgle. Eventually you may just want to turn the thing off.
Relax the rules on diaper changes
Resist the urge to change your baby every time she wakes up – you'll just jostle her awake even more. Instead, dress your baby in a high-quality, nighttime diaper at bedtime, says Pantley. When she wakes up, sniff to see if it's soiled and change only if you must. For sleepy nighttime changes, nothing wakes a baby faster than a cold, wet wipe. Try using a warm washcloth instead.
Toddlers and preschoolers: Just when you thought it couldn't get worse
It's hard to believe, but by the time your child celebrates his second birthday, he will have spent more time asleep than awake. On average, toddlers sleep 12 to 14 hours a day, including naps. (Preschoolers do fine on 11 to 13 hours.)
Don't be alarmed if your child vetoes the two-nap routine. Around 18 months, it's not unusual for a child to switch himself from two naps to one. But cutting his siestas in half means nighttime sleep gets promoted to highest priority.
Keep the sleep routine short and sweet
An elaborate, multifaceted variety show – a bath, three books, two songs, and a back rub – can stretch on indefinitely. "Before you know it, your well-intentioned sleep routine turns from transition time to playtime for your child," says Mary Ann LoFrumento, a pediatrician and author of Simply Parenting: Understanding Your Newborn and Infant. If your child fights bedtime, just keep the focus on sleep and don't let her call the shots.
LoFrumento suggests that parents of troubled sleepers keep the post-bath routine no longer than 15 minutes. (Longer is fine if your child falls asleep easily.) Fifteen minutes should be all it takes to put on pajamas, read two short books, and say goodnight, she says.
Connect the dots
"One of the biggest mistakes parents make is not connecting a child's sleep and his daytime behavior," says Pantley. She attributes many of the behaviors labeled as terrible twos to signs of sleep deprivation. "Fussiness, whininess, fighting with siblings – all have their root in the lack of a good night's sleep." Her advice? Move up bedtime. (See our next tip, "Take back the night.")
Take back the night
Exert control and set an early bedtime, preferably between 7 and 8 p.m., Pantley says. "These kids aren't looking at the clock to see what time it is. They're simply waiting for someone to tell them it's time for bed." So pick a time and stick to it.
Practice climate control
Sure, 76 degrees Fahrenheit sounds comfy for a bedroom. And that may be true – when you're awake. But the ideal sleeping temperature is cool and comfortable. That's because sleep follows on the heels of a sharp drop in body temperature, which is also why a bath before bed helps kids nod off faster. The bath gets your child nice and toasty and then the cool room makes her body temperature drop, bringing on sleepiness.
So, nudge the thermostat down at least an hour before bedtime. If you're forgetful, install an automatic thermostat. Program it to drop in the evening and rise in the morning, and your child just might follow suit.
Set the stage
While you're at it, create a good sleep environment – a room that's not only cool, but dark and quiet – to promote good sleep. Kim West recommends using soothing colors in your child's room and keeping distractions, such as mobiles, out of your baby's crib.
If your baby is sensitive to sound and light, try a white noise machine and room-darkening shades. Having a comfy spot in your child's room to read and cuddle before bed is soothing for your baby and helps her make the transition to sleep.
Wake kids at the same time every day
A consistent wake-up routine is just as important as a regular bedtime. Children should get up at roughly the same time every day (give or take 30 minutes). Fight the urge to let them sleep in on weekends, says Pantley. "What we are doing is asking our children to live in two different time zones – a weekday zone and a weekend zone," she says. "As a result, they get perpetual jet lag."
Just because kids don't benefit from a little extra shut-eye on the weekends doesn't mean you won't. If weekend mornings are your only time to make up lost sleep, trade morning duty with your partner so that your child stays on track.
Grade-schoolers: The age of reason
As children outgrow naps, cribs, and lullabies, they gain an important skill: reasoning. "Parents have less direct control over making older children sleep, so it becomes about making them a partner and teaching them the importance of getting a good night's rest," says Pantley.
Children ages 5 to 12 still need ten to 11 hours of sleep a night. Pantley suggests appealing to their logical side. At this age children are old enough to understand that hormones that help them grow are released during sleep, so they need to sleep to reach their full height, she says. Use a similar logic for good grades or sports: When they sleep well, their brain is better able to remember what they learned at school that day, and their body will perform better on the baseball field.
Stamp out night-owl behavior
Staying up too late is a common pitfall for grade-schoolers. Parents often contribute to the problem because they want to spend more time with their kids at the end of the day. Do the math backward. "If your child needs 11 hours a night and she tends to wake up at 7 a.m., then she needs to be asleep by 8 p.m.," says West.
Put your child in the mood for sleep by giving him a healthy snack an hour before bedtime. Some foods naturally spark a release of serotonin, the body's built-in sleep inducer: Try a glass of milk, a piece of whole-wheat toast with a slice of cheese, half a peanut butter sandwich, or oatmeal with bananas.
During the day, cut off caffeine six hours before bedtime. A recent study reported that nearly 75 percent of school-age children drink caffeinated beverages – such as cola – that affect their sleep. And since most of these drinks are empty calories, consider eliminating them from your child's diet altogether.
Discourage homework before bed
Kids who do homework before bed often stay up too late and are groggy the next day. Scientific studies link irregular sleep patterns to academic and behavioral problems.
School-age children are desperate for sleep, says LoFrumento. "I've had lots of parents tell me their child's school performance improved dramatically with better sleep habits."
Instead of letting your child wait until the last minute to do her homework, schedule a regular work time either right before dinner or right after, suggests LoFrumento. "Leave your child plenty of time to play sports, run around, or just relax after a long day at school but make sure to wrap up homework by 7:30 or 8 p.m." If your child consistently has trouble with a heavy homework load, talk to her teacher.
Be choosy about your child's mattress
Most adults spend hours picking the perfect mattress for their own bed, but accept whatever mattress comes with their child's bed, says Pantley. Her suggestion? Lie on your child's bed for 30 minutes. Ask yourself: Is it comfortable? How's the pillow? Is the blanket soft and cozy? Make it a place you'd want to sleep.
Rule out medical problems
Like adults, children can have a medical condition that interferes with their sleep. Up to 12 percent of kids snore habitually, and 2 percent have sleep apnea, a disorder in which the airway becomes partially blocked, reducing airflow and rousing the child from a deep sleep. Although many children will outgrow the problem, ask your child's doctor for help if your child snores heavily or is excessively sleepy during the day.
Sleep myths debunked
Myth #1: Newborns don't need a sleep schedule. "Even very young babies benefit from scheduling and consistency at nighttime and nap time," says Kim West, a sleep consultant and author of Good Night, Sleep Tight. "It lays the groundwork for learning how to sleep through the night once they're older."
Myth #2: Infants can sleep through the night. Just like adults, children wake up four to five times a night. The catch is that adults know how to get themselves back to sleep and infants don't.
Ann LoFrumento, author of Simply Parenting: Understanding Your Newborn and Infant, says that while many babies are capable of consistently soothing themselves to sleep after two or three months, others don't do that until age 6 months or older.
Myth #3: You can get a child to sleep through the night by starting solids early (before 4 to 6 months). Many parents mistakenly think this technique will work by keeping their baby full longer, but it's a bad idea, says Claire Lerner, director of parent education at Zero to Three, a nonprofit that promotes the health of infants and toddlers.
She notes that young infants lack the mature digestion and oral-motor skills to handle solid foods and introducing solids too early may trigger some food allergies.
Myth #4: It's okay to let your baby sleep in a moving seat or swing.A few minutes in a moving swing or bouncy seat can soothe a fussy baby, but don't let it become a crutch. Sleeping in a moving swing or seat for a prolonged period of time keeps your baby in a light sleep, meaning he won't get the deep, restful sleep he needs, says Lerner.
Sleeping babies should spend 50 percent of their time in non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the deepest sleep stage. That's when the brain sends out growth and developmental hormones.
Myth #5: Children who don't nap during the day sleep longer at night. Not so, says West. Skipping daytime naps only leads to sleep sabotage. Kids who are overtired often miss their sleep window at night, she explains.
Miss the window and the body secretes cortisol, a hormone that raises glucose levels in the bloodstream in response to stress. As a result, kids will sleep more fitfully and wake up earlier (not later) the next morning.
"You have to fill your child's sleep tank during the day to get her to sleep well at night," she says. Of course, children will naturally need fewer naps as they get older.
The transition from two naps to a single afternoon nap usually occurs between 15 and 18 months, says West. Expect naps to be a thing of the past by age 5.
Myth #6: Some children are bad sleepers. All children can be taught to be good sleepers, says LoFrumento. "If a child is older, it may take longer, it might take more effort, but every child is able to learn how to fall asleep well on his own."
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