Ask the Expert: Healthy Sleep Habits

...for the "not-so-tired"

By Melissa Snider

Sleep—that sacred, restful state. Parents long for more of it. Children fight to avoid it. But nothing ruins your sense of calm like being a sleep-deprived mess on yet another not-so-silent winter’s night.

You’ve rocked, bounced, sang songs, and read stories. You’ve tried tips from endless blog posts and parenting books. So what’s a weary parent to do?

Certified sleep consultant Martha Lewis feels your pain and offers guidance for getting your kids—and yourselves—the much needed sleep you crave.

The Why of Sleep

One of the original theories as to why humans sleep stems from the adaptive need for mammals to keep themselves out of harm’s way during the night with inactivity. But today, researchers name the multiple benefits of a good night of sleep (especially for infants and toddlers), including the encoding of memories, a healthy immune system, and the release of growth hormones. Lewis recommends 10 to 12 hours of nighttime sleep for both infants and adults. Newborns need even more—between 14 and 16 hours, some of which takes place during the daytime.

“About thirty percent of babies don’t sleep well, so it’s pretty common,” says Lewis. She relates to tired parents, because her son Parker’s sleepless behavior as an infant led her to pursue work as a sleep consultant. “He was waking up almost every hour,” says Lewis. “I didn’t want him to cry, but I had a few days where I cried all day long.”

Exhausted, Lewis reached out for help from a sleep consultant in Boise, Idaho. Within four nights, Parker was waking up just once at night. “I felt like a new person and was stoked about being a mom and looking forward to the future,” says Lewis.

Are your kids excessively fussy? Falling asleep easily on short outings? Hard to wake in the morning? Exhibiting intense “witching hour” behaviors? Any of these signals can suggest that your child could benefit from more sleep. And if you’ve fallen into a pattern you’re not sure how to break, Lewis reminds families that “it’s definitely never too late” to establish a new routine.

The Sleep Sense Philosophy

Having a routine and setting the stage for sleep are key components to success. From infancy, Lewis recommends parents allow children to fall asleep independently, without the traditional “sleep props” like rocking, nursing, or sucking on a pacifier. In fact, anything provided to a child to promote sleep is considered a “prop” and can lead to more wakefulness at night.

“When babies can fall asleep on their own without a prop, they can go back to sleep by themselves as they transition through sleep cycles during the night,” says Lewis. “‘Sleeping through the night’ means [a child] gets restorative, consolidated sleep, instead of fragmented sleep from waking up multiple times.”

Most children begin consolidating sleep between six and eight weeks old, sleeping six to seven hours at a stretch, and then waking more frequently in the morning. According to Lewis and various pediatricians, by six months of age, infants should be able to sleep 11- to 12-hour stretches at night.

“Everyone—babies and adults alike—actually wake up several times each night,” says Lewis. “If your infant starts to fuss or cry immediately upon waking, wait. If you give them a few minutes, they will often go back to sleep on their own.”

For infants, choose an early bedtime, between 6:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and put your baby to sleep in the same place every night, awake. Try using positive sleep supports, such as white noise or, for babies 12 months and older, snuggling a favorite lovey or toy. If your child already depends on a prop like nursing or rocking, it’s still possible to teach them to sleep on their own.

“Your baby will most likely protest this change by crying,” says Lewis. “How long he cries depends on how overtired he is, how big his sleep debt is, and his personality. But you don’t have to leave him alone to cry, and the crying diminishes dramatically within a week.”

For parents of toddlers who find themselves mired in endless bedtime battles, Lewis has two words: Be consistent. Set a bedtime and stick to it—between 7:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. Make sure your routine is predictable. And set boundaries by capping the number of books and sips of water you offer him. If your toddler has the habit of coming into your bed at night, calmly walk him back to his room, tell him it’s still night time, and allow him to fall back to sleep on his own. Small rewards and sticker charts can help turn a newly learned behavior into habit.

“Kids really like consistency, routine, and structure,” says Lewis. “Even though their job is to challenge it, they actually like it when rules are in place.”

Healthy Sleep, Happy Family

“I want people to know you don’t have to be sleep deprived for years just because you have a child,” says Lewis, adding that if you’re experiencing difficulties getting your child to sleep, “it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent.”

As a sleep consultant, Lewis offers a range of services, including group classes on developing healthy sleep habits and private consultations that offer parents hands-on, supported opportunities to develop the skills needed to get kids to bed on time.

She reminds parents that there will be bumps in the road, even when you do have your child in a good routine. If you’ve been traveling or leave your kids with grandparents or a caretaker, anticipate some retraining when you return to your normal routine.

Good sleep doesn’t have to be a far-off dream for parents with young children. This winter, embrace the shorter days by snuggling up with a soft blanket and a pile of picture books, and feel your best as a family by making healthy sleep a part of your routine.

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