Children’s Sleep Project

Because we all need a good night’s rest.

Top 13 Tips

Various sleep solutions, bedtime routines and parent-child dynamics have proven effective for a smooth bedtime at different periods during our son’s life. But no matter the specifics, we’ve found ourselves coming back to the same few core principles over and over again. We share them with you below.

1. Check organic problems first. Not pressing the doctor on potential medical issues was perhaps our first mistake, and one that might have cost us more than two years of sleeplessness. Ask your pediatrician for insight, information and advice — and don’t let up until you’re satisfied. Also check out issues like the relationship between food and sleep: Some children are sugar-sensitive, for example, or get stuffed up when they eat milk and cheese. Addressing issues like these may clear the problem up quicker than you’d think.

2. Everyone has a “sleep window.” It’s caused by a rise in melatonin that cues the body toward sleep. It doesn’t last long, and it’s followed by a rise in cortisol, a stress hormone that wakes the body up. If your child misses that sleep window, it’s much harder for him or her to fall asleep — and stay asleep.

3. Not all children signal sleepiness the same way. This one took us a long time to realize. Many of the books we read listed sleep signals such as red eyes, yawning, rubbing eyes and clumsiness. But our child didn’t exhibit any of those signals. We finally realized that our kid “decompensates” when tired: He can’t make a decision; he wanders from toy to toy to person to dog; he seems a little confused and inexplicably perturbed; he cries suddenly and intensely, in apparent disproportion to the object of his upset. When one or more of those things happen, we know it’s bedtime — now.

4. Consistency is key. This refers to consistency not only in how the bedtime routine is conducted, but also in how you respond to difficulties like sleep resistance or nighttime wakings. Inconsistency is confusing and frightening, especially to small children. Though it’s difficult to be consistent when you’re exhausted, doing so may be your quickest path out of chronic sleep problems.

5. Children get ritualized easily. They get used to having bedtime a certain way, at a certain time, in a certain order. When one part of the ritual gets thrown off, many kids have trouble adapting easily. For some kids, this even goes so far as to mean the same pajamas every night!

6. Even still, you must be persistent. There is no magic bullet: Months or years of struggle will probably not dissolve away in a single night. And though some books promise results in two weeks, five days, even 90 minutes, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work that way for your family. That also doesn’t mean the solution is a bad one, though. You might just need longer. Use your instincts (see #12 below) to tell you whether to abandon ship or press ahead. But don’t mistake frustration or desperation for instinct.

7. Sleep associations are powerful. By the same token, the things kids associate with sleep (the bedtime routine, nursing, a certain story or song) rapidly become objects of attachment and need. The sleep associations you create must be not only effective for the child but also tolerable for you to facilitate, if necessary, night after night.

8. Different ages and stages have different needs. The sleep solution that worked for you when you child was six months old might not work a year later. The one that works when your baby is healthy might not work when teething or illness descend. You might even need a different routine (but not too different — see #3 above!) for nights when one parent is out or the family is traveling. Consistency is key, but flexibility is too. And that’s why…

9. Awareness is important. Awareness of what? Of the child’s state of mind (does she need extra care today because a favorite stuffed animal is lost?); of his responses to the environment (does his energy ramp up with a certain story or game?); of her personality needs (are quick transitions okay? Or does she need more time?); and much more. Sleep is a developmental task, just like walking, talking, eating, socializing and much more. There are many variables that can affect it.

10. The solution has to fit the child and the family. This was particularly driven home when I realized our son doesn’t do well with rapid transitions. We quickly dropped a solution that called for the parent to leave quickly after saying goodnight because our son panicked when we did. We did much better with a solution that involved a slower transition. Your child might be different.

11. You need to identify and use your emergency coping skills. This is absolutely critical. If you’re suffering long-term sleep deprivation — or even frustration at the loss of personal time, loss of energy, constantly stressful bedtimes, or anything else — you must figure out how best to cope. You might need a night or two away, or something more simple like a bubble bath, some journaling or a good cry. I use deep breathing a lot, even in the middle of bedtime battles, to cope.

12. It’s non-negotiable that you stay connected to your support network. This is really one of your coping skills, but we think it’s so important that we list it separately. If you have a spouse or partner, it’s critical that you stay connected to that person: Chronic sleep problems can alienate partners at a time when they really need to be working together and supporting each other. And whether you’re partnered or not, other friends, family, professionals (and even this site, to some extent) can act as support: a shoulder to cry on, a place for new ideas and energy, someone to give you a break every once in a while.

13. Honor your instincts. Just because everyone you know swears by a certain method doesn’t mean it’s the right one for your family. By the same token, just because we say it here doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Take in all the information and use what’s best for you and your family.

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