Kids and sleep
How parents can help children adopt healthy sleep happens from infancy through childhood
• By Rebecca Long Pyper •
Whoever coined the phrase “sleep like a baby” got it all wrong.
Lots of families with little (and not-so-little) ones know sleeping can be a luxury, especially when a member of the family will not fall asleep and stay that way when bedtime rolls around.
But parents can do certain things to encourage sleep and to make nap- and bedtime a positive experience for everyone. Dr. David Denton, a pediatrician with Pocatello Children’s Clinic, sheds light on necessary amounts of sleep, realistic expectations and variability from kid to kid.
We all have sleep associations. You know how sometimes it’s impossible to fall asleep on a plane? That’s because you aren’t used to sleeping there, and you just can’t calm down like you do at home in familiar surroundings. Children are the same way; when it comes to sleep, they crave familiarity, consistency and calm. “If an infant or a toddler is used to a certain type of a setting that they fall asleep in, and that setting isn’t present, they have a hard time falling asleep in it,” Denton said.
To encourage slumber keep your nightly routine mostly routine — read to your kids, rock them a little, sing them a song or lie down by them. Strive to do things mostly the same time each night too. But while you’re creating your routine…
Beware the bad habits. If you always rock your baby to sleep and don’t lie her down until she’s almost comatose, don’t expect her to respond positively when you decide to skip the rocking and put her in the crib wide awake. According to Denton, “Prevention might be the better approach.”
To determine the best course of action, decide on your goals: Some families plan to co-sleep with Baby, but Denton warns that risks are associated with this and should be researched and considered before deciding which avenue to take.
If you want your baby to be a good sleeper from the beginning, helping her fall asleep in the crib from the get-go is the best approach, he said. That means putting Baby in her bed while she is still awake.
Another problem arises when parents think babies should sleep longer than they do. According to Denton, Americans often expect infants and toddlers to become independent in many aspects of their life, including sleep — “we sometimes expect them to do things that aren’t developmentally possible for them,” Denton said. So understanding developmental abilities is crucial. For instance, by three to four months of age, the average baby can sleep five to six hours without waking. Some will sleep as much as 12 hours straight, and others won’t even make it five hours. By six months many babies sleep closer to eight hours in a stretch, but by eight or nine months developmental changes affect a baby’s waking habits, and it’s common for sleep to be interrupted more frequently.
When that happens, stick with the bedtime routine you’ve established, and try not to respond the first moment a baby cries, thus encouraging her to develop some self-soothing abilities.
Calm activities before bed are best. Close to bedtime, minimize excessive activity or play that can wind up kids and get their adrenaline pumping — you want to send a message that it’s time to sleep, not time to get going.
Kids can be cat-nappers or long sleepers. According to Denton, parents don’t have ultimate control over the kind of sleep their kids get — or prefer. “Those kind of things seem to be set from early in life; those kind of things seem to last into their toddler years and later,” he said. It might be best to accept the kind of sleeper your child is and move on to battles you can win.
Napping doesn’t last forever. The average toddler stops napping between 18 and 36 months. Some will sleep just 15 minutes during naptime, and others will nod off for a couple hours. Whichever kind of nap your kid takes, make sure those sleep times take place before 4 p.m.; otherwise, you’re messing with bedtime. But enjoy the short years of napping and understand “by 3 the majority of kids don’t want to or won’t take naps,” Denton said.
School-aged kids need a decent dose of sleep too. Though amounts will vary child to child most elementary-aged children need 10 to 12 hours of sleep a night. Gauge two things to see if they’re getting adequate rest: first, their mood — irritability is a sure sign they’re not getting enough rest — and second, how quickly they bound out of bed in the morning. If you have to dig them out from under the covers, they’re still sleepy and need more rest tonight.
Has your family developed unhealthy sleep habits? Be patient as you work towards change. Start by having babies sleep a little on their own every day in the place where you want them to sleep. When they struggle you can allow them to “cry it out,” which works, Denton said, but not all parents can tolerate that and not all kids do best with this approach. In that case, be more present and patient as they transition to sleeping better on their own.