Sleep is a frequent topic of conversation among parents of babies and young children for good reason. All parents need to sleep to be able to function and be productive, and it is a common concern that children who are not getting enough sleep could become cranky, act out, or even experience developmental delays and other health issues.
What is a parent to do?
Dr. Jack Maypole, a pediatrician and member of the Educational Advisory Board for The Goddard School suggests starting by forgetting about comparing your child to your friends' children and first determine how much sleep a child your age needs. A good starting point is a reliable website, such as the CDC, the UK's National Health ServiceNational Health Service, or another site recommended by your pediatrician. For example, while a newborn may sleep up to 20 hours a day, a 10-month-old baby sleeps as little as 10 hours a day. Also, Dr. Maypole stresses that "Each kid does it differently and it changes over time -- no one size fits all."
When babies and children should sleep, with long naps or longer stretches of shut-eye at night, is also a matter up for debate among many parents. According to Dr. Maypole, it is perfectly normal for sleep patterns to vary. While some children will nap 2-3 times a day from about 6-12 months, with shorter periods of sleep at night, although rare, other children will take shorter and fewer naps during the day and sleep for about 6-8 hours at night.
Dr. Maypole also cautions that ironclad schedules are not necessary to ensure children are getting enough sleep. Schedules can help with predictability, such as if a sleep schedule will help ensure that a child sees a parent before Mom and Dad leave for work, but a schedule is not necessary. As Dr. Maypole says, "[Parents] should definitely not lose MORE sleep over the matter" and suggests that parents consult their child's pediatrician if they have concerns over a child's sleep habits.
Many parents find that a routine before naps and especially before bedtime helps even very small children fall asleep more easily. There are many approaches to the bedtime routine and Susan Magsamen, a member of the Educational Advisory Board for the Goddard School, co-founder of The Johns Hopkins Neuro-Education Initiative, offers some advice on creating your own. Ms. Magsamen emphasizes that "The bedtime routine doesn't have to feel like a chore; it should feel more like a special time for you and your children" and offers some tip on how to make bedtime a soothing process for the whole family.
Ms. Magsamen recommends:
1. The Wind Down Period: I recommend turning off electronic devices or screen time (TV, iPads, iPods, video games) at least 30 minutes before bed. This is a great time to ignite the bedtime routine by brushing your teeth together, changing your clothes and using the potty. If you want to add a little more excitement to the process then try communicating with your kids using your calming bedtime voice or play relaxing music while getting ready for bed.
2. Night time food choices: There should be no liquids before bed, unless you're ready for an accident. For dinner, stray away from foods with sugar unless you want to use desert as a positive reward, for a well-behaved day. Try to maintain a well-balanced meal for dinner and if kids need a snack before bed then I suggest something small and hearty, such as a piece of cheese or even a carrot to munch on.
3. Night Time Meltdown: When kids get restless, it's important to continue using your calm, soothing voice and even music. Try finding the solution to their tantrum by asking them about it. Typically kids are anxious about something that may have happened during the day and finding the cause of the stress will offer a great moment to help them discuss their feelings and will surely soothe their anxiety. Remember to focus on your own calmness and always try to promote positive behaviors with reward-based reinforcement. Don't just give in to the attention, or the tantrums may become a habit.
4. The Tuck In: If your children tend to have separation anxiety, then there are a few things you can do to help. Sometimes your kids are going to have to cry, but by establishing a solid routine will help alleviate the anxiety of you leaving. Try to make the routine as repetitive as possible, even saying the same good night chant, such as "Goodnight Dear," every night, and include reading books or singing songs together in the routine so that they have something positive to look forward to. Try to use your bedtime routine as a rewarding tool that your children can expect and look forward to.
As a parent of three with another on the way, I have also found some things that can help everyone in the family get much-needed rest.
• A good swing: All of my children have enjoyed napping in swings and at times, even sleeping in one at night. The motion helps to calm them and built-in activities can help keep them occupied for a brief period while they drift off to sleep. The Ingenuity InLighten Cradling Swing is an excellent choice since it is packed with options, such as varied sounds, lights, a built-in mobile, varied swinging patterns, and even smartphone connectivity so that you can play the same music to your child in different locations to help establish a routine. While your child may not need all of these features, you don't know which ones will work until you try them all so it's good to have options!
• A good place for everyone to sleep: When my older children were first born I attempted to get them to sleep in a bedside sleeper. Although I enjoyed having them close it wasn't an ideal solution since I was never close enough for their liking and they frequently wound up in my bed, which caused me to lose a lot of sleep. The HALO Bassinest Swivel Sleeper is a great new solution since it can rest directly on the bed and can also swing away from the bed to allow parents to get up easily. Another solution is the Baby Delight Snuggle Nest Surround, which sits directly on the bed and allows newborns a safe place to sleep next to parents. It also plays womb-like sounds and has a soft light.
• A good place to sleep on-the-go: For me, getting out of the house is a sanity-saving necessity, even with a tiny baby. Because babies do sleep so much and may not be on a schedule it's important to make sure babies can sleep on the go. Phil & Ted's SmartLux stroller has an ingenious seat that can lie completely flat with the push of a button, eliminating the need to make the choice between using a detachable bassinet that prevents a child from sitting up when awake or a seat that may not recline enough for comfortable or prolonged sleep. If your own personal routine means that baby will be spending a lot of time in the car, a car seat frame is a great option for transferring a baby sleeping in an infant seat to a set of wheels. The Joovy Roo Infant Car Seat Frame is a good choice with a huge basket, one-handed fold, and design that allows the car seat to face you or to the side.
• A good swaddle: Loose blankets and babies don't mix, but a good swaddle can help babies get some shut-eye by keeping them warm and cozy by simulating the tight squeeze they felt in the womb. The traditional swaddle is still used by many. Muslin swaddle blankets, such as the adorable ones made by Bebe AuLait, are a popular choice because they are incredibly soft and breathable to prevent overheating that may be associated with SIDS. Since having my first child, there have also been great innovations that have simplified the swaddling process. The Woombie is sleep sack that imitates the womb but enclosing the baby's body, including arms, just like a traditional swaddle but with a single zip rather than several folds. The Comfort & Harmony Perfect Peanut Convertible Swaddle is a great option that includes the ability to open holes for arms once your baby no longer enjoys having his arms confined. The Zipadee-Zip is a Mom-invented solution to solve her own sleepless nights when transitioning out of a swaddle. Arms are enclosed, as in a swaddle, but baby is provided with a wing-span, giving bit more room to move around.
• Something for Mom and Dad: Caring for a baby often means a lot of time staying still cuddling and rocking your little one to sleep. A comfortable place to sit is a must. I've also found that reading a good book can prevent you from going batty during all of this "quiet time." The NOOK GlowLight is a perfect choice to keep yourself happy during all of the hours you will spend coaxing your little one to sleep. It's super-light so you can hold it with one hand, has a soft illumination that is easy to read in the dark, doesn't make any sounds, has a battery that lasts and lasts so that you don't need to worry about losing a charge at a crucial moment, and can access literally millions of books and magazines.
However, you ultimately get to sleep, make sure to use a routine that works for everyone in your family and leaves grown-ups and children feeling well rested and happy in the morning. Ultimately, that is far more important than sticking to a schedule or worrying over a whether a child is getting exactly the right amount of sleep.