Night Night! Sleep Tight! Your Child WILL EVENTUALLY SLEEP – it’s alright!

For this entry, we decided to try and start a discussion about a topic that was proposed by a friend on our face book page: SLEEP! In particular, how to get your child to sleep so you can get some as well!

Remember in my last entry, I admitted that sleep was not a subject that was passed with flying colors on the parenting report card in our house? Well, I can share with you what we learned from our mistakes along the way!

I want to start by saying that there are many theories on sleep and many different methods and schools of thought. My BFF (and co-owner of Milestones & Miracles) handled sleep beautifully with her children.  The ease that her infants would fall asleep on their own and stay asleep left me in my own state of shock and awe compared to my finicky, non-sleepers. Her “go-to” reference is Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth, so if you are a person who likes to have a reference book handy, we thoroughly recommend it. In particular, it is a great source of recognizing and responding to early signs of sleepiness, resulting in restful sleep for your child. Also The No -Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley is a great resource.

In addition, I have found from talking with friends and observing daily routines in patient’s homes for years that sleep habits and practices, like most parenting skills, are very individualized and affected by tradition, culture, how you were raised, and your emotions.  Only you can decide what is right for your family and your child. That being said, restful sleep for yourself and your child and the ability to fall asleep and go back to sleep independently are skills every child needs to learn, regardless of when you decide the time is right for your child.  Think of it this way. Falling asleep and maintaining quality sleep is a life skill.  Place the same importance on it for your child as you would self feeding, dressing, or toileting.

Here are some tips I can share from our experience:

~ It is really important for your baby or child to fall asleep in their bed drowsy but awake.  We all sleep in a cyclical pattern of deep and light sleep periods. Between these periods, we open our eyes briefly and look around. If we are in the same environment that we fell asleep in, we usually fall right back into deeper sleep without realizing it. However, if we are not, we are aware of it and become fully awake.  Wonder why if you fall asleep on the couch, you usually wake up during the night? This is why! If your baby falls asleep in your arms or feeding or your child in your bed and then you move them, they will at some point in the night also become alarmed and possibly afraid.

I know what you are thinking (because trust me, I was there)…”great, but how do I get them to fall asleep on their own?”
Try one or more of the following:
~ Include the same evening routine every night. 
~ Chose activities that calm versus excite the nervous system. Avoid “screen time” (TV, videos, handheld games) at least 2 hours before bedtime.  The brain needs this “down time” to relax and wind down.
~Try a warm bath, a baby massage (or foot or hand massage for older children), a good amount of cuddling and reading, a familiar song, and/or prayers (if you are a praying person).  Whatever you choose, do a similar routine every night. Children feel safe with familiarity and knowing what to expect.  Keep the lights dim and limit noise. Swaddling a small baby or rocking your child also helps calm their nervous system.
~ It might be helpful to hold the reading and cuddling in the child’s bed vs. yours if transition is difficult.
~ Try a special or favorite plush animal or blanket, reserved “just for bedtime” as an incentive.
~ Around the age of 3 (and often later) children start to process their day at nighttime (just like we do).  Their concerns or worries might seem trivial to us but are very real to them.  It is not uncommon for night terrors (think nightmare on steroids) to appear at this age. To attempt to avoid them, allow your child to share something about their day.  This comforting part of their day, when snuggled close to you, might be the chance for them to share these feelings or anxieties.  Have you ever played “roses and thorns?’  We do this at dinner – sharing the high and low points of our day, but bedtime might work as well.
~ If your child is hesitant for you to leave, try one or both of these options (they were both suggested by friends who are professionals and working like a charm for us!):
* Reassure you child that you are just in the next room and are available if they really need you.  Let them know that you will come back to check every so many minutes as long as they are quiet.  Doing this rewards the positive behavior (staying calm and quiet, alone in their room) that you are desiring with the reward they are seeking (you!)  You can start with 1 or 2 minutes and build up to longer periods. If you decide to give this idea a try, be very consistent to not go into the room when your child is screaming as you will be rewarding the undesired behavior.
* If your child seems to need a distraction at night, try a book or several stories on CD or MP3 player in their room.  This is often the stage where a parent splurges for the kiddo TV but the visual stimulation is not helpful in allowing the brain to “relax” and for your child to get quality sleep.  With a story, they can become distracted in listening to the words (vs. worrying about sleeping), and practice their receptive learning skills while flexing that imagination muscle all at the same time!

This was a life saving move for us! After weeks of sleepless and highly emotional nights (for our daughter and for us), these two options finally helped.

Remember to look at your child’s overall state in regard to their success with sleep. If they are hungry or actually overtired, they are unlikely to sleep well.  Adjusting mealtimes and nap times (or making sure they get a nap) might be necessary.

If your child is fearful of those good old monsters, I’ve heard monster spray (air freshener or hairspray) works beautifully!

Like most stages, I’ve found that consistency is key and leads to a quality result faster.  I remember how painful it was when we broke our eldest of the habit falling asleep in our bed with me. I used to stay busy cleaning up and would eventually end up with the pillow over my head crying myself! One of the hardest tasks for me as a parent, was not to comfort my crying child.  But I realized it was my “job” to teach our daughters to be good sleepers.  Once I wrapped my tired, frazzled, emotional brain around that fact, we all started resting better!

Here’s wishing you all a great night’s sleep!

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