Not all babies and toddlers are alike when it comes to sleep.
Some children go to sleep easily but wake up during the night several times. Others have a tough time going to sleep but sleep all night long. Babies can experience sleep regression – a period of time when they go from sleeping relatively well to having problems going to sleep or staying asleep. Childhood sleep challenges take a heavy toll on parents. Here are some tips that might help your child (and you) get a restful night’s sleep:
Tip #1 Don’t despair. Just as adults have nights when they don’t sleep very well, kids do too. Don’t interpret sleep regression as a “setback” but as a sign. Sleep regression is often related to developmental milestones, such as pulling up, crawling or walking. Sleep challenges may be caused by something else. Has your toddler played with a device too close to bedtime or watched a scary cartoon with an older sibling? Could your baby be teething or have an ear infection? Has the sleep schedule been erratic? Consider contributing factors that may be within your control.
Tip #2 Maintain a consistent naptime and bedtime routine. Put your baby down for naps and to bed at the same times, even on the weekends. As your baby grows older, develop a pattern of activities to help prepare the body and mind for sleep. (This works for adults too.) Your child’s routine might be to have a bedtime snack, take a bath, brush teeth, read a story and tuck in.
Tip #3 Establish a daily schedule. Babies and toddlers thrive on a daily schedule. Provide nutritious snacks and meals at consistent times. Make sure they get enough age-appropriate exercise. For a baby, adequate “tummy time” is important. When possible, take your child outside for play or a stroller ride. Spend a block of time interacting with your child. Talk, sing, play with toys or read a story. Give your child your full attention. A strong parent-child bond improves a child’s sense of security and well-being.
Tip #4 Set the stage for sleep. Try to maintain a calm environment as a prelude to bedtime. Turn on lamps instead of harsh overhead lighting. Play calming music. Avoid stimulating activities in the evening before bed. Don’t be surprised if your toddler can’t fall asleep within 15 minutes of a rousing game of hide-and-go seek. Avoid screentime before bedtime. Monitor media that your child is exposed to – young children may become upset when watching programming intended for older children.
Tip #5 Don’t sabotage good sleep habits. Be intentional in your response to sleep transitions. Do you really want to train your child that the only way to fall asleep is to be rocked for an hour? The goal is to help establish sleep behaviors that your children can use to fall asleep on their own. Babies who are awake, put into the crib at bedtime and allowed to fall asleep on their own are more likely to fall back asleep on their own when they wake up during the night. Babies who are put in their cribs when they are asleep and are picked up when they are awake are more likely to wake up during the night. So, put your baby in his own crib when he is sleepy but still awake.
Tip #6 Don’t share your bed. It’s okay to take your baby into your bed to nurse or comfort her. But put her back in her own crib for sleep. To reduce the risk of sleep-related death, babies should never sleep in an adult bed.
Tip #7 Be alert to your child’s cues. You can tell if your child’s cry means that he is hungry, soiled, sick or overtired. When a child gets overtired, chemicals are released that help the child stay awake. This makes it hard for the child to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Tip #8 Take a deep breath. When your baby awakes at night crying, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises to give her a little time. Don’t rush in. She may fall back to sleep on her own. If the crying continues, check on your baby, but don’t pick her up or turn on the light. If your baby continues to fuss, consider what might be bothering her. Perhaps she is hungry, wet, soiled or sick.
If your toddler keeps calling you back to his room, the AAP recommends delaying your response a little longer each time. If your child doesn’t fall back asleep, reassure him but don’t stay too long. Don’t turn on the light, read a story or play. Each time you go in, position yourself farther away from the child’s bed until you are reassuring him verbally from the doorway. Each time, remind your child that it’s time to go to sleep.
Tip #9 Talk to your pediatrician about persistent sleep challenges. If your child is still having sleep challenges after you implement these tips, talk to your pediatrician. There may be underlying medical causes. Silent acid reflux, breathing problems, anemia or other conditions can interfere with sleep. In some cases, evaluation at a pediatric sleep center may be needed to help improve your child’s sleep.
Schoolfield is a freelance medical writer based in Austin.