The one warning all new parents receive is, “Enjoy your sleep now, you won’t get any after the baby arrives!” Babies sleep all the time – just never when we want them to.
The Science of Sleep
There are many geeky scientists who study sleep, and they have made some helpful and interesting discoveries. The most relevant of these for new parents is that people sleep in cycles, from light sleep to heavy and back again.
Infants cycle from light back to light sleep every hour. This cycle means that about once an hour they are sleeping lightly and may wake up. After about six months of age they can learn to put themselves back to sleep. They are not hungry and do not need to be fed, after that initial newborn period. They are not lonely and do not need to play. They need to learn to go back to sleep. When you check on them be boring, leave the room dark, pat them on the bottom and leave. Do not pick them up, do not play with them, and do not feed them if you ever want a full night’s sleep again.
Remember the part about how children will do what they are rewarded for doing? Picking them up, feeding them and playing with them is rewarding them for waking up.
Babies should come with warning labels.
So what’s normal?
Newborns sleep about sixteen hours a day, but only two to three hours at a time. Fortunately, they’re so cute that you don’t mind too much when they wake you up.
By about four months they will have one longer period of sleep (about four or five hours) per day. Heaven! Make sure it happens at night. You can’t keep babies from falling asleep, but you can certainly wake them up early if they try for that five-hour nap midday.
A six month old might sleep for ten or eleven hours straight to total, with naps, around fourteen hours.
The average toddler will sleep twelve or thirteen hours total. Most will take two naps until between eighteen and twenty-four months, then one nap until they are three to five years old. There is, of course, individual variation.
School aged children sleep between nine and twelve hours per night, taking about thirty minutes to fall asleep. No napping or they won’t sleep at night!
A bedtime routine is the single most important tool you have in your arsenal to get your kids to sleep, and can be very reassuring when other things in their lives change. The details vary from family to family, but there are common elements that work:
- Give them a light snack an hour or two before bedtime. Aim for low fat and low sugar. Fruit or a complex carbohydrate will work, like whole grain crackers or pop corn.
- Notice if there is a time in the evening when your child slows down and gets sleepy: this is their natural bedtime. They will fall asleep more easily at this time. If they stay awake past it they will either get grouchy and irritable or, worse, find their second wind.
- Slow things down an hour or so before bed. Turn the television and electronic games off. Lower the light level. Turn on some quiet music.Give them a nice warm bath (just like Grandma always said). Read a storybook.
- Tell them how wonderful they are: going to sleep is easier when you’re happy.
- Tuck them in with their comfort object, their night-light and their bottle of water (if they want them).
- Make sure they are comfy – keeping it a little cool will help.
- Leave while they are still awake, because you want them to be able to fall asleep without requiring your presence.
- Once they are in bed, they need to stay there. If they get up, put them back. If you need to check on them, be boring. “You’re fine, it’s bedtime, go to sleep.” Don’t get angry, or you’ll upset them and they’ll stay up longer. Leave the lights off.
The routine should never vary much. Bedtime should be the same every day, unless dealing with a jet-lagged kid is your idea of fun. If you do the same things in the same order at the same time every night they will be so used to it that you will rarely, if ever, get an argument. The routine itself will trigger sleepiness.
If you get flexible, vary the routine a lot, or let them stay up late now and then you might have difficulty the next time they need to go to bed.
The absolute worst thing to do is to give in to whining. Planning ahead with “We’re staying up late tonight because it’s a holiday” will not set a precedent. Giving in to whining with “Fine, I’m tired of listening to you,” will. You will have taught them that if they whine enough they will get what they want. Then, since you have rewarded whining, you will see more of it.
If you are in a strange place or your family life is in upheaval, keeping the bedroom routine the same will not only help them fall asleep more easily but will also make them feel more safe and secure. Don’t forget to pack that Teddy bear and their favorite storybooks if you travel or when there is a family change or trauma!
Want answers on specific sleep problems like night terrors or airway obstruction? Come back next week, of course!