Once you decide sleep is a priority in your house, your next step is to instill great sleep habits for your whole family! It may seem daunting, but what it really takes is commitment, consistency, and confidence that you are on the right path. These eight steps can help you achieve great sleep for your children in as little as a week or two!
- Commit two weeks: Once you make your child’s sleep a priority, clear your calendar so you can focus on the task with 100% consistency. It may even require you to limit your child’s social life for a couple of weeks. That includes no middle of the day music classes; no stroller naps so you can sneak a trip to the mall; no early dinners at your favorite restaurant that turns into just one more glass of wine for mom and dad while the baby dozes or your toddler enters meltdown mode.
- Stay confident: The research shows that babies can pick up on your anxieties even when they are as little as 4-6 months. The more tentative and nervous you feel about helping them sleep independently, the harder it will be for them and for you. Be confident, shower your baby with hugs and kisses, and allow him the opportunity to learn one of the most valuable things you will teach them – how to fall asleep without needing you!
- Limit wake time: All parents spend a lot of time trying to determine why their baby is crying, especially in the early days. While it may be tricky at first, the options are usually limited—thankfully!. She’s hungry, she needs a diaper change, or she’s just plain tired. Hard as it is to believe, babies can only tolerate 1-2 hours of wakefulness before they need to sleep again. When we make the mistake of stretching wakeful periods too long, it makes it very difficult to fall asleep because she will be overtired, and in fact wired! Between 6-12 months, the wake time stretches a bit, but remember to err on the side of earlier bedtimes which should start no more than 3-3 1/2 hours from the end of the second nap. Yes, that may mean as early as 5:30 or 6:00!
- Be consistent: We never strive to be boring, but to get your child on a great sleep schedule, you need to be, well, a little boring! That means establishing a soothing sleep time routine that is short (15-20 min; 10 minutes for naps), repeatable, and predictable. A good routine can be 2 books, a song, a quick massage, and bed. Perform this ritual at the same time, in the same place, in the same order, every single night, including before every single nap. This routine evolves over time as your child gets older, but the concept remains the same: it serves as a consistent, calming cue that it’s time for sleep and your child will come to associate the routine with sleep. Bedtimes will become easier, even if they are a bit boring!
- Set the mood: Imagine a date in a bright room with neon lights, loud noise, and hard chairs – the mood just doesn’t exude romance, does it? It’s so important to set the right “mood” for sleep for our kids (and for ourselves!). Here are three tips:
- Make the room pitch black – Turn off closet lights, night lights, and block that light seeping in from the sides of the blinds as much as possible. Even black garbage bags work in a pinch. The darkness is what helps the release of our internal sleep hormone, melatonin, so the darker the better.
- Add some noise – white noise that is. Recreating the whooshing sounds from the womb is comforting and sleep-inducing, like the sound of a shower or a fan. Even toddlers and adults benefit from white noise.
- Keep it cool – The core body temperature needs to dip in order to fall asleep easily, for babies and adults. Aim for a room temperature of 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit. A single layer of PJs plus a cotton sleep sack are sufficient.
- Beware of unhelpful sleep associations: In your attempts to win “mother of the year” award in your baby’s early months of life, you may have inadvertently created some negative sleep associations. All that rocking and nursing to sleep which seemed to do the trick to get your baby to sleep longer, can become a problem when that is the only way they know to fall asleep. Of course they would rather snuggle in your arms than alone in that big crib, but rocking or nursing to sleep becomes a hard habit to break. Start by introducing a transitional object like a “lovey” in your bedtime routines; then transition your still awake baby to the crib after your calming routine. Don’t worry, you can still have ample snuggle time all day long; just break the habit of your baby needing you to fall asleep.
- Put children in bed awake: Falling asleep is a skill – just like learning to ride a bike. And just like teaching your child to ride a bike, you can set her up for success by giving her some pointers and a helmet with that shiny new two wheeler, but at some point you have to let her fall so she can figure out how to get back up and start again on her own. With sleep, you will set your child up for success by providing a perfect environment, putting your child to sleep at biologically appropriate times, and creating soothing bedtime routines. But, it is equally important that you put her in the crib awake so she can learn the crucial skill—to fall asleep alone.
- Be patient: Although many families experience overnight success when they allow their children to fall asleep on their own, it doesn’t always work so quickly. Be patient! With consistency and follow through over the period of a couple weeks, your child will be a sleep champ sooner than you think!
Author: Dr. Rebecca Kempton, MD
After graduating with a B.A. in Psychology from Dartmouth and an M.D. from Cornell Medical School, Rebecca Kempton worked for several years as a medical director for healthcare technology and pharmaceutical companies before becoming certified as an infant and toddler sleep consultant and starting her own business, Baby Sleep Pro. With her three children, aged seven and under, along with thousands of clients globally, Rebecca has honed her sleep coaching skills. Sleep training is never one size fits all! Using a variety of behavioral techniques, she customizes sleep solutions based on what she learns about you, your child, and your family’s goals. Rebecca works with clients globally by phone, Skype, and email. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org; visit babysleeppro.com and follow her on facebook.com/babysleeppro and twitter @babysleeppro