Have you ever thought that the phrase “sleeping like a baby” was a cruel joke? Have you ever “slept” with a toddler only to wake up in the morning barely hanging on the bed with a bruised rib? If yes, then read on. Adequate rest is crucial in the developing brain and makes for a happier, more pleasant child. But a chronically exhausted child is generally more irritable, whiny, and unpleasant. And let’s be real – the same can be said of mom and dad, too! So, let’s talk about 2 common sleep topics – sleep training and getting a child to sleep in their own bed.
*As an aside, for the next few minutes, I will assume that your child has a place where they can sleep that is quiet, dark, and free of any screen (TV, tablets, or smartphones). Ideally, they are not bed sharing either (especially infants, as these children are more prone to both SIDS and smothering when sharing a bed with an adult).
IF YOU GIVE A MAN A FISH…
Sleep training means teaching an infant how to fall asleep without being dependent on a bottle, a song, or a snuggle. Between 2-4 months, start to look for sleep cues like eye rubbing, side-to-side head shaking, or even just subtle periods of quiet. This means they are ready to go to sleep. Crying in exhaustion means they are overdue! When you see sleep cues, it is ok around this age to put the baby down AWAKE in the crib (on their back) and allow them to fall asleep WITHOUT being held.
Now, I know what you are thinking because we all think the same thing: “But she will start screaming as soon as I put her down!” You are likely right, but that is ok. It’s important for her to learn to self-soothe. It’s a normal part of development. Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes before you go back in the room to calm her down. She may be asleep before your timer goes off. If she is not, go in and soothe her again, but then put her back down awake, this time for a little longer. Allow progressively longer periods of crying time until she finally falls asleep on her own.
How long should you allow her to cry? As long as it takes her to fall asleep on her own. It is important for her to be able to do this, and, no, she won’t look back in 15 years and resent you for how you abandoned her as a baby. Do, however, make sure that if your baby cries for long periods of time, you periodically check to make sure they are not needing other help (dirty diaper, too hot/cold, etc).
Self-soothing is an important skill for a baby. People of all ages awaken intermittently at night, though most of us look at the alarm clock and roll back over for another few precious hours of sleep. If she can get herself to sleep at the beginning of the night, she is more likely to self-soothe in the middle of the night as well, which means longer sleep periods for all. Rock a baby to sleep, they will sleep for a few hours; teach them self-soothe and they will sleep all night…
THE TYRANT IN YOUR BED
It’s difficult to rest well sleeping in the same bed as a toddler, though so much of the time we do it out of desperation. Usually, our toddlers wind up in our beds after some stressful event that made it difficult for them to sleep (fever, teething, nightmare, etc). However, many times they continue to sleep with us long after the initial event because they have gotten used to our presence to help them sleep. Does that sound familiar? Yes! They lost their ability to self-soothe and are again dependent on you for sleep.
Retraining them to stay in bed is now paramount since they now can just get out of bed (assuming they are out of the crib) and march themselves to your bed when they want. The first thing you need to address this issue is RESOLVE. You have to be willing to make sure they go back to their own bed and stay there, whether initially putting them to bed or in the middle of the night. The second thing you need is a plan. One method that I have found helpful is what I call staged withdrawal.
Staged withdrawal is simple. You put your child in their own bed as a part of your normal bedtime routine. Remember that the room should be quiet, dark, and screen-free! Then leave the room with them in bed, reassuring them that you will be back to check on them in one minute. Come back in one minute and praise them for staying in bed! Now do it again, for two minutes, five minutes, 10 minutes, etc. Each time make sure you tell them what a big boy they are for staying in bed. Eventually, you will come back to a sleeping little boy. Repeat this every night, even in the middle of the night as needed, and very soon you will have an independent sleeper again! Hallelujah!
Sleep is one of the most important things a child can get for their emotional, physical, and developmental well-being, and at times it can be a real challenge. The two sleep struggles discussed are two of the most common challenges I see among the families I get to care for. I hope these tips can help make for nights of long, restful sleep for your child. Frankly, I hope they make for long, restful nights for you, too!
That being said, every child is unique. Helping an infant or child to get there may not be as simple as following a few simple recommendations, but all of our doctors at APA are very happy to discuss your particular situation. Let us help you come up with a workable plan for your family!
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