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"People who say they sleep like a baby usually don't have one." — Leo J. Burke.
Ah, blessed, luxurious sleep ... remember what it was like to get eight uninterrupted hours a night? If you have young children, it probably seems like a distant memory. According to a 2004 National Sleep Foundation poll, up to 69 percent of kids age 10 and under have trouble falling asleep and staying there. As for the other 31 percent — what's their secret? We turned to leading childhood sleep experts to help us uncover some surprising strategies that really work.
Babies: Sleep deprivation 101
Although newborns have a penchant for sleeping up to 18 hours a day, they do it in maddeningly short bursts around the clock. Here's how to get your little Rip Van Winkle to put in a few of those hours (preferably in a row) during the night.
Put your baby to bed when she's drowsy, not fast asleep This is a tall order, especially for breastfeeding moms, but master the timing and you'll score some much-needed sack time. Babies who drift off on their own are more apt to fall asleep more quickly and learn how to soothe themselves to sleep easier, says Kim West, author of Good Night, Sleep Tight. West is a social worker in Annapolis, Maryland, as well as a professional sleep consultant who has helped more than 2,000 families nationwide soothe troubled sleepers.
Here's her advice: Starting when your newborn is 6 to 8 weeks old, create a sleepiness scale from 1 to 10 — 1 is full-throttle and 10 is out cold. Wait until your baby hits number 7, and lay her down to sleep. Less-vigorous arm and leg action along with diminished sucking power (from nourishing to soothing) are both reliable signs she's nearing sandland.
Try not to look your baby in the eye Many babies are easily stimulated. A loving look from you can take them from tired to wired faster than you can say, "uh oh." Seeing your baby brighten at your glance is heartwarming at noon and discouraging at midnight.
Parents who make eye contact with sleepy babies inadvertently encourage them to snap out of their sleep zone, says Claire Lerner, director of parent education at Zero to Three, a nonprofit that promotes the health of infants and toddlers. "The more interaction that takes place between you and your baby during the night, the more motivation they have to get up."
So what should you do instead? Lerner suggests keeping it low-key. If you must enter your baby's sleep space at night, don't hold her gaze, chitchat, or serenade her with your favorite Rolling Stones hit. Keep your gaze on her belly and soothe her back to sleep with a soft voice and gentle touch.
Win her over to the dark side "Lights push your child's biological 'go' button," says Elizabeth Pantley, author of the No-Cry Sleep Solution. On the flip side, darkness triggers the brain to release melatonin, a key sleep hormone.
If your baby sleeps more during the day than at night, help her to know the difference. During the day, allow plenty of sunlight into the house. Put your baby down for daytime naps in well-lighted rooms (unless she has trouble with naps). To induce nighttime sleepiness, install dimmers on the lights not only in your baby's room but also in other rooms where you both spend a lot of time. Lower the lights up to two hours before bedtime in the evening to set the mood. Nightlights are okay, but choose small, dim ones with a bluish tone (the vivid yellow and bright white varieties are more stimulating).
During the night, if your child wakes up, don't turn on the lights or carry her into a brightly lighted room. The shift from dark to light tells her brain it's time to rise and shine. Instead, soothe her back to sleep in her bedroom. If early morning sunlight prompts your child to wake too early or if she has trouble napping in the afternoon, install room-darkening shades.
Cut your tie to the baby monitor A parent who jumps at every squeak transmitted over the baby monitor will teach her child to wake up more often, says Pantley. Instead, time your entrance so that you go to your child between the moment you know for sure she's awake and the moment she escalates into a full-blown howl. Waiting a few minutes gives her a chance to soothe herself back to sleep. And stepping in before a meltdown means that you'll catch her before she's too worked up to fall back asleep.
Either way, it's okay to turn down the sensitivity on your baby monitor. Set the volume so you'll hear her when she's distressed but you won't be privy to every gurgle. Eventually you may just want to turn the thing off.
Relax the rules on diaper changes Resist the urge to change your baby every time she wakes up — you'll just jostle her awake even more. Instead, dress your baby in a high-quality, nighttime diaper at bedtime, says Pantley. When she wakes up, sniff to see if it's soiled and change only if you must. For sleepy nighttime changes, nothing wakes a baby faster than a cold, wet wipe. Try substituting a warm washcloth.
Toddlers and preschoolers: Just when you thought it couldn't get worse
It's hard to believe, but by the time your child celebrates his second birthday, he has spent more time asleep than awake. On average, toddlers need 12 to 14 hours of sleep a day, including naps. (Preschoolers do fine on 11 to 13 hours.) Don't be alarmed if your child vetoes the two-nap routine. At around 18 months, it's not unusual for a child to wean himself from two naps to one. But cutting his siestas in half means nighttime sleep gets promoted to highest priority.
Keep the sleep routine short and sweet An elaborate, multifaceted variety show — a bath, three books, two songs, and a back rub — can stretch on ad nauseam. "Before you know it, your well-intentioned sleep routine turns from transition time to playtime for your child," says Mary Ann LoFrumento, a pediatrician and author of Simply Parenting: Understanding Your Newborn and Infant. If your child fights bedtime, keep the focus on sleep and don't let your child call all the shots.
LoFrumento suggests that parents of troubled sleepers keep the routine no longer than 15 minutes. (Longer is fine if your child falls asleep easily.) Fifteen minutes should be all it takes to put on pajamas, read two short books, and say goodnight, she says.
Connect the dots "One of the biggest mistakes parents make is not connecting a child's sleep and his daytime behavior," says Pantley. She attributes many of the behaviors labeled as terrible twos to signs of sleep deprivation. "Fussiness, whininess, fighting with siblings — all have their root in the lack of a good night's sleep." Her advice? Move up bedtime. (See our next tip, "Take back the night.")
Take back the night Exert control and set an early bedtime, preferably between 7 and 8 p.m., Pantley says. "These kids aren't looking at the clock to see what time it is. They're simply waiting for someone to tell them it's time for bed." So pick a time and stick to it.
Practice climate control Sure, 72 degrees Fahrenheit sounds comfy for a bedroom. And that's true — when you're awake. But the ideal sleeping temperature is between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. That's because sleep follows on the heels of a sharp drop in body temperature, which is also why a bath before bed helps kids nod off faster. The bath gets your child nice and toasty and then the cool room causes his body temperature to drop, which brings on sleepiness.
So, nudge the thermostat down at least an hour before bedtime. If you're forgetful, install an automatic thermostat. Program it to drop in the evening and rise in the morning, and your child just might follow suit.
Wake kids at the same time every day A consistent wake-up routine is just as important as a regular bedtime. Children should get up at roughly the same time every day (give or take 30 minutes). Fight the urge to let them sleep in on weekends, says Pantley. "What we are doing is asking our children to live in two different time zones — a weekday zone and a weekend zone," she says. "As a result, they get perpetual jet lag."
Just because kids don't benefit from a little extra shut-eye on the weekends doesn't mean you won't. If weekend mornings are your only time to make up lost sleep, trade morning duty with your partner so that your child stays on track.
Grade-schoolers: The age of reason As children outgrow naps, cribs, and lullabies, they gain an important skill: reasoning. "Parents have less direct control over making older children sleep, so it becomes about making them a partner and teaching them about the importance of getting a good night's rest," says Pantley.
Children ages 5 to 12 still need between ten and 11 hours of sleep a night. Pantley suggests appealing to their logical side. At this age children are old enough to understand that hormones that help them grow are released during sleep, so they need to sleep to reach their full height, she says. Use a similar logic for good grades or sports: If they sleep well their brains will be better able to remember what they learned at school that day, and their bodies will perform better on the baseball field.
Stamp out night-owl behavior Staying up too late is a common pitfall for grade-schoolers. Parents often contribute to the problem because they want to spend more time with their kids at the end of the day. Do the math backward. "If your child needs 11 hours a night and he tends to wake up at 7 a.m., then he needs to be asleep by 8 p.m.," says West.
Sleep-inducing snacks Put your child in the mood for sleep by giving him a healthy, sleep-instigating treat an hour before bedtime. Some foods naturally spark a release of serotonin, the body's built-in sleep inducer: Try a glass of milk, a piece of whole-wheat toast with a slice of cheese, half a peanut butter sandwich, or oatmeal with bananas.
During the day, cut out foods containing caffeine six hours before bedtime. According to the National Sleep Foundation, nearly 75 percent of school-age children guzzle caffeinated beverages, such as colas. And since most of these drinks are empty calories, consider eliminating them from your child's diet altogether.
Discourage homework before bed Kids who do homework before bed often stay up too late and are groggy the next day. Scientific studies link irregular sleep patterns to academic and behavioral problems. School-age children are desperate for sleep, says LoFrumento. "I've had lots of parents tell me their child's school performance improved dramatically with better sleep habits."
Instead of letting your child leave homework until the last minute, schedule a regular work time either right before dinner or right after, suggests LoFrumento. "Leave your child plenty of time to play sports, run around, or just relax after a long day at school but make sure to wrap up homework by 7:30 or 8 p.m." If your child consistently has trouble with a heavy homework load, talk to her teacher.
Be choosy about your child's mattress Most adults spend hours picking the perfect mattress for their own bed, but accept whatever mattress comes with their child's bed, says Pantley. Her suggestion? Lie on your child's bed for 30 minutes. Ask yourself: Is it comfortable? How's the pillow? Is the blanket soft and cozy? Make it a place you'd want to sleep.
Rule out medical problems Like adults, children can have medical conditions that interfere with their sleep. Up to 12 percent of kids snore, and as many as 10 percent have sleep apnea, a sleep disorder in which the airway becomes partially blocked and reduces airflow, which rouses the child from a deep sleep. Although many children will outgrow the problem, ask your pediatrician for help if your child snores heavily or is excessively sleepy during the day.
The BabyCenter Seven: Sleep Myths Debunked
Myth #1: Newborns don't need a sleep schedule. "Even very young babies benefit from scheduling and consistency at nighttime and nap time," says Kim West, a sleep consultant and author of Good Night, Sleep Tight. "It lays the groundwork for learning how to sleep through the night once they're older."
Myth #2: Infants can sleep through the night. Just like adults, children wake up four to five times a night. The catch is that adults know how to get themselves back to sleep and infants don't. Mary Ann LoFrumento, author of Simply Parenting: Understanding Your Newborn and Infant, says that while many babies are capable of consistently soothing themselves to sleep after two or three months, others don't do that until age 6 months or beyond.
Myth #3: You can get a child to sleep through the night by starting solids early (before 4 to 6 months). Many parents mistakenly think this technique will work by keeping their baby full longer, but it's a bad idea, says Claire Lerner, director of parent education at Zero to Three, a nonprofit that promotes the health of infants and toddlers. She notes that young infants lack the mature digestion and oral-motor skills to handle solid foods, and introducing solids too early may trigger some food allergies.
Myth #4: It's okay to let your baby sleep in a moving seat or swing. A few minutes in a moving swing or bouncy seat can soothe a fussy baby, but don't let it become a crutch. Sleeping in a moving swing or seat for a prolonged period of time keeps your baby in a light sleep, meaning he won't get the deep, restful sleep he needs, says Lerner. Sleeping babies should spend 50 percent of their time in non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the deepest sleep stage, during which the brain sends out growth and developmental hormones.
Myth #5: Children who don't nap during the day sleep longer at night. Not so, says West. Skipping daytime naps only leads to sleep sabotage. Kids who are overtired will often miss their sleep window at night, she explains. Miss the window and the body secretes cortisol, a form of adrenaline. As a result, kids will sleep more fitfully and wake up earlier (not later) the next morning.
"You have to fill your child's sleep tank during the day to get him to sleep well at night," she says. Of course, children will naturally need fewer naps as they get older. The transition from two naps to a single afternoon nap usually occurs between 15 and 18 months, says West. Expect naps to be a thing of the past by age 5.
Myth #6: A child who can climb out of a crib is ready for a big-kid bed. Not necessarily. "Moving to a bed before age 2 doesn't solve sleep problems, it only makes them worse," says West. "At this age, children are too young to understand why they need to stay in bed." She recommends keeping toddlers in the crib and using a crib tent, if necessary, to prevent them from pulling a Houdini.
Myth #7: Some children are bad sleepers. All children can be taught to be good sleepers, says LoFrumento. "If a child is older, it may take longer, it might take more effort, but every child is able to learn how to fall asleep well on his own."