Have you ever pulled an all-nighter? Maybe you stayed up studying into the wee hours of the morning. Or maybe your twenty-first birthday party was a raging success, and you partied hard enough to watch the sun rise. You probably took it pretty easy the next day — after your exam, or a bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich, of course. Let’s face it — you were tired.
The word tired takes on an entirely new meaning when you have kids. No amount of studying, or partying, or working late holds a candle to the exhaustion that comes with raising little ones. It is a whole new level of tired. No — a whole new universe of tired. The kind that makes your bones ache, your brain foggy, and your temper short. The kind that makes you put your car keys in the freezer and fill your baby’s bottle with coffee instead of milk.
And if that’s not bad enough, there is no such thing as “taking it easy” the next day. Parents don’t get sick days. Try telling your hungry baby that you’re “taking it easy” for the day and see how that turns out.
Solving the Sleep Problem Together
We know how much you love your precious angels. Your kids aren’t demons for stealing your sleep. It’s just what they do. And the good news is, you’ve got some pretty cute tiny humans to show for it, despite the fact that sometimes you’re too tired to remember their names. And rest assured — you’re not alone. We parents are in this together.
That’s why we’ve put together this guide: your one-stop-shop for all things baby-and-child sleep-related. They say it takes a village, right? Consider us your nightly next door neighbors. This is a hefty topic, so we’ve broken things down into sections you can skip between:
- The Impact of Insufficient Sleep
- The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
- Important Notes About This Guide
- Safe Sleep with Infants
- Establishing a Healthy Bedtime Routine
- How Much Sleep Should Kids Get?
- Sleep By Age Group
- Early Childhood
- Later Childhood
- Tips for Dealing with Problems
Danger, Will Robinson
Sleep deprivation is a very real and very scary thing. According to the National Sleep Foundation, “sleep deprivation can have similar effects on your body as drinking alcohol.” In fact, in a 2000 sleep study comparing the effects of sleep deprivation with those of alcohol consumption, nearly 75% of participants fared worse on tasks measuring reaction time, vigilance, and the ability to multitask when they were sleep deprived than when they were nearly legally drunk.
Mothers whose children (now preschool-aged) had [persistent] or [recurring]…infant sleep problems in the preschool years [had] higher depression scores.
One of the biggest potential consequences of sleep deprivation is the onset of postpartum (and beyond) depression. The link between lack of sleep and depression is well-documented. In a 2001 study of nearly one thousand new mothers, researchers found “a strong association between [infant sleep problems and depression symptoms].”
A follow-up 2003 study returned to check in on those same mothers and their children. The results? The mothers whose children (now preschool-aged) had “[persistent] or [recurring]…infant sleep problems in the preschool years [had] higher depression scores.” The children were worse off, too, with “child behavior problems” noted. With similar results being replicated in a 2005 study, it’s no secret that sleep deprivation is a danger to new and seasoned mothers alike — as well as the children under their care.
Sleep Deprivation’s Impact on Our Kids
Sleep deprivation is bad for your child, too. If your baby or child is up one hundred times a night, or refuses to nap, or takes hours to fall asleep, chances are they’re sleep-deprived, too. And contrary to popular belief, tiring a baby or child out so they’ll sleep deeper and longer at night is NOT a good strategy. Sleep begets sleep. If your child is overtired and hasn’t gotten appropriate rest during the day or previous nights, they (and you) are probably in for a terrible night of sleep ahead.
And that’s not even the worst of it — a 2011 review of the existing literature on sleep deprivation in children confirmed what has long been believed to be true: “inadequate sleep quality and/or quantity can cause sleepiness, inattention and, very likely, other cognitive and behavioral deficits that significantly impact children and adolescents in functional settings.”
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
Some babies are born ‘sleepers’ and some are not. Some babies have more difficulty learning to fall asleep, are more easily aroused from sleep, and are more sensitive to changes in routines that affect their sleep patterns.
We’re going to go a bit out of order here and start with the bad: when your kid was born, they came out of the womb with a certain “style” of sleep. Lots of people will give you advice that suggests otherwise — things like formula-fed babies sleep better and longer, or that putting rice cereal in their bottle will make them sleep through the night — but the fact is, it’s pretty much luck of the draw. Jodi Mindell, PhD and author of Sleeping Through the Night, confirms as much: “some babies are born ‘sleepers’ and some are not. Some babies have more difficulty learning to fall asleep, are more easily aroused from sleep, and are more sensitive to changes in routines that affect their sleep patterns.”
Chances are, if you popped out one of those cherubs that fights sleep like the plague, you’ve had some pretty choice words fly out of your mouth while waking up at 4:00 AM for the fifth time in three hours (that’s the ugly).
A Problem with Many Solutions
The good news is that most babies don’t understand the string of four-letter words you’ve woven into their lullaby.
The better news? Regardless of your baby’s sleep tendencies, there are PLENTY of tips, tricks, methods, and strategies to help your child become a better sleeper over the course of their life. You are not doomed to a life of bloodshot eyes and dark circles. In fact, Mindell says, “babies learn to fall asleep under specific circumstances…many babies develop good sleep habits, whereas other babies develop poor sleep habits [emphasis ours].” This should give you a ray of hope; regardless of the way your baby entered this world, you can help her learn and develop good habits over time.
But first, it’s important to have a solid understanding of childhood sleep — why it’s important, what’s “normal,” general best practices, how to ensure your child is sleeping safely, and some common issues lurking just around the corner as you close Goodnight Moon and turn off the light.
Important Notes About This Guide
Much of this guide is broken up by age group, so feel free to jump around and take what works for you right now. Be sure to bookmark this page — we’ll still be here when your one-year-old night owl becomes a tantrum-loving threenager (yeah, that’s a thing), and then again when they’re a REAL teenager, and we’ve got tips for them, too.
Also to note: we’ve searched far and wide and pulled from the latest and best research to include strategies to fit just about any parenting style to which you might subscribe. Childhood sleep development is a hot-button topic, and we’re not here to tell you that there’s one right way to make it work for you. For each age group and each sleep issue we’ll talk about in this guide, we’ve included tips and tricks that run the gamut from attachment-style methods, to more traditional “sleep training” ideas. Neither one is right or wrong — it’s all about what’s right for you and your child so that everyone in the family gets the sleep they need.
Most Important: Safe Sleep
Safe sleeping habits are especially important in infancy in order to lessen the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
The very first thing you need to do to help your child sleep well is to ensure they’re sleeping safely. Safe sleeping habits are especially important in infancy in order to lessen the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), but there are safety factors you should consider for every age group.
- Infants should room-share with separate bed surfaces for the at least the first six months of life
- Infants should always be placed to sleep flat on their backs
- Sleep surfaces should be firm, such as a crib or bassinet, and covered with a single, tight-fitting sheet
- Sleep enclosures (bassinets, cribs) should be empty — no bumpers, blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, or other comfort items
Light, breathable blankets can be introduced after age one, and pillows are okay to try at around age two or three.
For older children, especially those who have moved out of an enclosed sleeping space, it’s very important to make sure the room in which they sleep is child-proofed.
- Cover all unused electrical outlets (outlet guards and wire guards are best)
- Place blind/shade pull-strings out of reach (better yet — use cordless window coverings)
- Consider installing window guards
- Child-proof the bedroom door by removing interior locks and installing a door guard
- Install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors
- Anchor all furniture to the wall
- Keep breakables out of reach, or remove from child’s bedroom altogether
Know Your Routine: The First Step in Improvement
Having a routine in place helps babies and children fall asleep more quickly, go back to sleep more easily when they wake up, and improves moms’ moods to boot.
If there’s one thing that unites children around the world, regardless of culture, background, or age, it’s that they thrive on routine. Very few children cope well with unpredictability.
This concept holds especially true for bedtime. Do a quick search for “bedtime routine” on any mom blog or parenting forum, and you’re likely to find thousands of responses from parents who think they’ve discovered (or are desperately searching for) that magic combination of steps before bedtime to make the process easier on everyone.
The idea of routine isn’t just a mom-blog myth, either; it’s backed up by years of research-driven data. As usual, our girl Jodi Mindell sums it up perfectly in her 2009 study: “Instituting a consistent nightly bedtime routine, in and of itself, is beneficial in improving multiple aspects of infant and toddler sleep, especially wakefulness after sleep onset and sleep continuity, as well as maternal mood.”
To put it plainly? Having a routine in place helps babies and children fall asleep more quickly, go back to sleep more easily when they wake up, and improves parents’ moods to boot.
Customize Your Bedtime Routine to Your Child
If you don’t have a routine in place yet for your little one’s bedtime, start experimenting. Different things work better or worse for different children. Does your baby hate bath time with a passion? Probably best to skip the splashing just before bed. Potty-training or dealing with bed wetting? Might be better to forego the bedside glass of milk for a while.
We’ve come up with a list of routine components for you to try with your little one. You can go as bare-bones or done-up as you want; it all depends on what works best for your family. Finding the right routine will almost definitely take trial and error, but don’t give up — once you find the magic combination, everyone will start catching more shuteye soon enough.
Basic Bedtime Routine Components
- Food. Whether you’re nursing or formula feeding an infant, or wrangling a hungry toddler who’s fully weaned, you might want to consider a bedtime feed or snack. Some babies do great falling asleep with a full belly, and others get too gassy. Play around with different timings to see what works best.
- Books. This one will look a bit different for everyone depending on the age of your little one. For infants, it’s best to use the same book each time you read to them before bed. Feel free to read a wide variety throughout the day, but sticking to one book before bedtime will help your baby’s brain get ready to go to sleep. Older children, on the other hand, might enjoy choosing a different book each night. Switching things up this way is perfectly fine — as long as you keep routine in mind. Reading two books one night and six books the next will be confusing for your child and prolong the bedtime process.
- Bath. Again, this won’t work for every child. Younger babies, in particular, tend to be persnickety about their love or hatred for the water. If your baby screams his way through the suds, don’t do it before bed. You want your routine to be calm and positive.
- Bathroom. This one seems obvious, but you’d be surprised how it can get overlooked after a busy day. Make sure your baby goes to bed with a clean, dry diaper, and your older child uses the bathroom right before hitting the hay. They may still need a change or to get up in the middle of the night, but giving them the chance right before turning in should deter your little ones from the “But-I-have-to-pee!” excuse when all else has failed.
- Teeth. As soon as your baby starts sprouting teeth (you’ll know this one’s coming when — surprise! — your little one starts waking up more frequently at night), it’s important to get in the habit of brushing their pearly whites. In fact, you can even start before the teeth come through by gently brushing their gums.
- Lullaby and/or Prayer. Choose songs or prayers that have special meaning to you both. Try to choose ones that are quiet, low-energy, and uplifting.
- Snuggle. This one can come back to bite you if you take it too far, so pay attention to how this goes for you and your little one. While snuggling your baby or child until they fall asleep has the potential to go south (are you prepared to get up and snuggle your newborn every time they wake those first few months?), it’s perfectly okay to cuddle up next to them for a few minutes while they get comfy in bed.
Your routine can include some or all of these components, plus whatever else you and your little one decide upon together.
What To Expect (Now That You’re Not Expecting)
One of the tricky things about addressing your child’s sleeping habits is that you’re often working with a moving target. Babies and children require different amounts of sleep — and at different times throughout the day — to remain healthy. Sleep Health: The Journal of the National Sleep Foundation, conducted a rigorous study in 2015 to update the National Sleep Foundation’s sleep duration recommendations. We’ll dive into their findings (outlined below) in greater detail in this section. Overall, here’s what a typically-developing child needs in terms of sleep in a 24-hour period, by age:
- Newborns: 14 – 17 hours
- Infants: 12 – 15 hours
- Toddlers: 11 – 14 hours
- Preschoolers: 10 – 13 hours
- School-aged children: 9 – 11 hours
- Teenagers: 8 – 10 hours
If you’re doing some groggy math in your head and realizing that your child is definitely not getting the sleep they need, read on. Knowledge is power. The more you know, the more you can help.
Newborns: 0 – 4 Months
Your baby’s ability to sleep more at night than during the day has nothing to do with being confused; instead, it has everything to do with how their brains and nervous system develop over time.
Newborns are the biggest wild card when it comes to sleep. The truth is, they don’t know up from down, night from day, or anything in between — and to be honest, your job is to be okay with that. Try your best to with the flow for about the first four weeks.
If your newborn squish is awake during the night more than they are during the day, a lot of well-meaning folks will tell you it’s because they “have their nights and days mixed up.” This is partially true…but it’s not something you should want to (or can, for that matter) fix. Not right away, at least.
Think back to your pregnancy (feels like ages ago, doesn’t it?). Once you started feeling baby movements, you might have noticed that your baby was less active during the day, but would start his tap-dancing routine just as you laid your head down for the night. That’s pretty common. The motion of mom’s movement tends to rock babies to sleep in the womb. When the motion stops, many babies like to wake up to get their calisthenics in. So, in some respects, your well-meaning great aunt kind of knows what she’s talking about — your baby is somewhat used to waking at night and sleeping during the day. But there’s a bit more science behind it.
In a 1964 study, researchers found that there was little change in the number of hours spent sleeping over a 24-hour period during infants’ first 16 weeks of life. However, by the end of the sixteenth week, “the distribution of sleep showed double the amount of sleep at night as compared to the day.” This means that your baby wasn’t actually “mixed-up” during her first few weeks of life — it’s perfectly normal for newborn sleep to happen in smaller increments dispersed throughout a 24-hour period, rather than bunched up more during the night. In fact, the study found that the shift in sleeping from a scattered pattern to a more night-based one “coincide[d] with reported maturational changes in behavior and electroencephalograms, and with anatomic changes in the nervous system.”
Plain English? Your baby’s ability to sleep more at night than during the day has nothing to do with being confused; instead, it has everything to do with how their brains and nervous system develop over time.
Why Newborns Need So Much Sleep: Life Is Hard
The main reason newborns sleep for much of the day is pretty simple: life on the outside is hard. Literally every sound, sight, and touch is completely new to your baby. His brain is working at rapid speed to understand all of this newness, and sleep is a key component in that process.
In fact, your baby’s brain is working triple duty while he sleeps. First, your baby’s brain is maturing while he’s asleep. That increased maturity helps him become more prepared to process newer and more sophisticated information while he’s awake. Second, your baby’s brain consolidates memories while he’s sleeping. This is true for adult brains, too. Lastly, new research is beginning to show that your baby’s brain actually continues to intake and process new stimuli, even while asleep. With everything around them being new and noteworthy, it’s no wonder your baby needs to doze off so frequently.
While many new parents can be shell-shocked at their new take-it-when-you-can-get-it sleep situation, many others worry that their baby sleeps too much. According to The Baby Sleep Site, it’s unlikely your little one’s all-day napfest is harmful: “Unless your baby literally never wakes up, not even to eat, there is most likely no reason to worry your baby is sleeping too much. In the first few weeks, it’s also very common for you to need to wake your baby every 2 – 3 hours to ensure he eats, and he may go right back to sleep afterward.” However, if you’re concerned, it’s never a bad idea to give your pediatrician a ring to double check (just be prepared for them to tell you to enjoy the sleep while you can!).
One last thing before we get into the nitty-gritty. Regardless of where you fall on the sleep-training spectrum, the newborn stage is not the time to try any drastic tactics. Your baby is still learning about the world, and about you, and your job is to respond to their needs as quickly as you can during this stage — day or night.
Typical Newborn Sleep Patterns
According to Stanford Children’s Health, “newborns generally sleep about 8 to 9 hours in the daytime and about 8 hours at night.” These periods don’t happen all at once, though — nor should you want them to. Newborn stomachs are only about the size of a marble, which means they don’t hold much. You want your baby to eat about every 2 – 3 hours (or more frequently, if they request it), so be sure to wake your baby up for a feed if they’re approaching that threshold.
Other than that, there is no real “pattern” of newborn sleep. Some newborns sleep and wake for short cycles; others will take a monster, four-hour nap if you let them. As long as they’re taking in enough food throughout a 24-hour period, there generally isn’t much to worry about.
Common Disruptors of Newborn Sleep
Most newborns, when actually sleeping, are deep sleepers. In fact, most parents are pleasantly surprised when they find that their newborn can seemingly sleep through anything (until 3:00 AM, of course). There are, however, a few issues that some unlucky parents run across when navigating their new tiny human’s sleeping patterns.
There’s no debate here: parents of colicky babies deserve a medal, all the coffee, all the wine, and a week-long spa vacation.
Colic describes a phenomenon in which newborn babies cry a lot. For most parents, even five minutes of hearing their baby cry, seemingly without reason, feels like an eternity. But it doesn’t mean you’ve got a colicky baby on your hands. According to Dr. Harvey Karp — pediatrician, assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Southern California, and expert in colicky babies — your baby is most certainly going to cry (probably a lot!) in at least their first few weeks of life, “and that’s a good thing. How else would we know if our helpless infants were cold, hungry, lonely, or in pain?”
However, a colicky baby is something different. Karp defines an infant with colic as one who “cries for more than 3 hours a day, at least 3 days a week, and consistently for longer than 3 weeks.” These babies will cry as if being tortured, for hours on end, despite being fed, changed, and cuddled.
Dealing with Colic
If you’re the parent of a colicky baby, don’t worry. “We now think of colic as being part of normal development,” says Dr. Ian St. James-Roberts, expert in child development. It doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong, and it won’t last forever. Colicky behavior typically begins at around 2 weeks of age, and ends at around 4 months. It totally sucks…but there’s nothing wrong with your or your baby.
In the meantime, there are things you can do to try to ease the screams. First, it’s important to bring up your concerns to your pediatrician and rule out any underlying medical issues. If all looks healthy and colic is indeed the cause, try using a combination of Karp’s “Happiest Baby on the Block” routine. Karp suggests mimicking the environment of the womb by offering your baby the 5 S’s: swaddling, side or stomach position (note: this is NOT for a sleeping baby; only lay an awake baby on their side or stomach), shushing, swinging, or sucking.
On the opposite end of the sleep-issue spectrum is jaundice. Jaundice occurs when bilirubin levels in the body are too high. Jaundice comes on a spectrum, and being on the lower end is relatively common at birth. Mild cases of jaundice are often resolved once baby starts eating and going to the bathroom regularly, but in some cases (like difficulty latching and transferring milk, for example) bilirubin levels will continue to rise after birth. High bilirubin can make babies extremely sleepy, making it difficult for them to wake long enough for a proper feeding.
Your baby’s bilirubin will be monitored from birth. However, if you notice that your baby seems unusually sleepy, refuses to wake for feeds, and/or has an orange tint to their skin, be sure to give your doctor a call right away.
Best Practices for Newborn Sleep Habits
When your newborn wakes in the middle of the night, try to keep the lights dim and sounds low. Just because your newborn doesn’t have a schedule doesn’t mean they aren’t learning.
The best piece of advice we can offer for the newborn stage is somewhat contradictory, so bear with us.
While it’s important to give your newborn the sleep he needs when he needs it, as well as the food he needs when he needs it, it’s also important to start implementing some kind of routine as soon as possible. You could choose a bedtime book, for example, and start reading it to your baby at roughly the same time every day. That way, as your baby approaches the four-month mark and things start to normalize a bit, your baby will already know what to expect.
You’ll also want to try your best to keep your family’s days and nights on track as much as possible. When your newborn wakes in the middle of the night, try to keep the lights dim and sounds low. Just because your newborn doesn’t have a schedule doesn’t mean they aren’t learning. The earlier you can introduce the idea of night and day, the better. But be patient with your baby as they figure things out — after the first couple of months, your routine will pay off, and your schedule will start to feel slightly more normal.
Infants: 4 – 12 Months
Babies wake up during the night. It’s just what they do. What you do about it, and what your baby learns to do about it, are what matter.
Here’s where things get really interesting. Whereas with newborns, who are completely reliable in that they have no reliable schedule whatsoever, infants like to change things up — a lot.
Some babies outgrow the newborn stage and become champion sleepers right out of the gate. We call these Unicorn Babies, and they do exist. They are easy to put down to sleep, take long naps, put themselves back to sleep if they wake, and wake up in the morning happy. If you have one of these babies, count yourself lucky (and please watch our baby while we take a nap).
On the other hand, if bedtime with your infant has you dreaming about an exorcism, or you find yourself driving around in your pajamas with your baby in the backseat at 3:00 AM, you’re not alone.
Babies wake up during the night. It’s just what they do. What you do about it, and what your baby learns to do about it, are what matter.
Bedtime and nighttime with your baby should not be difficult. Ideally, your baby should fall asleep easily and with increasing independence, and should learn how to put himself back to sleep if and when he wakes in the middle of the night with little to no interference from you.
Arriving at this ideal looks different for each baby and family; for some, it can be quite a journey. The key to remember is that the components of your nighttime routine don’t matter as much as the overall success of the routine itself. Do you spend hours rocking your baby to sleep, only to start the process over again in an hour? That’s not working. On the other hand, Mindell says, “many babies who are rocked or nursed to sleep go to sleep quickly, and don’t wake during the night…the same parenting behavior can lead to sleep problems and babies and not in others.” If you nurse, rock, shush, and pat to sleep, and your baby is out like a light for the next 12 hours — more power to you. However, “parents need to change their behavior…if their baby has a problem sleeping through the night,” or putting himself back to sleep after waking in the middle of the night.
On Your Toughest Night, Remember This: Your Baby NEEDS Sleep
Babies go through a tremendous amount of change, mentally and physically, and they need adequate rest to develop properly.
When you’re sleep-deprived, it can be tempting to throw your hands up and let your baby sleep wherever and whenever they happen to crash, but it’s important to use the infant stage to start teaching them good sleep habits.
Just like the newborn stage, the infancy period is absolutely chock full of new experiences. Babies go through a tremendous amount of change, mentally and physically, and they need adequate rest to develop properly. Over the course of her first year, a typically developing baby will learn how to: hold her own head up; roll (both ways); grab things with her hands and fingers; crawl; find your voice in a crowd; clap; wave; smile; laugh; get your attention; point to something interesting; eat solid food; grab her feet; grow teeth; recover from illness; some will learn how to walk and talk; and master countless other milestones. It’s a busy year, to say the least. None of that can happen without the right amount of sleep.
That being said, let’s take a look at the development of ideal sleeping patterns for babies under one year old.
Infant Sleeping Patterns: A Moving Target
As your baby gets older, his daily sleep needs will decrease, and his maximum awake time between sleep periods will increase. Number and length of naps will shift over time, and bedtime will change. As if you don’t have enough to think about…
In order to know when it’s time to transition from one sleep stage to the next, pay attention to your baby’s tired cues. Picking up on tired cues is important, says Kim West, author of The Sleep Lady’s Good Night, Sleep Tight, because if you miss them, “[your baby’s] body won’t be pumping out calming melatonin. Instead, his adrenal glands will send out a rush of cortisol, a stress-related hormone that will overstimulate your baby…and create a second wind.”
Common tired cues include:
- Rubbing eyes
- Decreased play
- Whining or fussing
Pay careful attention to the clock and your baby’s cues — don’t let either one by itself dictate his schedule.
What’s the Matter Now? The (Long) List of Reasons Your Infant Can’t Sleep
As we mentioned, infancy is a busy and sometimes difficult time in the life of your child. A remarkable amount of growth and learning occurs during the first year of life, and all that development can make it difficult to get some shuteye. (It’s the same for adults, by the way, so cut your baby some slack. Have you ever had a really busy week and just can’t seem to wind down on Friday night? Or maybe you’ve changed jobs, and the sudden influx of new information keeps you tossing and turning? It’s just like that for babies, only amplified times, like, a million.) Here are some typical reasons your baby may be having trouble sleeping.
Although researchers have been studying this phenomenon for years, it’s a relatively new concept in mainstream child-rearing: Wonder Weeks.
Authors of the best-selling book The Wonder Weeks: How to Stimulate Development and Help Him Turn His 10 Predictable, Great, Fussy Phases into Magical Leaps Forward confirm that “it’s not your imagination. All babies go through a difficult period around the same age. Research has shown that babies make 10 major, predictable, age-linked changes — or leaps — during their first 20 months of their lives. With each leap comes a drastic change in your baby’s mental development, which affects…his sleeping patterns,” among other things.
When your baby is in the middle of a leap, you can expect their sleep to be disrupted in some way. They may sleep more or less during night time; they may fight naps tooth and nail, or they may nap for shorter or longer than usual. But along with a leap almost always comes a curveball when it comes to sleeping.
You can expect your baby to go through lots of ups and downs in their sleep patterns over the course of their first year
Ah, sleep regressions. This is one of those topics that seasoned parents just love to talk about with new parents. It’s like some sort of strange schadenfreude/commiseration technique. Pam Edwards, pediatric sleep consultant, says that “the ‘ 4-month sleep regression’ has celebrity status” in her business.
“A sleep regression,” Edwards says, “is thought to occur when a baby who is normally sleeping well begins to wake frequently at night and/or fights/refuses naps. These regressions seem to come out of nowhere and can last indefinitely.”
That’s definitely disheartening. There’s nothing like being three months into parenting, finally thinking you’ve got everything figured out, and then — BAM — your baby is up all hours of the night again.
Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author and parenting expert, expands on this idea of sleep regressions: “[society seems] to think that baby sleep is linear…that it gets better as babies grow older. Or at least we believe it is static, i.e. it won’t get worse again.” Not true, says Ockwell-Smith. You can expect your baby to go through lots of ups and downs in their sleep patterns over the course of their first year. “Yes, it is depressing,” she says, “but it’s realistic and once you know that something is totally normal, not your fault, and most importantly not permanent it is so much easier to relax a little.”
According to Pam Edwards, the key to surviving regressions is simple.
“It is all about recognizing our baby’s changing needs and having a flexible schedule that is in sync with our child’s natural sleep rhythm. We as parents may think that because we started one way (by always nursing to sleep, by rocking to sleep, by holding baby for all sleep) that this is the way that baby will always need to sleep. This is definitely not the case! When these things stop working we need to switch it up and find something new to help our babies get the sleep they need.”
A less widespread, but still common sleep inhibitor is recurring ear infections. Many little ones are prone to these nasty, painful suckers and they can be a HUGE issue when it comes to getting good rest. When fluid builds up in the ear, it makes laying down extremely painful.
Look out for the following symptoms to determine if your little one may have an ear infection:
- Pulling, rubbing, grabbing, or tugging on their ears
- Diarrhea or vomiting
- Reduced appetite
- Drainage from the ear
- Difficulty sleeping
These days, pediatricians are hesitant to prescribe antibiotics for ear infections and typically advise you to let the infection run its course. However, it’s still important to have your little one checked out by their doctor if you suspect an infection. In severe or recurring infections, it’s likely they’ll be prescribed medicine to clear it up.
Unlike ear infections, which only affect an unlucky subset of babies, teething is going to hit every family at one time or another. Even more annoying? Children will grow 20 baby teeth, and it will take them up to three years to do so. Ugh.
Most babies get their first tooth at around 8 months of age, though some can sprout as early as 3 months (and, though rare, there are cases of babies being born with teeth…whoa).
Symptoms of teething include:
- Teething rash/redness on face and chin
- Refusal to eat
- Ear/cheek rubbing
- Difficulty sleeping
According to The Baby Sleep Site, there are three major ways you can help your little one as that next tooth works its way up through the gums.
- Teething Toys Popular choices include freezable objects, as well as those with texture to soothe raw gums. Don’t be afraid to go old school here, either — a frozen washcloth works perfectly in a pinch!
- Tylenol or Ibuprofen Just pay attention to the appropriate dosage information.
- Comfort As Needed Your baby is in pain — they deserve to feel comfortable. Just be wary of undoing any sleep progress you’ve made by indulging in bad habits. Did you spend two months trying to get your little one to sleep in her crib? Probably best to avoid co-sleeping during teething periods. Instead, opt for a nice cuddle and lullaby, and then place your baby back in her crib.
So My Baby Has More Problems Than a Jay-Z Song…How Will I Get Any Sleep?
Like we said — the infant stage is a challenging time when it comes to sleep. And there’s no shortage of advice, either. It can be hard to know where to turn and what feels right for your family. We’ve consolidated some of the most common expert advice out there, and weighed in on the pros and cons of each. It’s up to you to decide what will work best for your family.
Regardless of how or when it happens, it’s important to bed-share safely if you choose to do so.
Up first on our list of (controversial) advice is the concept of extended rooming-in and/or bed-sharing with your baby.
According to Mama Natural, a popular attachment-parenting blog, “cosleeping with baby is culturally accepted in many non western [sic] societies today.” Many parents believe that sleeping in close quarters with their baby helps everyone get more sleep by making night feeds more efficient and reducing separation anxiety.
Though the AAP vehemently recommends against bed-sharing, there are many families who do so — whether they admit it or not. Some families make it a habit, and some find themselves next to baby out of desperation. Regardless of how or when it happens, it’s important to bed-share safely if you choose to do so. Adhere to the following guidelines to ensure the safest possible bed-sharing environment for your little one:
- Baby should sleep closer/next to mom (rather than dad)
- Bed-sharing is safest for breastfed babies
- Baby should be placed to sleep on her back, on a firm mattress with a tight-fitting sheet
- Absolutely NO loose blankets, pillows, or sheets near baby’s face
- Leave no space between the mattress and the wall where baby could potentially roll into
- DO NOT bed-share on a couch or recliner, or anywhere other than a bed
- Parents who smoke, drink, or take drugs (prescribed or otherwise) should not bedshare
- Bed-sharing babies should not be swaddled
- Consider the temperature of your little one, as bed-sharing tends to create warmer sleeping conditions for baby
NOTE: Bedsharing is absolutely NOT recommended by the AAP due to studies linking it to SIDS.
Many families find a middle ground when it comes to co-sleeping by using “arms-reach” sidecar sleepers, or placing baby’s crib next to their bed for an extended period of time.
Co-sleepers beware: aside from safety concerns, there are many experts in the sleep world that also consider co-sleeping/bed-sharing to be an unnecessary “sleep crutch.” Many believe that by co-sleeping, you are denying your baby the ability to develop healthy, independent sleep habits. Even proponents of bed-sharing acknowledge that you’ll be in it for the long haul if you go this route — bed-sharing with your child is sometimes referred to as a “five-year plan.” This isn’t to say that you can’t get baby out of your bed if you decide to stop bed-sharing before five years, but it may be significantly more difficult than not bringing your baby in bed at all.
THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF “SLEEP TRAINING”
Next on our list of (again, controversial!) advice are three of the more popularly-discussed “sleep training” methods. When people think of sleep training, they typically assume it involves letting their baby cry for some period of time. While it’s true that many methods involve “crying it out,” there are others that aim for baby to cry as little as possible.
We’ll dive into a few specific strategies here, but remember: take what works for you and your baby, and tweak as needed. There is no one-size fits all.
The Ferber Method
[With the Ferber Method], the key is to always leave the room while baby is still awake
Dr. Richard Ferber, director of The Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders, developed his sleep-training method with one goal in mind: wean your baby away from his sleep associations to help him develop the ability fall asleep on his own.
The basic premise is simple enough. Go through your nightly routine, make sure your baby is fed and comfortable, and put him to bed drowsy, but still awake. Then leave the room.
For most babies, you can probably expect a fair bit of fussing at first. Ferber advocates for checking in on your little one and reassuring them that you’re still there — but the key is to always leave the room while baby is still awake. The Ferber method works best with an interval check-in schedule. Start by checking on your awake-and-upset baby frequently — every three minutes or so. Stick with that schedule for a few nights, and then gradually increase the interval between checks. When implemented effectively, the Ferber method (in theory) allows babies to discover that they can, in fact, put themselves to sleep (and back to sleep as needed).
The Ferber method is flexible and can be adapted to fit your parenting style. For example, some parents prefer not to leave the room as their baby fall asleep because that offers their baby more comfort — that’s fine for some. Just be aware that the process may take longer. Additionally, some babies get more frustrated with their parents in the room because they don’t understand why they won’t offer their usual sleep associations, like nursing or rocking.
There’s quite a bit more science and approach behind “Ferberizing” your baby. You can read about the details in Ferber’s book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems.
Critics of Ferber’s method say that letting your baby cry when scared, uncomfortable, or lonely at night is cruel. By doing so, they say, you’re not actually teaching your baby to sleep — you’re teaching her that you cannot be relied on to respond to her needs. Still, Ferber’s method has potential to involve little crying for some, depending on the tweaking involved.
The Weissbluth Method
The Weissbluth Method is perhaps just as controversial as bed-sharing. But of course, as with any hot topic, there are people who swear by it.
The Weissbluth Method is also known as the “extinction method.” The (very) basic gist of the program includes going through your nightly routine, kissing your baby goodnight, putting her down awake, and leaving the room. Unlike the Ferber method, the Weissbluth method does not advocate for any kind of comforting or check-ins. This means your baby is likely to cry for an extended period of time before they sleep — at least in the very beginning. The Weissbluth Method is not for the faint-of-heart. It requires consistency and dedication, as random check-ins or consoling when you “just can’t take it anymore” will confuse your baby and prolong the process.
Weissbluth often gets a bad rep, but it’s not entirely his fault. Many parents think they’re applying his sleep-training method appropriately, but in reality, they are not. For instance, some parents report waking up the morning after sleep training to find their baby covered in her own vomit, having cried so hard she made herself sick. This is not what Weissbluth advises. His book, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, goes into extensive detail about how, when, and why to sleep train using his method. Many parents — both those who follow his program and those who don’t — would likely be surprised at some of the lesser-known points of his theory. He believes, for example, that babies need 1 – 2 night feedings until about 9 months old (compare that to Ferber’s belief that babies need 1-night feed until about 3 months old, and none after that). He also believes that sleep training is an individual process and should highly depend on the temperament of the baby.
Still, even given the allowances that many overlook, Weissbluth is definitely on the far end of the sleep-method spectrum. For those considering it, we strongly recommend you read his book beforehand in order to implement it properly.
The No-Cry Sleep Solution
We’re not wired to accept it when our baby cries. Telling parents to ignore that instinct goes against everything.
Elizabeth Pantley’s No-Cry Sleep Solution falls somewhere in the middle of straight-up attachment parenting and traditional sleep training.
The title is pretty self-explanatory: Pantley’s method offers help for parents who can no longer withstand 3+ wakeups a night, but don’t want to leave their baby to cry without comfort. After all, Pantley says, “we’re not wired to accept it when our baby cries. Telling parents to ignore that instinct goes against everything.” On the other hand, she acknowledges that sleep deprivation is a real issue that needs to be addressed: “You get to a point where if you don’t have sleep, nothing else matters.”
Pantley’s method is highly individualized and unique for each family who uses it, so it’s difficult to go over all of the details here. The main premise, however, is similar to other versions of sleep training: get your baby to fall asleep independently, without relying on sleep associations like nursing, pacifiers, or rocking — and do so with little to no crying through the process.
Early Childhood: 1 – 5 Years
This next section will discuss how to help your child get better sleep when they’re deep in the throes of the “Terrible Twos,” the “Threenager Stage,” or the “Fearsome Fours” — buckle up.
What’s Going On Behind the Scenes
Ensuring your toddler gets enough sleep can be challenging — those buggers are busy! As your baby grows into a child, it’s likely his schedule is becoming more packed with stimulating activities: playgroups, outings to the park or zoo, playdates, and preschools (and sometimes even the addition of a new sibling). Children in this age group are learning all about how to socialize with others and how they fit into the world around them. This is hard work, and sleep is a huge component in navigating these lessons successfully.
There isn’t a parent in the world who hasn’t watched their child act like a total jerk because she was too tired to hang. As your child learns about her emotions, her peers, behavior boundaries, and gears up to head off to school, it’s crucial that she gets enough sleep throughout the day and night to make these processes easier.
How Much Sleep Do They Need?
In general, phasing out the last nap will mean your little one is going from 11 – 14 hours of daily sleep to 10 – 13 hours of daily sleep.
As with the infant period, your child’s sleep needs will shift over time between one and five years of age. Likely the biggest adjustment everyone will need to make is when your child drops their nap.
Typically, babies shift to a one-nap schedule somewhere between 15 – 18 months of age. That nap is usually a monster — 2+ hours — and falls smack in the middle of the day. When they drop that last nap is highly dependent on the child. Some little ones drop it at two years old; some squeeze every last drop out of it until the summer before their kindergarten year. The average is somewhere between three and five years old.
It’s important to pay attention to your child’s daytime behavior and nighttime sleep for clues about when to help them transition. If your little one still loves his nap, but starts falling asleep later and later in the evening because of it, it’s probably time to take the plunge and start phasing it out. Keep in mind that, as with all nap transitions, this won’t happen overnight. There will be days where your little one is a hot mess and absolutely needs to nap to make it through the day, and that’s okay. Nap-cutting is a marathon, not a sprint. In fact, according to Susie Parker, sleep guru at Sleep Baby Love, going from one nap to no nap is “purgatory…[and] you may be in nap purgatory for a year or more (eek)!”
In general, phasing out the last nap will mean your little one is going from 11 – 14 hours of daily sleep to 10 – 13 hours of daily sleep. For some, this may mean they need an extra hour of nighttime sleep. That’s perfectly okay.
Common Toddler Sleep Issues
The number and severity of sleep issues your toddler has likely depend on how adequately their sleep issues were addressed in infancy. If your one-year-old was still waking six times a night to breastfeed, it’s not unusual for them to carry that habit (the waking part, at least) into toddlerhood. On the other hand, there are some sleep issues that are more or less unique to toddlers.
While most five-year-olds are fully potty-trained during the day, a 1996 study found that 33% of them were still wetting the bed at night. Furthermore, 18% of eight-year-olds wet the bed, as did 7% of eleven-year-olds.
Along with phasing out the nap, the transition from diapers to Pull-ups or underwear is a big milestone for toddlers. Potty-training typically happens around 2 – 3 years of age, and nighttime is often the hardest area to tackle. In fact, while most five-year-olds are fully potty-trained during the day, a 1996 study found that 33% of them were still wetting the bed at night. Furthermore, 18% of eight-year-olds wet the bed, as did 7% of eleven-year-olds.
There are many causes of bed-wetting, and it’s important to keep your doctor informed if your child wakes up soaked more often than you (and she) would like. In general, though, it’s usually a case of maturity and bladder size, and most kids will outgrow it. If you notice your child’s bed-wetting isn’t becoming less frequent over time, it’s a good idea to make a plan with your doctor to explore other underlying causes and come up with a treatment plan.
In the meantime, mommy blogger Herchel Scruggs from Gym Craft Laundry has a few “sanity-saving” tips to get you both through this stage as dry and rested as possible:
- The Sandwich Sheets. Scruggs recommends layering sheets and moisture barriers to make for easy middle-of-the-night work in case of an accident. To make a Sheet Sandwich, first layer a “pee pad thing” on top of the mattress. This prevents any and all liquid from permeating the mattress. On top of that goes a fitted sheet. Then, layer ANOTHER pee pad and another fitted sheet. Depending on how often your little one wets, you may even opt for a third layer.If and when your child wets the bed, all you’ll need to do is strip the top fitted sheet and moisture barrier, leaving the next sheet set clean, fresh, and dry for your child. No laundry necessary (at least not immediately), and everyone can go back to sleep tout suite.
- Pull-Ups or GoodNites. Scruggs’s bed-wetter is a bit older, so her post talks about GoodNites. The concept is the same as a Pull-Up, but they’re sized and marketed for older kids. This is important — shame is a huge factor in bed-wetting, and seeing an older child on the box helps older bed-wetters accept and confront the issue. If your bed-wetter is still little, Pull-Ups work perfectly well, too.
- Enzyme Cleaner. You know that Nature’s Miracle stuff they sell in pet stores for when your dog has an accident or your cat pukes? It works for human accidents, too. Keep this stuff on hand for when the pee bypasses the pee pad (because you know it will…probably the night before your big presentation at work) and you need to salvage the mattress.
Toddlers are still learning to manage big feelings, and this process often manifests itself through dreams — good or bad.
Nightmares happen to the best of us — even as adults. There isn’t a single one of us that can say they’ve never woken up from a nightmare that’s shook them to their core.
As adults, though, we have the maturity and rational-thinking skills to know that it was just a dream and that we’re safe. Our little ones can’t always do that on their own — that’s why nightmares are a BIG DEAL for toddlers, and it’s important to address them properly.
The Sleep Foundation has some pretty standard recommendations for dealing with nightmares, including nightlights, security objects, and avoiding scary television shows. We also liked The Baby Sleep Site’s recommendation to acknowledge that “your child’s fear is real. The events of your little one’s nightmare may be fictional, but his fear isn’t. Respect your toddler’s…feelings, and offer plenty of comfort and reassurance.”
Joanna at LazyMomsBlog.com had a great idea that we hadn’t come across elsewhere. She suggests setting aside time during your bedtime routine to talk to your little one about their day: what they liked, what they didn’t like, and anything else that provoked strong emotions. Toddlers are still learning to manage big feelings, and this process often manifests itself through dreams — good or bad. Giving your toddler a chance to talk about the things that stood out to them will help them work through those emotions so they (hopefully) don’t show up in their dreams.
Still, says Joanna, your little one will have nightmares — it’s inevitable. When they do, she suggests reminding them “that they are not alone, and that they are safe. Tell them that they can always come and cuddle you (or call you)…Tell them it happens to you too, and tell them how you deal with it…Let them know it’s normal and that it will pass.”
A child having a nightmare is easily awakened, while a child having a night terror is difficult to rouse.
Night terrors are not simply “intense nightmares,” contrary to popular belief. They’re actually a horse of a completely different color. The true difference between the two stems from each occurring at different parts of the sleep cycle (which we’ll get into in a minute), but the basic gist of it is this: a child having a nightmare is easily awakened, while a child having a night terror is difficult to rouse. Additionally, you may or may not know when your child is having a nightmare until they wake up and cry for help. On the other hand, you will always know when your child is having a night terror, because it usually involves some type of screaming out, panicky behavior, and/or movement in or out of the bed.
According to sleep expert Nicole Johnson at The Baby Sleep Site, night terrors occur as children’s bodies and brains attempt to transition from one sleep cycle to the next. Beginning at around 4 months of age, she explains, babies enter into their deepest sleep of the night when they first fall asleep. The first sleep cycle lasts anywhere between 60 and 90 minutes, and your child will wake briefly (whether you realize it or not) as he attempts to transition to the next cycle (which also happens to be deep sleep).
During this brief wake time, the brain is at odds. It is partially awake and fighting the body’s desire to go back to sleep. This is totally normal, says Johnson, and can manifest in a variety of ways: tossing and turning, brief crying, babbling, or moaning. In some cases, especially in toddlers and older children, this “confusional event” may even appear more intense and yet still be normal. Your toddler may “[jump] out of bed and move around the room. She might seem upset or confused or move around the room and may even say things like ‘No! Stop!’…She might not recognize you and might push you away if you try to hug or touch her.” Even this kind of activity, says Johnson, is not a true night terror.
A true night terror will appear a lot more suddenly than any of these “confusional events” and be a lot more…well, terrifying. Your child will let out a blood-curdling scream, sit straight up in bed or even jump out of bed, and act completely terrified of something that seemingly doesn’t exist. She may panic or be sweaty, and desperately attempt to get away from whatever is scaring her.
The good news, says Johnson, is that your child will not remember these events. If and when they occur, the best way to manage them is to “not interrupt the process of going back to sleep, if you can help it.” Of course, if your child is having a night terror and is up and out of her bed, you do need to help keep her safe — but try your best to do so without waking her. Night terrors usually last 1 – 5 minutes (though they can last around 40…no wonder we’re tired!), and most children outgrow them at some point.
BEDTIME AVOIDANCE AND TANTRUMS
Try putting a favorite activity at the very end of the routine. If you do that, says Mindell, your toddler is more likely to “zip through” the tougher parts to get to his preferred activity.
If you have a child old enough to communicate, chances are you’ve been here before:
Typical bedtime routine
Toddler in bed, get wine
Toddler: I need water!
Mom gets toddler glass of water
Toddler: I need to pee!
Mom: You peed before bed. Close your eyes.
Toddler: Can you read one more story?
Mom: We read two stories before bed. Tonight we read Goodnight Moon and Hop on Pop. It’s time to go to sleep now.
Toddler: It’s hot in here!
Mom: I will turn the A.C. on. Take the blanket off until you feel cooler. Close your eyes now.
Mom enters room and coaxes toddler back into bed
All Out War
Mom taking deep breaths
Wine left tragically untouched.
If you’ve been an actor in this scene a time or two (or even a time or two per week), you’re not alone. Toddlers are natural boundary-pushers, and bedtime is the perfect time to test your limits. The scenario we described above is mild on the bedtime-tantrum spectrum, believe it or not; sometimes bedtime avoidance goes as far as kicking, pinching, biting, and slapping.
The main thing to do, says Jodi Mindell, is to “be firm…you need to make it very clear that biting and kicking [if they’re occurring] are not allowed.” She also astutely notes that “[t]oddlers are their own little animals…But in terms of basic sleep rules, it’s the same. Parents should still have a schedule, a bedtime routine, and falling asleep independently.” And while maintaining some kind of routine is the most important thing here, there’s nothing stopping you from switching things up a bit so the routine starts to work for everyone again.
One trick that can really help, says Mindell, is a “bedtime routine chart. It’s a chart that literally shows what’s going to happen. And parents can say, ‘What do we do next?’ ‘We brush our teeth, then we put on our pajamas, and then we read two books.’ And they should put a picture of two books, and therefore there’s no argument about it.”
Another strategy Mindell suggests is to make your bedtime routine more fun. Toddlerhood and tantrums have a lot to do with control. If your toddler dislikes part of their bedtime routine — even the tiniest bit — you can expect you-know-what to hit the fan eventually. Some things have to get done before bed — like bath and brushing teeth. But to make those activities more tolerable, try putting a favorite activity at the very end of the routine. If you do that, says Mindell, your toddler is more likely to “zip through” the tougher parts to get to his preferred activity. Put it on your chart, too. After the activity is over, it’s bedtime, no questions — but your little one goes to bed happy and feeling like he’s had some control over the process, rather than doing things all your way.
Later Childhood: 6 – 12 Years
By this point in your child’s life, everyone is probably catching a good bit more shuteye than in the earlier years. That’s good news, because it’s likely your child (and by extension, you and the rest of your family) is busier than ever these days. There are, however, some common snags to look out for.
School Is Harder Than Ever — Make Sure Your Child Is Ready
Students of different education levels (from school to university) are chronically sleep deprived or suffer from poor sleep quality and consequent daytime sleepiness.
Take one look at your kiddo’s math homework, and it’s no secret that third grade is not what it used to be. Our kids are facing significantly more challenging academic demands, and they’re expected to balance that with a schedule full of extracurriculars. By this point, the basics of life — like walking, talking, and eating — have been mastered, but school-aged children are still fully immersed in learning. Kids this age are muddling through hard life lessons about emotions, relationships, and boundaries (not to mention everything that comes out of their teacher’s mouth!). That’s why it’s critical that your child continues to get enough sleep.
A far-reaching 2006 study found that “sleep quality and quantity are closely related to student learning capacity and academic performance [and] sleep loss is frequently associated with poor declarative and procedural learning in students.” Furthermore, the study found, “students of different education levels (from school to university) are chronically sleep deprived or suffer from poor sleep quality and consequent daytime sleepiness.”
Lack of sleep doesn’t just affect your child’s performance in school, either. A 2004 study found that the consequences of childhood sleep deprivation last far longer than grade school and that “[p]ersistent sleep problems in childhood may be an early risk indicator of anxiety in adulthood.”
Needless to say, making sure your school-aged child gets enough sleep is crucial. Let’s take a look at how much they really need, and what might be getting in the way if they aren’t getting it.
Getting the Sleep They Need (And Still Getting to School on Time)
School-aged children need 9 – 11 hours of nighttime sleep.
By now, your child has long-dropped their nap and should be on an awake-during-the-day and asleep-during-the-night schedule. If you find that your child routinely falls asleep during the day (or if you hear the same from their teacher), that’s a huge red flag that they’re not getting enough nighttime sleep. If that’s the case, you’ll need to take a careful look at your child’s bedtime routine and environment to make some tweaks.
School-aged children need 9 – 11 hours of nighttime sleep. While this doesn’t seem like a lot (at least relative to the many hours of daily sleeping that occurs earlier in life), it’s really important to think about what they need (and how to fit it in) in terms of your child’s overall schedule.
Many elementary- and middle-school-aged children are expected to be at school by 8:00 AM, sometimes even earlier. So you’ll need to start counting backward from there to think about sleep times, bedtime routines, and wake times. For example, if they need to be at school by 8:00 AM, you’ll need to have them out of bed by 7:00 AM in order to make sure they have ample time to wake up properly, have breakfast, brush their teeth, do any other morning chores, and make it to the bus (or walk to school) on time. If your child is a slow mover in the morning, you’ll need even more time to get everything done.
Now, count backward again. If they need to be up by 7:00 AM and need about 11 hours of sleep, that means they need to be asleep by 8:00 PM. That doesn’t mean brushing their teeth at 8:00 PM, or reading with a flashlight under their blanket. They need to be hardcore snoozing in order to meet that hourly quota.
If you find that your child is sleepy during the day, or you do the math and they are definitely not getting the right hours, you’ll need to adjust either your nighttime or morning routine — or both — to make it happen.
Common Disruptors to School-Aged Children’s Sleep
If you’ve noticed a problem with your older child’s sleeping habits, there’s good news — it’s usually a lot easier to fix than issues with younger children. Barring any underlying illnesses or sleep disorders, sleep issues in children are usually one quick-fix away from resolution. Here are a few issues we see regularly with older children who aren’t getting enough sleep.
We just went over this, but it bears repeating: if your child isn’t getting the sleep they need, take a close look at their routine. Often, the issue can be solved by simply moving bedtime up by an hour, or making the morning routine faster. For example, instead of having your child pack their backpack after breakfast, have them do it after dinner. That’s 10 extra minutes in the morning that they can use to sleep.
It may help to spend a week or two tracking your family’s habits. Write down your child’s nighttime routine, including start and end times, as well as their morning one. Is your child spending 16 minutes “brushing her teeth?” That’s too long, and she’s probably up to something else in there (hairbrush karaoke, anyone?). Once the reality is laid out on paper, it’s a lot easier to figure out where things are going wrong.
Kids these days lead far busier lives than we ever did. Gone are the days of lazily riding your bike for hours before dinner, then going home and calling it a night. Not only are students laden with homework at the end of the day, but they’re often shuttled from activity to sport and back again — and expected to do it all with boundless energy.
Children deserve the chance to wind down at the end of the day just as much as adults do. If you find that your afternoon schedule leaves no time for downtime — or worse, forces bedtime to be pushed back — it’s time to pull the plug on something.
We recommend first looking at your child’s activity schedule. Perhaps there’s a baseball league that practices twice weekly instead of four times — that may be a better fit. Or maybe violin lessons can wait until baseball season is over.
If you’ve cut the activities down but are still seeing issues, consider the homework factor. This one can be tricky, because you want your child to keep up and do well in school. Start by asking your child’s teacher how long she expects your child’s homework to take each night, and compare it to your reality at home. If it’s taking your child significantly longer than expected to complete his work, it may be time to consider his work habits. It’s also a good idea to check in with his teacher to see if he’s having any trouble accessing the material in school, which would make it harder for him to complete it at home.
More screen time is associated with delayed bedtimes, fewer hours of sleep and poorer sleep quality.
Here’s another huge issue facing our kids that wasn’t even a blip on our radar when we were young: the constant access to electronics. A team of researchers from the University of Colorado recently performed a meta-study where they looked at all of the available research about screen time and sleep. After looking at more than 60 studies of kids ages 5 – 17, the team found that over 90% of them showed that “more screen time is associated with delayed bedtimes, fewer hours of sleep and poorer sleep quality.”
The team compiled the research to determine three main reasons that electronics affect sleep:
- The content is too stimulating.
- The type of light emitted from most devices interrupts humans’ circadian rhythms.
- Children have more access to screens than ever before.
Experts agree that screen time should be cut off at least thirty minutes before bedtime — but an hour is ideal. Kristen Knutson, PhD and assistant professor in the University of Chicago Department of Medicine, explains that kids need to “give [their] brain a chance to unwind, to reduce the effects of the bright light and recover from that.”
But Knutson takes the screen time issue a step further. “Parents also have to be role models as best we can,” she says. “Kids look to their parents for behavior and model that, unconsciously or not.” So if you’re telling your child that screen time is bad for their sleep, the same should apply to you. Try your best to give yourself that same 30 minutes of screen-free time before bed, and avoid looking at your phone in the middle of the night.
Teenagers: 13 – 18 Years
Teenage sleep is a beast that could justify an entire guide of its own. Just like newborns, teenagers have their own unique biological schedule that doesn’t quite match up with the rest of the world. They also share the unique ability to sleep through a marching band. Unfortunately, school and family demands don’t always adhere to the body clock of a teenager. However, there are things you can do to help ensure your teen gets the sleep they need.
Tremendous Growth (All Around)
If you’re the parent of a teen, you’re probably wondering how it’s possible for your child to eat such an incredible amount of food. That’s because, between the ages of 13 and 18, your teen’s body is going through rapid physical change and growth — they need the extra nourishment to keep up.
The brain of a teen is also undergoing some pretty significant changes. While the bulk of brain development occurs before the teenage years — at least in terms of volume — there’s one section that’s still in progress as your little one becomes an almost-adult: the prefrontal cortex. Geographically speaking, the prefrontal cortex is a relatively small area of the brain. But don’t let its size fool you. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for some of the most sophisticated work the brain will ever do: judgment and decision-making. And we’re not talking about the kind of decision where you debate whether to have spaghetti or chicken for dinner — the PFC is far more complex than that. It governs short- and long-term decision making; the ability to plan ahead and strategize; and concentrate on goals.
Ahem — is any of this sounding shockingly not like your teenager? As in, you can’t possibly imagine them doing any sort of long-term decision making, or planning ahead any further than what their next snack will be? That’s because your teen’s PFC is still under construction. And that’s why making sure they get appropriate sleep is so important.
How Much Do Sleep Do They Really Need? Because It’s Noon, and He’s Out Cold…
Current research states that teenagers need 8 – 10 hours of sleep a night. However, there is emerging research that suggests they may need even more than that.
Current research states that teenagers need 8 – 10 hours of sleep a night. However, there is emerging research that suggests they may need even more than that. The jury is still out, though. It’s difficult to tell whether teens need more sleep, or if they just need different sleep.
As we all remember (or try not to remember…), puberty is a time of great change. Most of that change is driven by a huge influx of hormones that surge through a teenager’s body. These hormones are responsible for things like body and voice changes, acne, and the lovely mood swings wreaking havoc in your home.
According to the UCLA Sleep Center, puberty is also responsible for the changing need for sleep in teens. Before puberty, a human’s body naturally pumps sleepy-time chemicals at around 8:00 PM or 9:00 PM (earlier for younger children). Once puberty hits, though, things shift. Suddenly, sleepiness occurs later in the night — 11:00 PM and sometimes later — and most teens find it very difficult to wind down and fall asleep at their previously-normal bedtime. So they stay up later.
Unfortunately, most high schools have not yet shifted their schedules to align with the changing circadian rhythms of their students. In fact, in many counties, high schools have earlier start times than elementary schools. That means that your teen is staying up later than ever before and being asked to show up earlier than ever before. Add to that the fact that most teens have much looser restrictions on their electronics, and you’ve got a recipe for sleep disaster.
Teenagers are notoriously difficult when it comes to setting limits. There are, however, a few common issues that — if approached the right way, with perhaps just the right amount of bargaining and empathy — could help alleviate some of the effects of teenage sleep deprivation.
Common Sleep Disruptors in Teenagers (Other Than Simply Being a Teenager)
Check our list below and see if one of these could be the reason you’ve become your teen’s personal alarm clock (only after she’s hit snooze on her own 14 times).
Sleeping in more than an hour beyond the usual wake up time is asking for trouble when Monday comes around again.
Because of the naturally-occurring circadian rhythm shift in the teenage years, most teens miss out on their necessary sleep during the week. Their bodies tell them to stay up later, but their parents and teachers tell them to get their butts out of bed. On most days, teens give in to both demands — and end up worse for the wear because of it. By the time Saturday rolls around, there are a lot of sleep hours that need to be “made up.” That’s why your teenager is dead to the world at 1:00 PM every Saturday and Sunday. They’re not being lazy. They need that sleep. Or, a better way to put it — they needed that sleep, and are now stealing time to make it up.
Dr. Dennis Rosen, assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, compares it to an all-too-familiar (and awful) feeling: “by sleeping late on Saturday and Sunday, your teen is suffering from the equivalent of a five-hour jet lag when it’s time to get up on Monday morning.” Recovering from a five-hour jet lag even once would be bad enough — but doing it every week? This pattern “will make it much harder for your teen to concentrate and take in anything at school…it can also have a significant effect on mood.”
As tempting as it is to let your teen catch up on the weekends — just don’t, Rosen says. “The greater your child’s tendency to shift her or his inner clock, the stricter you should be about enforcing something close to the weekday schedule on weekends. Sleeping in more than an hour beyond the usual wake up time is asking for trouble when Monday comes around again.”
Rosen has a few suggestions to help your teen stick to a healthier schedule:
- Natural Light Exposing your teen to ample natural light in the morning hours will help his body gently wake up and get moving. Human brains respond better to natural light than to alarms, so this is a great way to encourage this process naturally.
- Strategic Alarm Clock Placement There’s nothing more annoying than hearing your teen’s alarm go off five hundred times before you drag yourself to his room to get the job done yourself. Encourage your teen to keep their alarm clock (especially if it’s a function of their phone) on the opposite end of the room from their bed. This will force them to get out of bed and start moving in order to turn the alarm off.
- Explain Yourself The judgment part of their brains may still be under construction, but there’s no reason your teen can’t understand the basic biology behind their sleeping pattern. If you explain to them why you’re being a stickler about getting up early, they’ll (hopefully) be more likely to cooperate.
Just like our younger kiddos, teens these days are under more pressure than ever. School is harder, homework is more challenging, and activities are more competitive. Even if teenagers didn’t have a natural shift in their circadian rhythm, it’s likely they’d have to force themselves to stay awake just to fit everything in.
In the Stanford Medicine News, 17-year-old Carolyn Walworth talks about how she “often reaches a breaking point around 11 p.m., when she collapses into tears. For 10 minutes or so, she just sits at her desk and cries, overwhelmed by unrelenting school demands. She is desperately tired and longs for sleep. But she knows she must move through it, because more assignments in physics, calculus, or French await her…The next morning, she fights to stay awake in her first-period U.S. history class, which begins at 8:15.”
Carolyn is not alone. Grown and Flown, a hugely popular parenting blog aimed at parents of older children, describes the junior year of high school as “the 7th circle of Hell, a place so sinister and drained of joy that I despaired of my kids or I ever emerging from it.” There are ways to get through it, though. G&F pulls together a nice little list of strategies in their post “Teen Stress: What Parents Need to Know,” including the following:
- Create a stress-free zone for your teen, and encourage them to visit it as needed. For some teens it might be escaping to their rooms and reading a book, and for others it might be some quality time with their PS3 — both are okay, as long as the stress-free activity isn’t keeping them awake unnecessarily.
- Take away unnecessary stress (within reason). Much of teenagehood is learning how to take responsibility for oneself. On the flip side, however, you’re still their parent. If you notice your teen has crashed mid-problem set and still hasn’t packed their gym bag for practice the next day, it’s okay to do it for them once in a while.
- Make a sleep plan. Teens have a hard time prioritizing and figuring out what’s important. It’s up to us to help them remember that “sleep is not what we do with whatever time we have leftover, but that like every other activity, has to be allotted with sufficient time in their day.” Sit down and map out a way to help them get to bed by 11:00 P.M. (at the latest) on most nights.
What To Do When $@!& Hits the Fan
Sometimes, despite your best intentions, your child’s sleep is going to get way out of whack. We’ve covered quite a bit of troubleshooting ideas in this post already, but if nothing seems to be working, check out this list — chances are, your issue is one of these (and can be fixed!).
We’ve gone over lots of ways to implement a bedtime routine, but what happens when it gets thrown off course by something like a vacation, the holidays, or houseguests?
Dr. Carol Ash, director of sleep medicine at Meridian Health, suggests making a gradual change by moving bedtime up by 15 minutes until you’re back to normal. She explains that it’s harder for kids to make the shift all in one night because “they have a slower response to normal sleep cues.”
As soon as you’re back home, or have the house to yourself again, start fresh with your normal bedtime routine while inching bedtime up bit by bit until you’re back to your ideal.
Have you ever tried to get your little one to nap after a particularly awesome (read: noisy) birthday party? Not happening. In theory that would be fine, except for the epic meltdown likely headed your way in about two hours.
Try giving your little one some designated quiet time before you attempt to put them to bed. MommyCrusader.com recommends having a quiet place where your child can go to calm down. They can choose to do any activity they like in the quiet place, so long as it’s quiet and not overstimulating (think reading, listening to quiet music, or playing with a sensory toy). This can work for babies, too — simply remove them from the stimulating environment and find a quiet room where they can decompress from the activity around them.
A lesser discussed issue with children’s sleep is understimulation. According to FamilyEducation.com, “[u]nderstimulated children will resort to desperate measures to get their arousal level back to a more temperate range.” This almost certainly means that bedtime will be a battle.
There are two common issues that many children face today that could be contributing to your child’s understimulation.
Lack of Sunlight
This concept can get real scientific, real quick, so we’re going to try to make this simple.
All humans (except very new newborns) have a natural circadian rhythm that guides their brains and bodies to get tired and fall asleep at night, and feel awake and alert during the day. As such, our bodies tend to secrete melatonin (a substance that makes you feel sleepy) right before resting times.
Melatonin is also known to be secreted under dim-light conditions (a phenomenon known as Dim Light Melatonin Onset). For people who have normal sleeping and activity patterns, this isn’t an issue. Resting time coincides with dim-light conditions, and so melatonin is released appropriately.
However, for people (even children) who are constantly under dim-light conditions, DLMO can make having a regular bedtime really tricky. Without enough daily sunlight, the body gets confused. It doesn’t know quite when to secrete melatonin, so there isn’t any natural physical encouragement to hit the hay at the right time.
To combat inappropriate DLMO, make sure your child is getting enough sunlight throughout the day. It’s usually easy enough to accomplish this in the spring and summer, but falling temperatures and decreased daytime hours in the fall and winter make it more challenging. Be purposeful about your outdoor time, and make it a point to get your child at least 30 minutes of sunlight a day.
Lack of Physical Activity
This one’s not too complicated: kids who are more physically fit sleep better than ones who aren’t. A 2013 study found that kids who slept less than the suggested daily number of hours tended to show “higher values of BMI, body fat, waist and hip circumferences and fat mass index…[they] were more sedentary…and spent more time watching TV.”
According to the CDC, you should aim for your child to have at least 60 minutes a day of moderate- or vigorous-level aerobic activity (walking and running are good examples of each intensity level); muscle-strengthening activities (like gymnastics or push-ups) should occur at least 3 times a week; bone-strengthening activities, like jumping rope or running, should also occur 3 times a week.
It’s important to make sure your child is eating an appropriate diet for their age and activity level. Different foods have different effects on energy, according to the Child Development Institute. Carbs and healthy fats are calming to the body, while proteins and sugars give the body energy. Be mindful of the food you give your child throughout the day, and especially at night, to promote healthy bedtime habits.
If you suspect your child has insomnia, it’s important to talk to their pediatrician. However, most pediatricians and sleep experts agree that childhood insomnia is more of a behavioral issue than a physical one. The treatment will usually consist of parents and children changing their behavior around their sleep habits. In any case, it’s helpful to know which kind of insomnia you might be dealing with before you approach the issue (yes — there is more than one kind!)
Sleep-onset insomnia refers to the inability to fall asleep during the initial phase of sleep. Many babies and children who have created sleep associations, like nursing or being rocked to sleep, appear to suffer from sleep-onset insomnia. Try breaking these sleep associations before moving to anything more drastic. If the problem persists, your child’s pediatrician can guide you toward additional resources that may help.
Children with sleep-maintaining insomnia, on the other hand, typically have few or no issues falling asleep. Instead, they have trouble staying asleep. Again, it’s important to look at the steps you have in place for when your baby or child wakes up. Is the insomnia due to too-heavy reliance on a parent to fall back to sleep? Make some tweaks to your routine; if those don’t work, contact your doctor to rule out any underlying physical issues.
Daylight Savings Time
[Start] the process the week prior to the time change by “shifting your child’s schedule later [or earlier] by 15 minutes every three days.
Many first-time parents freak out when they look at the calendar and realize they’ll need to change the clocks one way or the other in the upcoming weeks. It can be hard to think that all of your hard work in creating a positive bedtime routine might come undone — but it really doesn’t have to be too difficult.
First and foremost, says Sleep Baby Love sleep consultancy, know your child. Are they more go-with-the-flow? Then DST shouldn’t be too much of an issue. Just put them to bed at their normal time; they should adjust naturally after a week or two.
On the other hand, “[i]f you have a child where the proverbial ‘wheels fall off’ when messing with sleep, then it’s definitely in your best interest to take it slow leading up to the change.” They recommend starting the process the week prior to the time change by “shifting your child’s schedule later [or earlier] by 15 minutes every three days. Start with naps…By the end of the week, you will be close to new adjusted time.”
Are You Tired of Us Yet?
We’ll be here all night!
But we won’t keep you any longer.
There you have it, folks. We hope we’ve covered everything you’ll ever need to know about your child’s sleep from birth through near-adulthood. While this guide isn’t fully exhaustive (see what we did there?), there’s plenty in here to give you an excellent starting point for addressing your child’s sleep needs.