A friend recently asked me to offer advice that may help her grandbaby baby sleep through the night. Though few solutions are truly “one-size-fits-all,” certain foundational, sleep-related principles may be of use.
1. Sleep is important. You are wise to want some sleep and wise to recognize its importance for your children. Research has shown that sleep improves memory, focus, mood, immune-system function, and growth. It decreases risk for obesity, depression, and accident-related injury. This is an issue worth your attention!
2. Recognize what is in your control and what is not. Just like you can lead a horse to water but can’t make him drink, you can tuck a child in ever-so-nicely, but you can’t make him sleep! Try to create the best conditions you can and hopefully the “rest” will take care of itself! The best environment for one child may be different from another’s, however, try to limit accommodations to those that are reasonable and sustainable. Wisely respond to bedtime distractions or delay tactics. For example, if a child won’t keep the light off, you can take out the bulb; if a child insists on playing with toys, you can choose to store them outside of the bedroom; if a child wants drinks and snacks, build these in earlier in the bedtime routine. All these boundaries can be inacted kindly but firmly. (Think Mary Poppins here!)
3. Honor your true wishes. If you really don’t mind waking up to nurse or rock a crying baby, cherish the time. Don’t feel you have to impose external rules just because your neighbor, your pediatrician, or your mother-in-law says you should.
4. Create simple, cozy bedtime routines and healthy “sleep associations.” As often as possible, start your routine early enough that it can be relaxed and enjoyable. Consider things like putting on jammies, brushing teeth, reading or telling a story, singing a song, and saying prayers. To provide natural momentum, do the harder things first and save the favorite activities for last. Now you may ask, “What are sleep associations?” (Note: this next part is extra important!!) Sleep associations are conditions we come to expect and rely upon to comfortably fall asleep–even as adults we have these. For example, we may expect a certain pillow or blanket to be in place. During the lighter phases of sleep (which we all cycle through), if the expected conditions are disrupted, we may wake up. As parents, we sometimes accidently create or reinforce sleep associations for our children that are difficult to maintain. For example, a baby that always falls asleep nursing, sucking on a pacifier, or being rocked arouses more easily when suddenly, during a lighter sleep phase, the breast or bottle is gone, the pacifier is gone, or the comforting arms are not there! This is not to say that you can never nurse or rock a baby to sleep, but if night wakenings become problematic, this is an area where a small change may bring great improvements. If comfort items are gently removed just before sleep, often a baby no longer relies on them to stay asleep. Sometimes there is a difficult transition period when a baby or child must adjust as they learn new boundaries, but often over the course of a few nights (and perhaps a few tears), new ways catch on.
5. Respond to cues, but give space. Learn (sometimes by trial and error) your child’s own cues for tiredness. Some babies get very fussy when they are tired and dutiful parents try to rock and comfort and soothe, only causing overstimulation. You will quickly learn to discern between the tired cry, the hungry cry, and the lonely cry. If in a certain instance you are not sure, start with your best guess and move on down the list as needed. Though you want to be very responsive to your child’s needs, don’t jump so fast to soothe every cry and solve every problem that your child has no opportunity to learn to calm himself or problem-solve. Interestingly, in certain cultures most babies do sleep through the night at a very young age. In her book Bringing up Bébé, Pamela Druckerman tells how French mothers observe “La Pause”–a brief moment of waiting before picking up a fussing baby to encourage self-soothing–and its seeming correlation to French babies learning to sleep through the night much earlier. (For me, “La Pause” has occured by default because of having several kids waiting in line for my attentions, but they have tended to be good sleepers!)
Above all, however, don’t lose sleep over losing sleep. Accept that some nights will go better than others. Function as well as possible with the amount of sleep you are able to get. Be kind to yourself as you schedule commitments for yourself and your children. Simplify when you can, press forward when you have to.
Additional sources to consider: Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth & Becoming Babywise by Gary Ezzo (you may find some useful nuggets)