by Barrett Labrum, DO, pediatrician, Primary Care Pediatrics
Sleep. We crave it. We do not function well without it. When our kids don’t sleep, we become obsessed with it. Sleep for infants and children can be a very controversial subject as there are many opinions. One thing to keep in mind is that no two children are alike, and there is no “right” way to do anything when it comes to raising children. With this in mind, there are patterns and scientific observations that can help when trying to figure out how to help your child to have healthy sleep habits.
Your baby’s sleep is a mixture of nature and parenting, meaning that about 25 to 50 percent of how a child sleeps is based on their unique genetic makeup, and the other portion is based on the caregiver reaction. I want to emphasize that just because your baby or child is not sleeping well doesn’t necessarily mean that you are wrong; there are many factors that come into play.
Sleeping is a developmental process. Babies fall asleep easily and can stay asleep through all kinds of activity levels, but often wake to eat. As they grow, they are stimulated more and will be awake more often. Then they begin to develop stages of sleep and more normal sleep patterns. Most infants develop normal sleep patterns by 6 months old. Just as you wouldn’t expect a 6-month-old child to be walking, it may be unrealistic to think all 4 month olds sleep through the night. In fact, recent studies have shown that most infants wake up multiple times through the night, and up to half will soothe themselves after a few minutes.
So how can we help our babies sleep better? One of the most consistent findings in sleep behavior for babies is those that are able to fall asleep on their own in the beginning of the night sleep better, and those that require active soothing wake more often and sleep worse at night. Often times, following your baby’s sleep cues and giving them time is all they need to fall asleep on their own. Wait a few minutes before rushing in to comfort them; this gives them time to return to sleep on their own. Avoid giving your baby a bottle for bed. Nursing at bedtime is a common practice, but if the baby goes to sleep still awake, they sleep better. Consistent nighttime routines will not only help with babies, but with older children as well.
As soon as you get the “sleep thing” down, babies turn into toddlers. Toddlers want to control all aspects of their life, and sleep is no different. Bedtime is often one of the most frustrating and stressful times for both parents and children. A nighttime routine provides structure to bedtime, and can provide a time for quiet interaction with your child. Staying consistent each night is key. Allow your child to have a nightlight, or a favorite toy or blanket, but make sure they are ready prior to bedtime. Keep in mind that healthy sleep habits do not happen overnight. Be patient and observe your child, so you can pick up on their needs.
If you have concerns or need more ideas, talk to your pediatrician.