Don't you just loathe those mommies who brag about their children sleeping through the night at six weeks? If you're like me, it's been five months or more of regular night waking. And in the past few weeks, it's been hourly, which has been tolling to say the least.
If one more person tells me to put rice cereal in my little one's nighttime bottle, I might lose it. Studies have shown that there is no proof that this helps mom or baby—and dentists and pediatricians generally don't recommend it.
Clearly I need help, so I turned to an expert. Los Angeles-based sleep consultant Natalie Willes offers five tips to help parents teach healthy sleep.
1. Start the day at the same time. One of the most important things you can do to get your baby or toddler on a regular schedule is to aim to start every day at the same time. For babies still in the crib, this may simply mean waiting until a certain time to go to them in the morning. For infants, that start time should be no earlier than 6 a.m. You can gradually move that start time later in 15-minute increments per week. For children past the crib stage, you can set an alarm clock to play music at whatever your desired wake time is and instruct them to stay in bed until the music starts playing. Alternately, you can tell them they're allowed to get up and play or read books once they hear the music, but that they must stay in their rooms until Mom or Dad comes to get them.
2. End the day at the same time. Just as important as starting your day at the same time is ending it at about the same time every day. "I always tell my clients to start their bedtime routine a good 30 minutes before they normally do so that the last 30 minutes before bedtime is kind of a 'slush' period," says Natalie. If you have a younger baby, you may find that they're sleepy before their set bedtime, and if they're ready for bed that means you can put them right down. For older kids, you can spend that time doing quiet activities or you will have a little more time to get them ready for bed in case your routine gets drawn out or interrupted.
3. Set up a good environment. Trying to sleep in a non-ideal environment is like trying to eat soup without a spoon: It's possible, but it's just plain difficult and makes the whole experience a lot less pleasant. Two things that are vital for an ideal sleep environment: 1) white noise and 2) darkness. White noise should be loud enough that you would need to raise your voice to speak over it and be heard. Darkness is not that important for naps, but it is vital for the early morning. Babies and toddlers are extremely sensitive to melatonin, which is triggered by darkness and diminishes in production once exposed to light. A child may sleep an extra 30 to 60 minutes in the morning when they are not exposed to early rays of sunshine. Many kids are missing out on that vital sleep, which means moms and dads are too.
4. Err on the early side for bedtimes. There's a popular meme going around the Internet right now: Babies that go to sleep early, wake up early. Babies that go to sleep late, wake up early. Night sleep and day sleep are controlled by different parts of the brain, and an earlier bedtime does NOT equal an earlier wake time in the morning. That morning wake-up time tends to be consistent for each child, regardless of what time they went to sleep so it's best to let them catch a few extra zzz's on the front end of sleep.
5. Change your own attitudes and beliefs about sleep. Sleep is not just the by-product of a busy day, but instead a vital physical necessity. Babies need 1.5 to 2.5 times the amount of sleep we need as adults, depending on age. Think about how you feel without sleep; then imagine how they feel operating on relatively less sleep than that. Make sleep a priority in your life and respect your child's need to nap and have an early bedtime.
Natalie Willes is a certified child sleep consultant by the Family Sleep Institute and Founder of Natalie Willes—The Baby Sleep Trainer. Visit her website, babysleeptrainer.com, to learn more about Natalie and her services.