Guest Post by Tuck Sleep
Most parents of babies and toddlers are in some state of sleep deprivation. If you’ve got a little one who hasn’t figured out that the party doesn’t keep going all night long, you’re not alone. But, you can help your child (and by default, you) fall asleep and stay asleep by establishing good sleep hygiene habits.
The Effects of Sleep Deprivation
You probably already recognize the effects—muddled thinking, short-term memory loss, irritability—but they go much deeper. Your brain slows down when you’re tired, the immune system doesn’t function as well, and your appetite increases. Children experience many of these same symptoms only they don’t realize that they’re moody and irritable because they’re tired.
Parents of children who have sleep problems are at an increased risk of developing depression, anxiety, and higher stress levels. As stress increases, it’s harder to sleep. At the same time, with less sleep, it’s harder to deal with stress. Together, stress and sleep deprivation create a continuing cycle that can be hard to break. The good news is, not only are you not alone, but there are steps you can take to help both you and your child get better (and more) sleep.
1. Establish a Bedtime Routine
Bedtime routines work wonders with children. The body thrives off of consistency, especially children’s bodies. The circadian rhythms that control the sleep-wake cycle largely rely on sunlight, a naturally occurring cycle that takes place every day. Newborns don’t have circadian rhythms, which is one reason it can take a few months for them to get on a regular sleep schedule.
A bedtime routine helps support your child’s circadian rhythms by creating a regular pattern to follow. When the routine is performed in the same order at the same time each day, the brain starts to recognize when it’s time to start releasing sleep-inducing hormones. The result—your child feels sleepy at bedtime.
Every activity in your child’s bedtime routine should help them reach a calm, relaxed state. Classic favorites include taking a warm bath, drinking a warm cup of milk or formula, rocking in a chair while singing a quiet song, or reading a book. It doesn’t really matter what’s included in the routine as long as it helps your child calm down and get ready for bed.
2. A Sleep-Promoting Bedroom
Your child’s bedroom should promote high-quality sleep. At night, the room should be kept dark, quiet, and comfortably cool. NYC babies often live in an area with light and sound pollution, so you might need to get blackout curtains to block light and muffle sound. Check the crib mattress. While you’re not likely to have problems with a new bed, a used one may have lumps that your child finds uncomfortable. Check for any tags on the mattress and your child’s pajamas that might scratch or cause discomfort.
3. Turn Off Screens
Children under the age of two should be supervised while using screens of any kind, but screens also pose problems when it comes to sleep. The bright, blue light from a smartphone, iPad, or television affects the brain like sunlight, making the mind believe it’s time to be awake. Rather than letting your child play a game on your phone or watch a cartoon on the iPad, turn off the screens about an hour before bed.
4. Give Sleep Training a Try
Your child may still have trouble falling asleep even with good sleep hygiene. Sleep training can be somewhat controversial but, when it comes down to it, go with your instincts. If a method feels wrong to you, don’t do it. Sleep training relies on consistency just like a bedtime routine; it’s just a matter of finding one that works for you and your child.
Methods vary from extinction, otherwise known as letting your child cry it out, to scheduled awakenings wherein you wake your child before they normally wake during the night to soothe them to sleep before they get upset. Some find extinction too harsh and stressful for both child and parent, while others find success after a few days.
Other methods, like graduated extinction, allow the child to cry for a set amount of time that increases each night. Every night parents extend the amount of time they let their child cry before returning to soothe her without picking her up. Again, it works well for some but not others.
Whatever method you choose, be sure you use it in conjunction with healthy sleep hygiene. Don’t give up after only a day or two. It may take several weeks for your child to adjust. Even if it feels like you’ll never get a full night’s rest again, remember this is a temporary stage, most teenagers sleep through the night and well beyond.
Tuck Sleep is a community devoted to improving sleep hygiene, health and wellness through the creation and dissemination of comprehensive, unbiased, free web-based resources. Tuck has been featured on NPR, Lifehacker, Radiolab and is referenced by many colleges/universities and sleep organizations across the web.