Here are some of my guidelines for getting kids to sleep and to stay asleep
•Consistency, consistency, consistency
The actual practice that a parent sets up for getting a child to fall asleep independently is less important than that he sticks with it from as early an age as possible. At heart we are creatures of habit, and like Pavlov’s dogs, given stimulus A we will react with response A. That means the same general sequence of events—done night after night--will signal to our body, sleep time is coming.
•Put your kids to bed earlier than you might think.
If your child needs to up by 7:30 a.m. in order to get through the morning routine and off to childcare on time, she should probably be asleep by around 7:30 p.m. That means starting bedtime around 7:00 p.m.! That might seem impossible. By the time you are coming in from work and picking your kids up from childcare, you might be lucky to get dinner on the table by 7:00 p.m. If your child is a really solid napper (at least 2-3 hours a day), you might be able to fudge this, but if you have a kid like mine—who was down to one hour-long nap after lunch at around 18 months—you are going to need to protect her nighttime sleep. The inherent problem in this is that it gives you very little time to actually interact with your child. Unfortunately, our children’s need for sleep has not caught up with our modern day schedules. Furthermore, if your child is cranky and having tantrums because she is overtired, not only is she going to have a harder time falling asleep but the time you spend together is going to be tense and stressed.
• Find 2-3 markers for a bed time routine.
For my kids “bedtime” was change into pajamas, one story and one song, and then a sleepy time music track that played for around 45 minutes that got turned on as the parent walked out the door. Changing into pajamas and reading a story was done with reduced lighting. The song (including a little back rubbing) was done by the light of the night light. Parents should beware of a too long list of bedtime rituals as it makes it very hard on a night when you come in late from an activity or having gone to dinner at a friend’s. Tasks like taking a bath can be on a list I call “Before bedtime tonight we have to….” By phrasing it that way, if it should happen that you come in too late for a bath, you aren’t changing the bedtime routine.
•Ideally, train infants to fall asleep by themselves so they are already in the habit as toddlers.
Parents who give their infant her last feed of the day while she is still awake (I advise doing it in a different room from where her crib is) may have a harder time teaching her to fall asleep alone in her crib in the short run, but they will have much better sleepers as toddlers. These babies know how to put themselves to sleep and back to sleep when they wake in the night.
•Kids can “practice” good sleep habits at a time when it is not bed time!
What do you do as an adult to help you fall back asleep? Somewhere along the way, you developed a trick—and I bet that most nights it works. I don’t count sheep but I do do my times tables. Other times I practice meditative breathing—Breathe six counts in, hold it six counts, breathe six counts out, hold it out six counts. Kids can start with three counts and work their way up. Even 18 month olds can learn to do belly breaths by placing a pillow or stuffy on the stomach and practice watching the stuffy go up and down. Kids can also learn to do progressive relaxations by tensing and then relaxing different parts of their bodies working from their toes to the crown of their heads. All these techniques can be practiced in the middle of the day where you are there to guide them through it. You can set them up for success by asking, “If you need help falling asleep, which technique are you going to use?”
•Once it is sleeping time, interact with your child as little as possible
If you have a toddler with challenging sleep habits and you are just getting started at establishing good ones, know that it is going to be a slow process. The trick is to take baby steps forward, but no steps backward. The first step is to make yourself minimally interesting once you have gotten up to leave the room. Even if you have to physically put your child back in bed, do so with as little comment and eye contact as possible. (On a side note, if you were someone who could let your children “cry it out,” you probably would have done that already. It only works if you are absolutely 100% consistent, so unless you are 100% committed, I don’t recommend it.)
There are, however, ways of weaning your child from his need for your presence as he falls asleep. If you have been lying down with your child in order for him to fall asleep, tell him that from now on you won’t lie down with him, but you will sit next to him. When he is accepting that without tears and tantrums, tell him that from now on you won't sit next to him where he can still touch you, but you will sit at the end of the bed with your hand on his foot. Once he can fall asleep with you at the foot of the bed, move to sitting next to the bed on the floor or on the chair. Progressively you are going to move closer and closer to the bedroom door. Eventually, you are going to sit outside the bedroom door as he falls asleep and one day (miracles of miracles), you are going to close that door—maybe even all the way!
This process might take 3-4 weeks and feel like torture to you (after all, when you lay down with your kids while they fell asleep, there were no tears and you probably got a little nap, too!), but imagine that three weeks from now bedtime from start to finish takes around 15 minutes and your child puts himself back to sleep when he wakes up for the night! Imagine your kid not waking up tired because he has gotten enough sleep. Imagine spending time connecting with your spouse in the evening. Or taking a long shower. Or going to bed on time yourself!
Good sleeping habits support a good future
Good sleep is so important for learning. Establishing good habits early on can support good study habits for school all the way through. Despite taking hard classes and getting good grades, my daughter had relatively few moments in high school where she was completely stressed. Even in college she goes to sleep by 10:00 p.m. She organizes her studies so that she does not have to pull all nighters and gets 8-9 hours of sleep a night. Good sleep wards against depression or a dependency on caffeine or other stimulants to perform. Putting in the work now to develop good habits, might be one of the most important parenting steps you take.
Teaching your children to be good sleepers might be the most important thing you do for your marriage.
Admittedly, I do not have any studies to support this claim, but my personal experience in dealing with families is that households where "bedtime" takes a couple of hours are more stressed than ones where kids go to bed relatively quickly with minimum support from their parents. Parents need time to regroup, to be "off the clock." They need time to connect each other and to connect to themselves.
NEED SOME HAND HOLDING WHILE GOING THROUGH THE PROCESS OF ESTABLISHING NEW HABITS?
Let me help! As much as you are retraining your kids' expectations around bedtime and falling asleep independently, you are retraining yourself to stand firm and committed to valuing good sleeping habits in your house. Regular coaching calls give you a place to vent and to strategize. Sign up HERE for a "Getting to Know You" call and we can make a plan that works for your family.