Today I want to talk about one of the aspects of my coaching: bedtime routines. This really is the lynchpin that can hold everything together.*
As you already know, our bodies need adequate sleep for restoration purposes, memory organization, and our overall well being. Our immune system is greatly impacted by our sleep, or lack of it. When we are ill, we need more sleep in order to recover faster. For our babies and children, sleep is even more critical as they are growing at such rapid rates. Cognitive and physical development is constant. Physical restoration and memory organization happens during restful sleep.
However, nobody fully sleeps through the night. We all wake periodically, we just don’t always remember it. These brief awakenings are known as partial arousals. For children that are not able to fall asleep independently, these partial arousals can become an issue and turn into multiple full awakenings. Falling asleep, or back to sleep, is a learned skill. For some, it comes easily. For others, not so much.
Children learn what they live. For example, if a child is fed, rocked, or held to sleep whenever they have partial arousal they will become accustomed to that action. The need for something to be done to/for them becomes an association of sleep, otherwise known as a crutch. The more a child is able to put themselves to sleep independently, the easier it is for them to have partial arousal and then return to sleep on their own. Sometimes we may hear them stir or whimper for a moment, but then they fall asleep again.
We know that we get our best quality sleep when we are not digesting food and when our sleep is unfragmented and motionless. Therefore, if the goal for a six-month-old child is to be an independent sleeper, then it is best that our babies learn to be down in their safe sleep space “sleepy but not sleeping” We want them to feel full, sleepy, secure, and content when sleep time is coming. They will know that you are there for them both now and after their rest. Bedtime is the best time to start doing this as your baby will most likely be tired. Having a predictable routine for naps and bedtime is important for our children. They thrive on routines for security.
A common sleep crutch is having a child fall asleep in our arms and then placing them into their cribs asleep. When they wake up, they are startled and confused by this transition.
A better example of a bedtime routine: First, the parent feeds the baby, then snuggles/reads/sings. Next, the baby is laid down while awake but sleepy. The parent then sits beside the crib and offers physical and verbal reassurance in an intermittent fashion. If the baby does not need to eat during the night, this important, but detached, reassurance is repeated throughout the night as needed to soothe the baby’s awakenings. Over a few nights, as the baby does better, the interactions are reduced.
Learning, and then following, the child’s individual rhythm is crucial to understanding their need for sleep. Most babies will show us their sleepy cues, and if we are diligent, we can catch them at that perfect sleepy moment. Of course, there are some babies that are more difficult to read because they become stimulated so easily. For those, we need to watch the clock. This is why we need to record when they feed, sleep, and are awake.
Ideally, a family will want to set up good healthy habits right from the beginning so that there is actually no need for training! However, few things in life work out exactly the way we want them to. Thankfully, sleep coaches like me are ready and willing to help families who might have gotten off on the wrong foot.
Undoing certain less than perfect habits is not impossible. For the average full-term baby, gentle sleep coaching can have great success between 6-8 months. When they are older, it can take a little longer. The longer a child has been exposed to any behavior, the longer they can take to unlearn it and learn something new. Some children may fight these new behaviors. Learning new ways of doing things can be hard on the parents as well, but with consistency, patience, and support, old habits can be adapted to new ones.
Gentle Sleep Coaching is suited for all parents no matter their chosen parenting style as it is a fully customized approach. As a coach, I try to get to know your family dynamic as much as possible and then create a unique plan. Each child is unique and comes with their own individual temperament and personality which may not always mirror the temperaments or personalities of the parents. My goal for the sleep plan is to create an approach that is feasible for the family, otherwise, there is no point. It has to be doable and it has to be with the intention of getting the child into a better sleep pattern. I meet the family where they’re at and then help get them to a better place, whatever that may be for them. The long term goal may also be different from one child to another, even within the same family!
My goal is to optimize sleep (as much as possible) and minimize crying (as much as possible). For younger babies that may be in the form of tweaking feedings, changing wakeful windows, and educating families on their baby’s sleep needs.
As a coach, I remain in frequent contact with your family while you’re helping your child learn. Your child continues to feel safe, loved, and secure as the parent offers physical and verbal reassurance.
Remember, sleep is a learned skill and for some children, it is easier. Also, not all families even feel the need to change the sleep situation in their home. However, if you feel that your child’s sleep struggle is having a negative impact on them and on your family, then I would be happy to be a resource for you. Sleep deprivation in babies can manifest as being extra clingy and fussy. Your baby may be labeled a bad sleeper or a difficult baby. In older kids, it can show up as misbehavior, hyperactivity, or difficulty learning.
Don’t get discouraged.
Help is available.
*Although it cannot work on its own. Other areas that I focus on with my clients include adequate food intake, stimulation, daytime routines, and more. All these things can work together to help everyone get the sleep they need.
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