Bedtime For Baby

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. 

Is your child a “bad sleeper”?

If you’re reading this blog, then the answer is possibly Yes!  But the real question is, “Do I accept that my child is a bad sleeper?” Hopefully, your answer is No!  

Does your child just need a lot less sleep?  Most likely, Nope! Is it your child’s fault? Nope! Is it your fault? Also, Nope! 

Most of us do what we have to do in order to sleep, especially in the early days of having a young baby. You take a nap when you can. You sleep with your baby. You buy each and every product on the market that you think will help your child sleep. (Thank you Amazon Prime!) All of that is fine, all of that is needed, just do it safely! 

In a nutshell, our babies/children learn what we teach them. They don’t come with their own expectations or plans. We create an environment and a pattern, and then they learn to expect that. This is normal. Sometimes though, the pattern needs to change or evolve and your baby will need some time to adjust to the new way.  

As with any new skill, we would like to think that we can teach and train a child to do something… and then take credit for it. But ultimately, it isn’t about us. 

Let me break it down. We create the environment for learning, we set the pattern for practice, we encourage, and we support. Ultimately, however, the last little bit of learning is done solely by your child. It’s the same process for learning to ride a bike as it is for potty learning (notice how I didn’t say training?). It’s the same process for sleep learning (not sleep training). Unfortunately, we cannot do it for them. They have to do some of it for themselves. It can take a while. That can be frustrating, but it will be worth it in the long run.  

From bike riding to sleeping, we cannot force our child to learn a new skill. It comes with opportunity, practice, support, encouragement, and repetition. 

Repeat 10 million times.  

For most ‘bad sleeper’ situations, it’s just a matter of making a few environmental and behavioral changes along with some detective work. Here are a few things to think about as you start teaching your child the very valuable skill of sleeping. 

Always rule out medical conditions by your child’s medical professional and stay updated on your child’s current feeding requirements from your breastfeeding specialist.  

Set up your day to be inclusive for quality sleep. 

Create a calm and safe sleep space that is conducive for sleep. Have your child sleep there as much as possible. Remember, life happens and rigid schedules don’t do us any favors. Children thrive on predictability; however, it’s good if your child is able to occasionally sleep in different spaces if needed. Work towards motionless naps as much as possible. 

Watch them. 

Children are not able to tell us when they are starting to feel tired/overwhelmed/frustrated. Crying is a late signal for hunger. It can be difficult to feed and especially difficult to nurse a baby that has already become too upset to latch. Crying is also a late signal for sleep. It can be difficult for a baby to calm down and regulate when the stress hormones have become activated. Most of us only notice it when it’s already too late. Experts used to say to watch the clock. Now experts say to watch your child. I say, watch both! Some children are harder to read than others, so the clock can be a useful tool to help us keep track of how long it has been between feedings and sleep. 

Additional Resources and Tips: 

Harvey Karp – The 5 S’s: Shush, Swaddle, Side lying, Sway and Suck. 

In the 4th trimester, we can create a womb-like environment. These S’s can be very helpful especially during longer crying episodes, witching hours, and when a baby is dealing with digestive issues. After four months, however, I would suggest that you try to wean off from one of those methods every few days if your baby is adjusting well to the change. Keep one or two of those methods as your baby will still need assistance in falling asleep while they learn to regulate themselves. Your baby is the best judge of which methods work the best for them! 

Dr Weissbluth –  Two Hour Wake Window Magic

One of the best lessons I learned early on was the Two Hour Wake Window Magic. (For babies over six months)  So many things fell into place after I discovered this!  Being a good detective and really watching your child will let you know what their personal magic number is. For a young baby, it might be 90 minutes. A well rested baby may be able to stretch it a little more.  

Tracy Hogg – Secrets of the Baby Whisperer.  

EASY – How simple is that to remember? Well it’s just so easy! Eat. Activity. Sleep. You (your time). What a great way to help a mama realize that she will get her little break in there a few times during the day to do what she needs to do. This will become more obvious as they get older and sleep/wake/feeding patterns become more concrete.   

Kim West – The Sleep Lady 

For babies under six months, their wakeful windows are more important than their nap duration. Some babies won’t sleep longer than 30 minutes as their brains simply aren’t mature enough to do so. Some babies need to be held.  A baby may have three to five naps per day. (More naps if they’re short and  less naps if they’re long,)  Their wake windows may be shorter if they had a short nap, meaning that the next nap will come sooner.   If they had a long nap then the wakeful window may be longer.  There can be a lot of variation throughout the day.  

Another useful thing to think about are sleep averages. Remember, averages are just that: averages. This means that there are plenty of babies/children/adults with vastly different needs. Averages should be used as a guide, or a place to start from, and should not be seen as hard goals. Just because Baby Timmy down the block was sleeping for ten hours at four months of age, doesn’t mean your child can or should, but averages are a good place to start your thought process and planning.

Sleep Averages* National Sleep Foundation 

  • Newborns (0-3 months): Sleep range 14-17 hours each day 
  • Infants (4-11 months): Sleep 12-15 hours 
  • Toddlers (1-2 years): Sleep 11-14 hours 
  • Preschoolers (3-5): Sleep 10-13 hours 
  • School age children (6-13): Sleep 9-11 hours 
  • Teenagers (14-17): Sleep 8-10 hours 
  • Younger adults (18-25): Sleep range is 7-9 hours 
  • Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours
  • Older adults (65+): Sleep range is 7-8 hours 

Most importantly, remember to cut yourself some slack. There will be hundred, thousands, of skills you will teach your child over the course of their life. Sleep is the first in a long line of chances to teach by creating opportunity and then practice, support, encouragement, and repetition. 

Repeat 10 million times.