Based upon a back of the envelope calculation, we spend roughly a third of our lives asleep. Scientists are still learning what exactly Sleep does for us. We do know that reduced sleep can impact every aspect of our lives from reduced functioning at school and work to impaired abilities to make decisions and decreased emotional functioning.
Yet most of us (myself included) try to get by on less sleep that we actually need. As neuroscientist Matthew Walker notes in an interview on NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast, “If we didn’t need eight hours of sleep and could survive on six, Mother Nature would have done away with 25 percent of our sleep time millions of years ago. Because when you think about it, sleep is an idiotic thing to do. If sleep does not provide a remarkable set of benefits, then it’s the biggest mistake the evolutionary process has ever made.”
As parents, one of the biggest influences that we can have is on developing healthy sleep behavior for our children. So, grab your teddy bear and a blanket while we explore sleep.
What Is Sleep?
Sleep is divided into two states – rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) based upon the activity in the brain. REM sleep is usually when we dream. Our brains are active, but our bodies do not move and our heart and breathing slow down. In NREM sleep, the brain and body shift into recharge mode with blood flowing to the muscles, hormones released, and tissue repair and growth occurs. REM and NREM sleep occur in cycles which vary depending on your age.
Amount of Sleep Recommended
The amount of sleep that a child needs changes as the child ages. Infants start out needing up to 15 hours of sleep per day. It gradually drops to 11 to 13 hours for preschoolers and eventually to 8.5 to 9.5 hours for adolescents.
Sleep Training Your Baby (Or Is It Sleep Training the Parent)
There are a number of different approaches to helping your child learn to sleep through the night. They generally fall into the categories of cry it out, fading, and no-tears. Cry it out (sometimes called the Ferber method) involves giving your child the opportunity to fall asleep on his own will help him learn how to go to sleep. Fading is a behavioral term for gradually reducing the supports needed to help your child fall asleep. Think of it as moving from needing to sit next to your child’s crib to being able to stand by the door while your child falls asleep. The last method, no-tears, encourages co-sleeping, skin to skin contact, and feeding your child to sleep.
Each one of these methods has its supporters and detractors. If your baby is having a hard time falling asleep, do some research into these methods. The important thing to remember is that sleep training is much more about your behavior than it is about your child’s. Sleep training depends upon you being consistent in your behavior (since your baby doesn’t have a lot of choices) which is hard when you are exhausted already.
Establishing Bedtime Routines for Toddlers and Beyond
Getting your child to bed each night can be a trial for many parents, but it also has the opportunity to be a great time to connect and build a relationship with your child. This is also a place where you can build habits for life.
Here are some quick tips to help build a great bedtime routine for your children.
- Work backward with your timing to figure out how your bedtime routine should work. If you know when your child needs to wake up, use the sleep time recommendations to figure out when lights out need to be out. From there, think about how much time you will need for each evening activity (e.g. storytime, bathing) and that will give you the time that you need to start bedtime routines each night.
- Just like with sleep training, consistency is key. Routines require it and without it. Sticking to the bedtime routine will build better sleep habits. Start your routine at roughly the same time each day will pay dividends in the long run.
- Shift the tempo to a slower pace to help cue your child that it’s time for sleep. This can include reading with your child, bathing them, or having snuggle time. While it may feel like a good time to play with your child, you want to make sure that she doesn’t get too riled up. We love this body scan activity to help calm our kids down.
- Create a comfortable sleeping environment for your child. This can include providing a favorite thing to take to bed (e.g. a teddy bear or blanket). Make sure that this item is safe to sleep with (i.e. no choking hazards or pellets falling out). Figure out what lighting works for your child (e.g. night light, light in the hallway on). Make sure that the bed has sufficient bedding and the room has air circulation. A drink of water is ok before bedtime, but if you are potty training, you may want to limit the amount.
While screen time may seem like a great way to get your child to relax, there has been a fair amount of research that the blue light can be disruptive to the sleep cycle. Similarly, electronics in the bedroom can reduce the amount of available time for a child to sleep since they serve as a distraction and disincentivize sleep.
You can, of course, vary your routine and, occasionally, skip it for a special occasion. Just be careful to keep this the exception and not the norm.
Dealing with Sleep Problems
Just because you did a great job getting your child sleep trained doesn’t mean that sleep problems won’t emerge in the future. You can continue to lay a good foundation for sleep behavior by not going back to your child’s room every time you hear her call out for you. Gradually increase the amount of time between your responses to allow for your child to fall asleep on her own. If you do need to go into the room to reassure your child, limit your time and keep the light out. You can also move further away each time you go it so that eventually you can provide reassurance without going in the room. Make sure to reinforce that it is time for sleeping each time that you do interact.
If your child starts to experience more serious sleeping problems (e.g. nightmares, sleepwalking), take a look at their sleep behavior and start a sleep journal to help track what is going on. A good sleep journal tracks:
- Where your child sleeps
- How much sleep he normally gets at night
- What he needs to fall asleep (for example, a favorite toy or blanket)
- How long it takes him to fall asleep
- How often he wakes up during the night
- What you do to comfort and console him when he wakes up during the night
- The time and length of naps (for younger children)
- Any changes or stresses in the home
Share this sleep journal with your pediatrician and partner with him to develop strategies to deal with these kinds of sleeping problems.
Make sure that you give yourself time to develop good sleeping habits. Being woken up by our kids is really disruptive to us as adults (and we need our sleep, too). Keep your routines simple and trade off responding to your child with your partner, if you can. Do your best to keep a positive attitude with your child as biting his head off can make things worse, not better.