As parents, we all experience times where we survive off of less sleep than we’d prefer, but it doesn’t have to be a way of life. Whether you’re a new parent, have a toddler, or even a school aged child, we all want one thing; a good night’s sleep!
If sleep is food for the brain, (and we all love a good meal, right?), then why don’t our children just sleep when they’re tired?! That's where we as parents come into the equation to help our children get into a routine and healthy sleep cycle. If only we, as adults, were praised for finishing our meals and taking long naps, we could be living the dream. No matter what your family style or parenting philosophy is, here are some tried and true ways to improve your child’s sleep that you can apply right away.
1. Early Bedtime- This is a huge, if not the most important, factor when it comes to sleep. Later bedtime = early mornings, early bedtimes= later mornings. Here’s why; once our children hit over 4 months of age, their circadian rhythm is established. Children have this optimal window for sleep between 6-8pm. When we miss this window for sleep, they often get a surge of cortisol which forces the brain and body to stay awake longer. This is also why toddlers act wired before bedtime and pushes children into an overtired state making it difficult for them to fall asleep at bedtime, they wake up more AND wake up earlier in the morning. A great indicator that your child needs bedtime moved up is if they wake up 45-60 minutes after falling asleep. Or if you have a toddler, if they are melting down then act wired, you’ve already missed their optimal bedtime!
Children typically do not “catch up” on sleep until they’re school aged. If you put them to bed at 7pm versus 9:30pm, they’re still going to wake up at the same time! They truly need 10.5-12 hours of nighttime sleep. Therefore, the best way to offer your child the ability to catch up on sleep, is to offer sleep on the front half of the night with an early bedtime.
Newborns and younger babies will start off with a later bedtime around 9-10pm, then as they approach 4 months and older, that bedtime will shift between 6-8pm, with 7-7:30pm often being the sweet spot!
Early bedtimes can often fix sleep issues by itself, but this takes consistency. Use biology to your advantage and work with their natural sleep windows. If your child has a busier than usual day, misses naps or has a late bedtime, rescue their sleep by offering them an earlier bedtime, roughly 30 minutes earlier, the following night.
2. Create a Predictable Bedtime Routine- When children can predict their bedtime routine, it can make transitioning from daytime activities to naps/ nighttime sleep much easier. If your child is going through a developmental leap, spend extra 1-1 time with them to help them wind down. If you have a toddler who struggles with bedtime, engage in child-led play before bed, and interact with them on their level. Create a physical bedtime routine chart and go over each step with your child.
3. White Noise- White noise is very beneficial at every age and helps drown out day-to-day noises as well as transition through sleep cycles. Avoid sounds with a lot of variation or music, as these sounds stimulate the brain rather than soothe the brain. Stick to true white noise or shushing sounds.
4. Black Out Curtains- Light inhibits melatonin production. We need melatonin in order to sleep. Before bedtime, turn the tv off and dim the lights to prepare the brain for sleep. This will help promote the release of melatonin. This will also help with early morning wake ups during times of the year where the sun rises early. The sleep that occurs between 4-5am is very light. therefore, if light is coming through the curtains at 5am, it’s going to go right through your child's closed eyelids and wake them up.
On the flip side, if you have a newborn, keep the house light and bright during the day, and dark at night to help them regulate their internal clock and learn their days from nights.
5. Avoid Overtiredness- When our kids reach an overtired state they often act wired or wound up as I mentioned before. Babies will often cry inconsolably. When we miss their optimal "sleep window" and the brain starts to produce cortisol and it can be very hard to transition through this. Watch your child’s sleep cues and place them down for sleep accordingly!
Remember, when implementing anything new, consistency is key! Have patience, not only with your child, but with yourself as well. With time and consistency, sleep will improve and as a result so will the well-being of your whole family. If you’re struggling with sleep and you notice it’s affecting your parenting and relationships, seek help! There are wonderful resources available to families of all parenting philosophies.
Lexi Rupert is an Infant and Child Sleep Consultant and the owner of Little Bird Sleep Consulting. She works with sleep-deprived families with children ages newborn up to age five. She teaches independent sleep skills, helps bring adult time back, and takes families from sleep-deprived to rested. You can find more at her website: https://www.littlebirdsleepconsulting.com/