Every parent knows that babies are like dogs. If they're sleeping, let them lie. Babies aren't always asleep, of course, and many parents spend a considerable amount of time wishing that they were, and wondering how to make that happen.
If you wish that your child slept more regularly, especially at night, well, you're not alone. Dr. Ameet Daftary, a pediatric lung and sleep disorders specialist at the University of Utah School of Medicine and Primary Children's Medical Center, said that surveys about infant and toddler sleeping habits consistently reveal that around 40 percent of parents surveyed think their child has a sleep disorder.
"Most of those are not necessarily sleep disorders," Daftary said, "and many of them are amenable to intervention."
Infants and toddlers are susceptible to actual sleeping disorders, so if you consistently try and consistently fail to help your child sleep through the night, then you may want to consult a pediatrician or sleep specialist. There are several things to consider, however, before scheduling a doctor's appointment.
1 Age of accountability: Expect to roll with the punches for at least the first two months after coming home from the hospital. "Most children don't have well-established sleeping patterns for the first two months of life," Daftary said. On the other hand, he said, by age 6 months, most infants will consistently sleep for at least 6 hours every night.
2 No magic number: Keep in mind that there's not an exact amount of sleep that every baby needs. Daftary said that the "right" amount of sleep is whatever "allows the child to be happy during the daytime." It's not unusual for a baby to sleep up to between 14 and 16 hours out of every 24. By age 1, however, most children will settle in and sleep for about 12 to 13 hours (including naps) out of every 24.
3 Be prepared: By the time that a baby starts to sleep through the night, Daftary said, most parents have settled on an established bedtime. You can help your child sleep through the night by having a bedtime routine. The last feeding of the night should be about one hour before bedtime. Then, about 30 minutes before bedtime, start your bedtime preparations: sleepwear, a lullaby, a bath and whatever else you've determined needs to happen before bed. The more that you establish and follow a bedtime routine, the easier your child will go down.
Also, Daftary said, always be sure that your infant begins the night with a dry diaper.
4 No lulling to sleep: As much as you may want to, Daftary said, don't help your child to actually fall asleep before being placed in their cradle or crib. "Put the child in bed drowsy, but still awake," Daftary said. The more that you cuddle, rock, sing or use a bottle or breastfeeding to lull your child to sleep before putting her to bed, the more she will demand physical contact, feeding or verbal reassurance before sleeping in the future.
5 Waking up at night is normal: Just like adults, Daftary said, infants have sleep cycles. "Each of us has to go into a state of mental peace and calm in order to sleep," he said. Infants, like adults, learn to reset that peaceful frame of mind, if you let them. As many as four or five times per night, he said, infants will complete a sleep cycle and wake up briefly.
"Most children are able to fall back to sleep within a few minutes," Daftary said. "Their ability to fall back to sleep depends on their ability to self-soothe." That is to say, it helps your child learn to sleep if he cries a little bit and then falls back to sleep on his own.
6 Breaking bad habits: If you child relies on direct intervention from you to fall asleep and you want her to sleep on her own, then you can "step away" either all at once or gradually. Daftary said that the "cold turkey" approach usually produces about three to five days of escalating protest and crying. "Usually within a week or 10 days," he said, "sleep quality will improve."
If you prefer a gentler approach, then pull back in stages. If your child wants physical contact, then don't touch but do let yourself be seen, and so forth. The most important element of changing sleep habits gradually, Daftary said, is consistency. Everyone who helps the child sleep, including grandparents and baby sitters, needs to know what the new rule is, and everyone has to follow it.
7 Be aware of other issues: If you are ignoring crying to change sleep habits, then be sure to listen carefully. You don't want to ignore a pain cry, if your child is sick, or somehow stuck (tangled up in a blanket, etc.).
8 Nap time: Kids eventually grow out of taking naps, of course. During the first year of life, Daftary said, infants generally need at least two naps every day. There's not a recommended length of nap -- children tend to decide that themselves. Daftary said that many children sleep for as little as 45 minutes, and some for between 1 and 2 hours.
After the first year, most parents adjust the frequency and timing of naps to meet each child's individual needs.