Sleep. As parents, we sometimes feel we can never get enough of it. We birth a child and suddenly we come to understand why sleep deprivation is used on prisoners of war. We stop longing for those Saturday mornings when we could sleep until 10 a.m., and instead pray for at least 6 consecutive hours of uninterrupted dreamy bliss.
Why is sleep so important to us?
Well, for one thing, we feel better when we're rested. When we're not rested, we're more likely to feel depressed (Ross, Murray, & Steiner, 2005). We're less optimistic in our outlook. We may isolate ourselves as our desire for social interaction declines. We may feel more bodily aches and pains (Hack & Mullington, 2005). And, our decision-making and communication abilities are compromised (Harrison & Home, 2000).
Some of you may be thinking that these are just some of the necessary sacrifices we must make as parents. We can't ignore our children when they're awake at night. It is our job to tend to them and make them feel secure. If that means giving up uninterrupted sleep, then so be it.
This is true. But prolonged uninterrupted sleep can actually compromise our ability to care for our children. When sleep-deprived, it's very difficult to maintain patience for a bundle of energy 1-year-old. It may also be difficult to maintain the self-sacrificial attitude for more than a few months. For some, resentment may rear its ugly head. The point is, sleep is important for parents.
But it's also important for children. Very important.
For children, the very development of their brains may be adversely affected. For this reason -- and I'm going to show my bias here -- sleep should be a priority equal to feeding. Not only can cognitive functioning be somewhat inhibited as the brain is unable to make necessary neuronal connections due to a lack of sleep, but later behavioral problems have also been linked to sleep deprivation in the first year of life (Sher & Zuckerman, 2005). Not to mention that fact that a well-rested child is simply much more pleasant to be around!
But sleep is such a natural state. Children will sleep when they're tired. Right?
Not necessarily. Turns out that children love to be with us so much, and are so excited about being awake and alive, that they'll fight sleep. This is why they may need our help in developing good sleep habits. In fact, children whose parents pro-actively assist them with developing good sleep habits have better sleeping patterns than infants whose parents are not proactive (Wolfson, Lacks, & Futterman, 1992).
However, it's pretty obvious we can't force our children to sleep. But what can we do to set the stage for good sleep habits? Here's a little list compiled from many different parenting books I've read over the years. If you have more, please add them in the comments!
Recognize when your child is starting to get drowsy. Signs include red eyes, rubbing eyes, yawning (dead giveaway!), a glassy look in their eyes, drooping eyelids, less intense sucking (if breast or bottle feeding), a slow-down in activity, or even a red forehead (which was always a sign Tod-lar was feeling tired!).
Put your child down for sleep when you see the drowsy signals. This is how you let the child determine the sleeping schedule. If you wait too long after this period to put them down, they become hyperactive if a toddler, or cry inconsolably if an infant.
(I have a friend whose 3-year-old wouldn't nap. He went to bed at 8 p.m. and was up at 6 a.m. everyday. My friend had a very hard time putting him down for bed. When I asked her about drowsy signals, she watched for them and told me they occurred around 6:30 p.m. I told her to put him to bed at that time. She thought I was crazy. After sleeping that night from 6:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. without any trouble putting him down or any night waking, that became his new schedule! And let me tell you, his disposition became much more pleasant all around in the afternoon!)
Don't bottle-feed or nurse them to sleep. What?! That's crazy! A lot of books suggest this, and here's my take on it: It's okay to do this in the beginning. BUT, if this habit goes on for too long, well, then you may be nursing your kid to sleep every day and night for years. No kidding. I have friends who are doing this now. One loves it. The other doesn't, and now she feels "trapped" and doesn't know how to get her 3-year-old to sleep without it.
Decide for yourself how long you want this habit to go on, keeping in mind that the longer it does, the harder it will be break!
Establish a bedtime routine. The environmental signals of bathing, story-time, whatever, really help them to "know" it's time for sleep. You may find them showing even more drowsy signals at this time. And, routines can be established for even young infants.
Put them down when awake. Don't try to rock them to sleep and then put them down. This rarely works anyway! Let them learn how to put themselves to sleep.
Don't use a binky. Again, you may want to use one in the first few months of life, but try putting them down without it, because eventually a) they'll have to give it up anyway, and b) you'll find yourself waking in the night to put it back in their mouths! Again, let them learn how to put themselves asleep.
Don't respond to every little grunt or cry. This was actually a mistake I made when my son was only two months old. I responded to every noise he made until I realized I was waking him up! Even if they are momentarily awake, give them a minute or two (or more if they're older) to see if they can put themselves back to sleep.
If you have any other suggestions for developing good sleep habits, please share them!
Haack, M., Mullinton, J.M. (2005). Sustained sleep restriction reduced emotional and physical well-being. Pain, Vol. 119(1-3), 56-64.
Harrison, Y., Home, J. A. (2000). The impact of sleep deprivation on decision-making: A review. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 6, 236-49.
Ross, L.E., Murray, B.J., Steiner, M. (2005). Sleep and perinatal mood disorders: A critical review. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, Vol 30(4), Jul 2005. pp. 247-256.
Wolfson, A., Lacks, P., Futterman, A. (1992). Effects of parent training on infant sleeping patterns, parents' stress, and perceived parental competence. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, Vol 60(1), Feb 1992. pp. 41-48.