Putting Your Child To Sleep Awake

While it seems illogical and counterintuitive, you need to put your child down to sleep awake. Yes, awake. Let me explain why.

The idea that we “sleep through the night” is actually a complete fallacy. The human body wakes up, very briefly, several times each night as it transitions through different sleep cycles. So, if nobody woke you (those were the days!) the process would happen very naturally, you’d roll over, adjust your pillow and never remember you momentarily woke up. However, children need to learn the skill of putting themselves to sleep and that needs to be at bedtime, in the middle of the night and for naps.

If a child is put to sleep in their crib or bed too drowsy, or asleep already, they will never remember the process of actually laying down, feeling sleepy and then the act of falling asleep. What happens is something like the following:

You go through your bedtime routine, wash up, change out of your clothes, get into bed, put your head on the pillow. You remember tossing a few times and the next thing you know you wake up in the morning on the kitchen floor. You would think, “What happened? How on earth did I get here?!! I don’t remember this one bit!!”

That anxious reaction is what your child has if they don’t actually have a clear memory of falling asleep, in their crib or bed. Hence, many children wake crying during the night because they don’t remember how they got there!

Essentially, the act of falling asleep can only be remembered and placed into our “muscle memory” by your child being awake at bedtime. If sleepiness is on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being awake on the playground at noon and 10 being asleep, your child should be at a 5. That means comfortable, clean, etc. but awake not an 8 or 9, which means he or she is too drowsy and sleepy to remember the act of falling asleep.

I know this may feel awkward and strange to many of us but it’s the best way to ensure that your child knows how to put himself or herself to sleep without something, or someone, doing it for them. Most importantly, with enough practice and “muscle memory”, as you coach him or her through the process, your child will now be able to put himself or herself to sleep at bedtime and throughout the night. 

Sleep Basics- What You Need To Know

If you are facing a sleep challenge, it’s very important to know how sleep works in order to make any changes. Here are the basics that I want every family to understand about their child’s sleep:

Sleep is a learned skill

Although it is easy to assume that sleeping is a natural ability we are born with, the skill of sleeping is actually learned. While some children have an easier time than others, just as children will naturally be predisposed to learn certain skills more easily, the ability to sleep well is largely taught by our caregivers.

Sleep cycles

Sleep cycles are basically divided into two main types: Non-REM and REM. Non-REM sleep is the deep, physiologically restorative part of sleep. REM sleep is thought of as “active” sleep or light sleep.

The body actually shifts gears during the night and we experience something called partial awakenings. In reality, nobody sleeps through the night! We all wake up at different points but as adults we know how to put ourselves back to sleep- children have to learn this skill. If a child knows how to fall asleep they won’t need someone/something else to do it for them. If your child is put to bed already asleep they don’t know how to do it themselves and will have night wakings. 

Right Amount, Right Time

Sleep needs to be understood in terms of the right quality and the right amount and during the right time. There are fairly standard average amounts of hours that children need as they develop and the timing of those hours is also significant (see below about “sleep windows”). Quality sleep means sleep that is not fragmented, uninterrupted and motionless (don’t you feel more rested after a night in bed than during a nap in a car?). Your child’s sleep environment should also be consistent, quiet (though can include a noise machine) and dark.

Daytime sleep is very important for young children. While it seems illogical, sleep begets sleep. The better your baby sleeps at night, the more easily he/she will nap during the day (and vice versa, it’s a bit of chicken and egg). Too little daytime sleep can erode nighttime sleep.

Sleepy Cues, Windows, Crutches 

Sleepy “cues” and “windows” are indications of the right time for a child to sleep. Sleep cues are usually what we find in ourselves: yawning, rubbing of the eyes, listlessness.

Are you approaching a good time for a nap or bedtime? This can also be the “window”, meaning this is the time he is most ready to be put to sleep. Windows are a natural predisposition to fall asleep at a certain time because of a rise in various hormones including melatonin and growth hormone (which induces sleepiness and is released during nighttime sleep).

If a window is missed the body naturally secretes cortisol, creating what we know as the “second wind.” This makes it doubly hard for the child to fall asleep because the body has to come “down” off this natural rush and relax again.

“Crutches” are things that prevent our children from being able to fall asleep independently. It can be a pacifier, a bottle, being rocked or twirling mommy’s hair (anything really!). It’s very important to know that crutches tend to stop working at some point.The rocking that used to take 15 minutes now takes 45- that’s a crutch that doesn’t work!

Medical Conditions

Underlying medical conditions such as: asthma, allergies, eczema, reflux and sleep apnea need to be addressedbefore any sleep coaching is undertaken. Sleep apnea is a very commonly undiagnosed condition that can be addressed by a pediatric pulmonologist and/or ENT. Common symptoms may include snoring, nighttime sweating, disturbed sleep, enuresis and daytime fatigue. Talk to your doctor about sleep. 

Reflux symptoms are commonly undiagnosed as many people still use the term “colic” to describe reflux-like symptoms. Allergies can also play a role in medical issues that disrupt sleep. Even sensory integration difficulties can also play a role in underlying difficulties with sleep.

Now that you understand the basics behind how sleep works you can successfully implement a new sleep plan. Wishing you a good night's sleep!


The 5 Reasons Your Child Didn't Sleep Last Night

This blog was written exclusively forTheParentMaze.com

I get many emails from families like this: “My child goes to sleep really easily, it’s just the middle of the night- he keeps waking up a few times. I don’t get it!”

There are 5 main reasons your child may be waking at night: 

  • Too late of a bedtime

  • Nap deprivation

  • They were put to bed already asleep

  • Inconsistency in your response

  • Underlying/Undiagnosed medical conditions


The most common reason for night wakings is simple: too late of a bedtime. It’s tough to get through a busy evening of dinner, bath and bedtime routine, especially when you have more than one child, and the laundry list of “to-do’s” on your mind. All of a sudden it’s getting late, and things are a rush instead of a nice, lulling process getting your little one into bed. Most young children need a bedtime somewhere between 7 and 8 pm. Otherwise, we run the risk of them getting a second wind and being overtired, making bedtime a battle.

Next, it’s important to remember how closely linked daytime and nighttime sleep are for young children. Until age 4 most kids need a consistent and well-timed nap during the day. When naps get too short or inconsistent our children may begin night wakings because they are experiencing overall fragmented sleep.

Third on the list may be the most difficult concept to grasp: your child was put to bed already asleep. Why does this matter? Imagine going to bed held by a loved one while snuggling on the couch. But, you wake up to find yourself alone in your bed in the middle of the night. You think, “how did I get here!?” That’s the same reaction your child would have when they waken- they look for that “thing” that put them asleep in the first place. Without falling asleep independently it’s hard for children to fall asleep again unassisted.

One of the great challenges in changing a sleep plan is being consistent. Therefore, when we respond inconsistently to our child’s night waking it creates confusion. And, confusion can create crying in pre-verbal children. I often hear “I usually just give her a bottle, but then I sometimes go rub her back, and if it’s after 4 am I just take her in my bed…” All of these add up to inconsistent responses.

Lastly, if there are any undiagnosed or underlying medical conditions such as sleep apnea, reflux, asthma or allergies that are untreated they can stand in the way of a good night’s sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea is commonly undiagnosed in children and is usually a result of enlarged tonsils and/or adenoids. Some symptoms of apnea include snoring, difficulty falling asleep, restless sleep and profuse sweating during sleep. Be sure to discuss frequent night wakings with your child’s pediatrician to rule out medical conditions.

You can read more about all of these reasons your child may be waking at night in Kim West’s book “Good Night, Sleep Tight." Wishing you a good night’s sleep!


Crying and Sleep Coaching Your Child

Most parents that contact me about sleep coaching their child are concerned about crying. Usually they are very sleep deprived and they wonder, “Is there any way we can do this without crying?” I try to help families understand and minimize their children's tears.

As a Gentle Sleep Coach I do my best to minimize crying, especially when working with babies under 6 months of age. The three main factors that determine crying in relation to changing sleep situations are the age of your child, his/her temperament and past experience.

When we respond to crying in a loving and an attentive manner we show our children it’s possible to learn, tolerate inevitable frustration and manage difficult feelings. This is why I usually recommend staying with your child as they learn the skill of falling asleep.

I strive to guide families through sleep plans that are gentle on them and their children. My philosophy is based on the idea that as parents we are our children’s secure base- a place from which they gain the confidence and security to go and explore the world around them. This is very much a coach-player mentality: we cannot play the game for them, but we can always stand on the sideline and encourage them through the times of success and challenges.  

Crying is a natural response a baby will have to a variety of situations including hunger, discomfort from being soiled, boredom, frustration and sleepiness. When our babies are pre-verbal this is their primary manner of letting us know they aren’t happy with the current state of affairs (and it gets harder when our toddlers can cry AND use words, like “Mommy, I NEED you!”). Our job is to determine why they are crying and understand the tone of the cry. Is the cry a shriek of pain? Is the cry a complaint? Is the cry out of frustration, “I don’t know how to do this! Why aren’t you doing what you usually do?”

Age

I help parents minimize crying as much as possible, particularly with babies under 6 months, when they may still need a lot of help to self-soothe. Studies show that the more soothing responses a young baby receives the more easily they calm when faced with stress at later stages of development.

However, the older our children become the longer habits have been ingrained. And sometimes, we have taught our children to cry for a certain length of time before receiving a response. Moreover, we know ourselves that long-standing behaviors take longer to change than ones we only recently picked up. As our children grow older their tenacity and resolve strengthens. An 18 month old will usually cry a lot longer than a 6 month old.

Temperament

Every child has a unique temperament. Is your child flexible? Is your child high-energy? Does she have a tough time making transitions? As a parent you know your child best and you know how your child responds to new challenges. This will play a factor in the duration and intensity of crying during the sleep coaching process. Most parents have an idea of how long their child will cry during the first night of a new sleep plan, and often times they are right.

Past Experience

“Sometimes I take him into my bed, sometimes I just rock him to sleep, sometimes I let him cry and get him after I can’t take it anymore.” Previous inconsistent behavior will play a big role in how long a child will cry during sleep changes. All these different “things” have to be “undone” over a span of time and the more intermittent reinforcement a child has faced the longer it will take to successfully put a new plan into action.

Parents often say to me after their first night of coaching “Is wasn’t nearly as bad as I imagined it would be!” Changing sleep situations usually makes parents anxious: it’s hard to know what to expect and no one wants to have their child cry. With the support of a coach and a realistic sleep plan you can help teach your child the skill of sleep in a gentle and gradual manner.  

Your 4-5 Month Old Baby

Recently I got a call from a mom desperate for sleep. She told me “I’m so tired and my baby used to sleep fairly long stretches, maybe even 6 hours, but now it’s rare that she sleeps longer than 3 hours at a time! I’m a mess! And I’m afraid we’ve missed the chance to sleep train her. Help!” I told this mom, “You’re only at the starting point, not the finish line. Don’t stress!”

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I think it’s wonderful that parents have so many choices to educate themselves about parenting, sleep and the health of their children. The downside, however, is that many of us feel guilty if they don’t have the goal of sleeping through the night down by 4 months of age. The variability in newborns is great and depending on weight, medical history, home environment, feeding, experience and temperament some babies are not ready to sleep long stretches until they are solidly 6 months, sometimes even later.

Medical conditions such as reflux, both normal and GERD, can plague babies at this early stage. Laying down flat may be nearly impossible for a baby with bad reflux and he or she may need to be held to sleep for some time after feeds and for sleep. Dairy intolerance, commonly undiagnosed, can also cause sleep disturbance and may not resolve until dairy is eliminated from a nursing mom’s diet or a dairy-free formula is introduced.

Some babies actually hit a well-documented sleep regression between 4-5 months of age. I often get calls from parents who cannot believe that their child slept better as a newborn and is actually sleeping less as they are maturing. The burst of cognitive, social and emotional development babies go through during this time can often be the culprit. Is your baby up babbling at 3 am, happy and content, but not sleeping? He or she could just be going through a developmental “leap” of being social. (“The Wonder Weeks” is a great resource to check out)

Many babies between 4-5 months just won’t nap well until they are slightly older- they just aren’t ready. If your child has a hard time with daytime sleep I always recommend that naps be as long and regularly timed as possible, regardless of how they are accomplished. They will eventually fall into place and we can nap coach with more success starting around 6 months.

Lastly, I encourage parents to minimize crying as much as possible at this young age. Studies show that the more soothing responses a baby receives in these early months the more easily they calm later in their life. It’s as if the wiring is set in place to calm when we respond in a caring manner early on. (Click HERE for an article about the Science of Baby Bonding)

A mom I worked with recently said it the best: “Now that our son is 6 months I see that he’s ready to sleep more and do more self-soothing because we didn’t let him cry a lot in the first few months. He calms more easily on his own.”

So be patient with your little one and yourself. With gentle sleep strategies you and your baby can get through this often challenging time and come out stronger both in your developing relationship and getting ready for sleep success around the corner.

Sleeping Through The Night

“When is my baby going to sleep through the night?” is a question I get very often from parents. I usually tell them “well, nobody actually sleeps through the night.” Looks of horror now come my way. What on earth is this woman talking about?!

I’m being cheeky, of course, but it’s helpful to understand how sleep actually works, on a neurological level, to underline the importance of the skill of putting yourself to sleep.

We basically have two kinds of sleep: Non-REM and REM. Deep sleep, known as Non-REM, is the physiologically restorative part of our sleep. Our Non-REM sleep develops around the 3-4 month of life (which is why some babies will start sleeping longer stretches at this age) and is always the majority of the first part of our night’s sleep. Active sleep, known as REM, is just that: active, when we dream and consolidate memories. Babies are born with more than one-half of their sleep being REM, which is why infants often look “half asleep”, very twitchy, and may even smile during sleep.

So why does this information matter? The body wakes up, very briefly, when it shifts from one type of sleep to the next, during something called a partial awakening. If you had a great night’s sleep and nobody was waking you (and maybe that’s not possible right now) you’d never remember that you actually woke in several partial awakenings throughout the night- you’d turn over, adjust your blanket and go right into the next sleep cycle.Essentially, we are putting ourselves to sleep all night long. 

However, if a child doesn’t actually have the skill of falling asleep unassisted during the initial onset of sleep, they won’t know how to do so during the night. That’s why I say we don’t actually don’t sleep through the night, we just know how to put ourselves back to sleep. It’s that simple.

So, if you’re working on a new sleep plan, or just feeling baffled why your child wakes up during the night, make sure they know how to put themselves to sleep at bedtime- then you can help them build on that skill during all the following awakenings they will have through the night.

Sleep Windows- What You Need To Know

Why is it that sometimes bedtime is easy and sometimes it’s just a struggle? Maybe you missed the right moment to put your child down? It’s important to understand sleep windows, or windows of opportunity to put your child to sleep.

We all have an internal clock, known as the Circadian Rhythm. This clock works off of our environment, light and dark cues as well as genetics. There are times of day our bodies are most awake and times of day we are most prime to go to sleep. For young children, these times of sleepiness will also peak at different times throughout the day, because they need daytime sleep as well as night sleep.

If you’ve had a baby you’ve seen that newborns and young babies can only stay awake for short periods of time, and then they get sleepy again. These times are termed “windows of wakefulness” and indicate the time during which a child should be awake. Here’s a sample of these windows at different ages:

  • A 3-month-old can only stay awake between sleep times for 1.5-3 hours.

  • For a 6-month-old the window of wakefulness is 2-3 hours.

  • For a 9-month-old the window of wakefulness is 2-4 hours.

  • For a 12-month-old the window of wakefulness is 3-4 hours.

  • For an 18-month-old the window of wakefulness is 4-6 hours.

  • For a 2-year-old the window of wakefulness is 5-6.5 hours.

  • For a 3-year-old the window of wakefulness is 6-8 hours. Some kids this age are no longer napping.

  • For a 4-year-old the window of wakefulness is 6-12 hours. Many kids this age are no longer napping.

  • For a 5-year-old the window of wakefulness is 6-12 hours. Most kids this age are no longer napping.

*from Kim West, author of “Good Night, Sleep Tight”

Now these are averages but you should always watch your child for his or her sleepy cues, which may be different from other children’s.Alert or high-energy children are usually very good at masking the cues that they’re tired, so it’s actually more helpful to look at the clock, realizing how long they’ve been awake because they may not seem outwardly tired. If this is your child I suggest taking them into their sleep space, start a wind-down routine and perhaps that will bring on the first yawn, as they take in the environmental cues that it’s time to sleep.

The most important reason to understand sleep windows is becausewhen we miss the window our child becomes overtired and wired- not a good place to be. When this happens our internal cup of coffee- cortisol- is released and it’s hard to go to sleep on a second wind, right? Then you see that bedtime struggle because you’re fighting against a mild form of adrenaline. The best thing to do is let it go for about 45-50 minutes and wait for the next window to open. Then your child will actually be more ready for bedtime. 

So, when judging when your child should be going to sleep, make sure to keep in mind his or her windows so that naptime and bedtime can go smoothly for everyone.

How Much Sleep Does Your Child Need?

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Many parents ask how much sleep their child needs, usually because they are concerned that the amount they are getting isn’t enough. Ultimately, a child who is sleep deprived will not have the ability to attend and concentrate in the same way than if they were well rested, and behavior will also be negatively affected if a child is chronically tired.

Sleep needs vary depending on age. Below is a chart of average sleep requirements for children at different stages of development:


AGE               NIGHT           DAY                   TOTAL
1 week             8 1/2              8 (4 naps)           16 1/2
1 month           8 1/2              7 (3 naps)            15 1/2
3 months        10                   5 (3 naps)            15
6 months        11                    3 1/4 (2)               14 1/4
9 months        11                    3 (2)                    14   
12 months       11 1/4               2 1/2 (2)              13 3/4
18 months       11 1/4               2 1/4 (1)               13 1/2
2 years            11                    2 (1)                    13   
3 years            10 1/2              1 1/2 (1)               12   
4 years            11 1/2                                         11 1/2
5 years            11                                              11   
6 years            10 3/4                                       10 3/4

 

from “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems” by Dr. Richard Ferber

While these are averages the variance is usually very little. In particular, "alert" children (high energy kids) actually need more sleep, not less, than most others- even though they may be very good at stalling bedtime. They need more time scheduled in for wind-down because it's harder for them to shut out the world.

Sleep should be thought of not only as quantity, however, but in quality as well. As a matter of fact, the quality of your child’s sleep is as important as the quantity. High quality sleep means that it is not fragmented, in a dedicated sleep space (not in motion) and regularly timed.

So if you’re faced with a child who seems tired, cranky and not their best they may not be getting enough shut-eye. If you need to change your current sleep plan a professional sleep coach can help you and your child get the sleep your entire family needs.