When we first became parents, my husband Kevin and I decided we would game the system. We figured that if our baby was only going to sleep for a handful of hours at a time, why not get him on the same sleep schedule as us?
Ha, ha, said the system, refusing to be gamed.
Of course, our little experiment didn’t end well: Our little angel would suddenly become completely wired when we tried to put him down, protesting with all his might at the very suggestion of sleep. Or he’d pass out in his carrier and we’d transfer him to his crib—carefully, gingerly, with the deft exactitude of someone disarming a bomb—only to have him wake fitfully an hour later. Kevin and I took turns getting up with him, half-parenting through a haze of sleep deprivation. Often, glued to my pillow with exhaustion, I would offer Kevin cold hard cash if he would take my turn and just get up with the baby. Our marriage became a negotiation around sleep. No one ever had enough of it, and everyone was cranky about it.
But apparently, we’re not the only parents who didn’t have it all figured out on the first try. Carrie Dunn, a sleep coach and mom of four, laughs empathetically at the sad familiarity of my story: “In some families, the parents don’t sleep together at all anymore—one parent spends the night with each kid,” says Dunn, who’s seen that sleep issues can drain not only a person but also a marriage.
Dunn, 38, became a sleep coach after facing bedtime challenges with each of her four kids, all of whom had varying degrees of reflux. (“You would think that at least one of them would have magically slept through the night on their own—no such luck,” she laments.) After poring over every sleep book on the market, she ultimately sought the advice of a sleep trainer who helped her devise a plan specifically for her family. “Books that promise 12 hours of sleep at 12 weeks aren’t necessarily realistic,” Dunn realized. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.”
Now Dunn works with families of children between the ages of 4 months to 6 years to help them come up with sleep plans of their own, taking into consideration everything from a baby’s temperament and medical history to the family’s parenting philosophy—including whether the parents have decided to co-sleep. She often hears complaints about kids being overtired: “Parents say to me, ‘I know they’re exhausted, so why are they fighting sleep?'” says Dunn. “But when kids miss their sleep window”—that moment around 7 or 8 p.m. when, for example, they start rubbing their eyes, yawning, getting a blank look on their faces—”they produce more cortisol, the stress hormone, which overstimulates makes it harder for them to shut it down and go to sleep.” This is true for adults, too.
“There’s truth to the adage that sleep begets sleep,” explains Dunn, helping me understand why my friends’ kids who went to bed at their natural bedtime ended up getting both better quality sleep and logging more hours of rest overall. Also, Dunn says, better naps lead to better nighttime sleep: Those who aren’t getting enough restorative sleep during the day—not just zonking out in the car (“nap stealers,” Dunn calls them)—become overtired, which contributes to disturbances in nighttime sleep.
Obviously, getting your infant off to a good start is the ideal plan (Dunn says that around 6 to 9 months is a good time to start sleep coaching, since that’s often when long-term sleep patterns start to emerge)—but even if you didn’t, it’s okay. “If your 4-year-old is still co-sleeping and you’re ready for her to be in her own bed,” says Dunn, “we can change that. It’s just going to take longer.”
Dunn also looks at coaching as a family affair: “My goal is to help families get the sleep they need by empowering them to implement a plan together. At the end of coaching, the family needs to feel that if their sleep schedule breaks down after, say, a time change, or illness or travel, they can handle it.”
Whether you got your kid off to a great start and you’re now seeing his sleep patterns change or you decided to go rogue with your own sleep plan and are now wishing for a well-rested child over schedule flexibility, here are some of Dunn’s smart sleeping tips that apply at any stage:
1. Establish a predictable and consistent bedtime routine. This is your baby’s cue that it’s time for sleep. This might include a warm bath, a massage with lotion (Dunn says it’s great for helping babies slow down, but my babies were way too squirmy for this), reading books, saying prayers, or singing songs. “Try to do things in the same order to help create predictability,” says Dunn. Older children can participate in the ritual—putting books away, turning off lights, brushing their hair. “Kids thrive on routine, and it’s even more important at bedtime.”
2. Create an atmosphere that’s conducive to sleep. This means straddling the line between comfort and distraction. Aim for a dark room, a white noise machine or fan, a space that’s free of overstimulating toys. “You can use soothing music to start the sleep routine, but just make sure to turn it off before the baby falls asleep”—that way, if he wakes up in the middle of the night, he won’t be startled by the silence.
3. Give your child the space to learn to go to bed on his own. In order to help your kids learn to self-soothe, children 18 weeks and older can be tucked in for bed drowsy but awake. “If you’re nursing them, don’t nurse them until they fall asleep—or move the nursing aspect to earlier part of the routine,” says Dunn. “Create a loving bedtime routine, but step out of the room before they’re totally asleep.” So when they wake up in the middle of the night, they don’t need you to come back into the room until they fall asleep again.
4. Decide where your child will sleep and stick with it throughout the night, even if the child wakes. “It’s so easy to let them come and cuddle with you,” Dunn acknowledges, “but it’s confusing to the child and can cause him to wake more at night. It’s best to return him to his own room and stay with him if he needs comforting. Gradually wean yourself out of the room, the goal being that he’ll eventually learn that Mommy and Daddy are nearby and that he can fall back asleep on his own.”
5. It’s never too late to start getting good sleep. “If your 6 year old still isn’t sleeping by himself and you haven’t seen your spouse in six years,” says Dunn, “you can still come up with a good sleep plan.” Parents can involve older kids in the process on an intellectual level by starting a sticker chart or coming up with an incentive plan (such as taking them to the book store to pick out the next bedtime story) and gradually implementing it.
Adrienne Wichard-Edds is a freelance writer who’s still catching up on 11 years of sleep deprivation. Follow her on Twitter at @WichardEdds.
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