Toronto Montessori teacher and mom of four Margaret Rezza knew right away that there was something different about the sleep patterns of her youngest child, Marietta. As with her older kids, Rezza had Marietta’s bassinet next to her bed at first for easy nighttime feedings, but her newest baby was a very light sleeper. “I live in an old house, so if I would get out of bed after nursing and she was asleep, the creaking of the floor would startle her,” says Rezza.
Marietta, now four, stayed in her parents’ room until she was four months old, by which point her problems with noise and light, and her tendency to wake whenever Rezza or her husband moved, had become a major issue. Even moving Marietta to the nursery didn’t help; though her room was quieter, the dim glow from a nightlight in the hallway was enough to disturb her.
Creaky floors, ringing phones, a crack of daylight peeking around the edge of the blinds, even the dishwasher running a floor below—all of these things can mean the difference between a well-rested babe and a sleep-deprived family when you have a light sleeper on your hands. But why do some kids sleep more deeply than others? “Some brains are better than others at blocking environmental stimuli during sleep,” explains Wendy Hall, a sleep researcher and professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Nursing. “Even during sleep, the brain receives sensory information.” While it’s difficult to make your baby less sensitive to noise or light, Hall says there are things you can do to try to help your babe get to—and stay—asleep.
The Public Health Association of Canada recommends room-sharing until your baby is at least six months old (this helps cut the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS) and transitioning your baby to a cradle or crib when she has outgrown the bassinet and is hitting the sides of it when she moves around. Additionally, Health Canada notes that bassinets aren’t meant to be used once babies are able to roll over. When your baby is at least six months old, putting her down to sleep in her own room may reduce the chance of her being awoken by noise from mom, dad or siblings.
Turn down the thermostat at night, and, if your baby will tolerate it, close the door to keep out pets and sounds from the rest of the house. And invest in some room-darkening blinds—even if they don’t go with the decor. When Marietta still wasn’t sleeping well at eight months despite being in her own room, Rezza bought “ugly, ugly blackout curtains, because I was so desperate,” she says. They might not have been pretty, but Rezza says they did the trick.
Hall says that a fan (directed away from the crib) or a radio set between stations so it “hums” can create a neutral sound in the room that will mask other noises. Or try a kid-specific noise machine, such as a stuffed animal that plays sounds or music. “The trick is not to have noise that shuts off after children fall asleep because it will interfere with them getting back to sleep at night if that noise is not present,” says Hall.
It’s true: Exposure to sunlight when they're awake really does help kids regulate their circadian rhythms, and daytime naps make for better nighttime sleep. But be aware that, if your babe wakes up after 10 minutes because a fire truck screams by, you’ll be back at square one.
Baby monitors are a great way to keep an eye on your wee one. Just be careful not to contribute to the problem. “Infants have what we refer to as active and quiet sleep. Quiet sleep occurs when they are in a deep sleep and don’t move or make noises. Active sleep can involve young children opening their eyes and vocalizing while they are asleep,” says Hall. Just because your infant is making noise or moving around in his crib doesn’t necessarily mean he’s awake. Give him a couple of minutes before rushing to the rescue to see if he quiets back down to sleep on his own.
“Children who self-soothe can go down into a deeper sleep state more quickly,” says Hall. Because light sleepers may wake more often than other kids, being able to settle themselves and get back to sleep without your intervention is pretty important. Set up a consistent routine and experience for falling asleep, so she knows what to expect. And if she does cry or call out, it’s OK to check in or give a verbal reassurance. “One thing I did with all of my children is I would say, ‘You’re OK. Go back to sleep,’” says Rezza. “Once they had enough cognitive ability to understand what I was saying and that Mommy’s still there, they just put themselves back to sleep.”