It’s practically all you think about. You read books on how to make it happen or how to improve the little you’re getting. You use soft lighting, sweet music, specially scented baths — anything that might help. Sadly, getting enough seems like a dream to a lot of new parents whose children shun shut-eye. Sleep: Who knew it could be so elusive?
But elusive doesn’t mean impossible. There are ways to get your children to sleep better, making for more restful nights for the whole family. We asked the experts to shed some light on kids’ most common sleep problems — falling asleep, staying asleep and sleeping in their own beds. Here are their varying views that you can take, leave or modify to suit your family.
If there’s one thing the pros agree on it’s this: Newborn babies will sleep whenever, wherever and for as long as they like. And there’s nothing parents can do about it. “Newborns have no sense of day and night,” says Cathryn Tobin, a Toronto paediatrician and author of The Lull-a-Baby Sleep Plan: The Soothing, Superfast Way to Help Your Newborn Sleep Through the Night. “They have no circadian rhythm until around six weeks.”
What happens after this, though, is a matter of some debate. “Once babies are around six to eight weeks and are interactive with their parents,” says Tobin, “that’s the time to start establishing good sleep habits.”
Those habits include starting a nighttime routine where you put a full, comfortable baby into his own crib — awake but drowsy. If he fusses, Tobin suggests talking softly to him, rubbing his back and, if necessary, picking him up, comforting him before putting him back, awake, in his crib and trying again. “I’m not implying that you’re leaving your baby to cry it out,” she says. “Far from it. It’s a learning opportunity. Babies know how to sleep, but they don’t know how to fall asleep. This is a process. They’re going to learn bit by bit. It’s going to take more than a few days, but they’ll get there.”
Bonny Reichert, author of In Search of Sleep: Straight Talk About Babies, Toddlers and Night Waking, agrees that children do eventually learn to fall asleep on their own, but disagrees that they need to learn so young. “Sure, maybe they can physically do it, but there’s more to it than that,” she says. “There’s temperament, the type of household they’re in, the parents’ wants — all kinds of factors.” Reichert also points out that keeping a sleepy baby awake at the breast is nearly impossible. “I was certainly never able to do it,” says the mother of three. “And why would you deny yourself the lovely experience of your young baby sleeping in your arms?”
But for older babies? “Once they get into the six- to nine-month range, they’re more aware, they stay up longer, they may fight sleep,” says Reichert. “But most parents sort of muddle through. They find something that works — like rubbing their baby’s back until he settles down. There are people out there for whom sleep training works and works early. And to them I say, ‘Great! You’re lucky!’ But it’s not for everyone.”
Toddlers and Preschoolers
When it comes to young children, both Tobin and Reichert agree that bedtime routines are key. “Think of a bath, a book, a cuddle,” says Reichert. “You don’t want to be too elaborate.” But you don’t want to rush the ritual either. “Some people expect their kids to go to bed really easily: just a couple of minutes, a quick kiss and they should sleep. A more realistic expectation would be about an hour — from the time you say, ‘OK, it’s time to get ready for bed now,’ through the whole routine and off to sleep.”
Of course, as Tobin says, even the best of routines won’t work if your child isn’t sleepy. “Beware of your toddler having a too-late afternoon nap,” she says. You’re just setting the stage for a child who won’t be tired at bedtime.
And if your child keeps getting out of bed or calling out? “There should be no secondary gains,” states Tobin. “No anger, no hugs and kisses. Just a neutral ‘Go back to bed.’” Even if it takes a number of times, she adds, once your child realizes there are no rewards, he’ll give up and go to sleep.
Sleeping in Their Own Beds
How important is it that little ones sleep apart from their parents? That depends on whom you ask.
Some experts argue that babies should learn to sleep on their own from the beginning. Tobin, for instance, says that’s imperative since they will have to sleep on their own eventually. Otherwise, parents will just have a problem to correct down the road. And it will be harder to fix.
However, James McKenna, an anthropologist and head of the mother-baby behavioural sleep laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, strongly disagrees. “Babies feel better when they sleep with their parents,” he states. The image of a baby sleeping all night on his own in a crib, McKenna says, comes from the days when babies were largely formula-fed and their tummies stayed fuller longer. Breastfed babies, by contrast, digest their feedings more rapidly and so need to be fed more frequently. “Feeding method determines everything, and 70 to 80 percent of mothers go home from the hospital breastfeeding — about 30 percent are still doing so at the six-month mark.” So the solitary sleep model — the one your mother may be recounting over the phone — is out of date.
Sleeping in Their Own Beds
Toddlers and Preschoolers
Parents who were cozy co-sleepers when their children were babies sometimes find a squirmy toddler a more unsettling sleep partner. So how do you make the switch?
Knowing how to fall asleep alone — and fall back asleep alone after waking in the night — is the goal here, Tobin says. She hastens to add that this needs to be done gradually: You’ll need to be sitting on his bed, for instance, until he’s very drowsy for the first few nights before slowly shifting your position until you’re out the door. This could take a week or two. When he comes to join you in the night and you calmly tell him to go back to bed, you know — and more importantly, your child knows — that he can fall back asleep on his own.
One key to success here is making your little sleeper’s room child friendly. “Even a 20-month-old gets the idea when you make a big fuss, ‘Here’s your new room! Here are your new sheets!’” says Reichert. “But it’s important that their bed is close to the ground. I see a great benefit to having a mattress or a futon on the floor. And then you can lie down with them and recreate the circumstances of your room in theirs.” For the transition, she says, you can stay with your child until she falls asleep, then gradually leave earlier. “The main thing is you don’t want to immediately remove your presence.”
McKenna believes parents shouldn’t be in a big rush to get toddlers and preschoolers to sleep alone. “All children are designed to sleep with their parents,” he says. “And sleep development is not linear: You don’t go from A to B to C. It’s more like A to B, then back to A. Children begin to go through new life experiences and they develop an ability to understand the dangers in the world and the implications of what their parents mean to them.” So suddenly, your three-year-old, who had been sleeping fine, realizes that parents can get hurt or that people die, and she seeks a feeling of safety and reassurance by sleeping in her parents’ bed.
Sleeping Through the Night
This is the holy grail of early parenting, but is it as impossible to attain? That depends on several factors, the most important being your child’s age. “Newborns are not going to sleep through the night,” states Tobin. Their rapid growth and tiny tummies mean they need to be fed frequently, regardless of what time it is. After the first couple of months, though, Tobin says babies can sleep for longer stretches at night. “At about 12 pounds, healthy babies who feed well during the day can comfortably go for nine hours without a feeding,” she says.
To support that long stretch of sleep, Tobin again emphasizes the nighttime routine: a full, sleepy baby settled gently into his crib to fall asleep on his own. If he wakes up a few hours later, and parents are not comfortable with the amount of crying, they can go in and calm him down, but then leave him. If babies learn to fall asleep on their own, she argues, then when they wake during the night (as most of us do to some degree) they are able to fall back asleep without their parents’ help.
Not everyone agrees with that take on night waking. “Babies aren’t ready to sleep through the night when their parents are ready for them to sleep through the night,” says McKenna. “Their bodies aren’t ready.” He also points out that frequent waking is a natural defence against SIDS; if a baby has breathing difficulties or heart problems, then his ability to wake up is especially crucial.
Sleep training works for some of the people some of the time, says Reichert, but “if your baby gets a cold, it can throw the whole thing off. Plus the process can take many nights, even weeks, so parents may end up asking, ‘Why am I doing this?’” Alternatively, parents can try to encourage longer stretches of sleep by clustering feedings towards the end of the day. Some moms even semi-rouse their babies for a feed before they turn in themselves.
However, there does seem to be a window during which babies often adopt a more regular sleep routine, admits Reichert. “At around three to four months, a lot of babies start to spontaneously sleep for a longer stretch at night, and parents might think, ‘Oh, she can sleep through the night.’ At that stage, parents might consider letting their baby cry a bit because they figure the baby can sleep longer. But not everyone can do that.”
Sleeping Through the Night
Toddlers and Preschoolers
So you’ve slugged it out with sleep demons through infancy and now you’ve got a young child — and your sleep is still fractured. How can you put night waking to rest?
“For the first two years, a child’s sleep needs are constantly changing,” says Reichert. “They do get better at it as they grow; staying asleep starts to come more naturally. It gets easier for them to move between sleep cycles.” Still, it’s frustrating when you keep hearing how your sister’s child, or the baby down the street, sleeps for 12-hour stretches every night. If you don’t want to “sleep train,” are you stuck being sleepless? Not necessarily, reassures Reichert. Families need to do what works for them — whether it’s sleep training, co-sleeping, taking turns lying down with the child or some other arrangement.
But Tobin feels some strategies make for more problems down the road. “The main mistake parents make is lying down with their children to make them go to sleep,” says Tobin. “Once they wake up, you’ll be right back in their beds with them. Just take seven to 10 days to gradually wean yourself out of the room as they go to sleep.”
And if they persist in nighttime visits to your room? Make sure it’s not worth their effort, says Tobin. Instead, handle a young child’s night waking the same way you’d handle the child who fights sleep by getting out of bed repeatedly — just a neutral “Go back to bed.” But don’t expect this problem will go away in a night or two, Tobin warns: It’s a process that will take time and probably get worse before it gets better. But it will get better.
Above all, try to keep the situation in perspective: “You’ve got two to three years like this, and that’s often it,” says Reichert. “You don’t go back there. I don’t want to make light of it — sleep deprivation is awful — but really, it’s just this blip.”
Feeling In the Dark?
Scenario: “My 3½-year-old son, Brandon, won’t go to sleep unless he has Mommy or Daddy lying with him. I have tried putting him to bed and saying, ‘OK, it is bedtime, it is late.’ I have left the light on for him and let him have books; I have offered to stay in my room down the hall rather than going back downstairs. He will lie there, read a book or two, and then call out for me. It just gets so tiring fighting for hours a night.”
Angèle Gagné, Val Caron, Ont.
Suggestion: Tobin advises a gradual weaning of the parents’ presence from their child’s room. “Start with mom or dad lying on the bed beside the child. Then, a couple of nights later, the parent is sitting on the bed. A couple of nights later, the parent sits at the foot of the bed, then the floor beside the bed, in the doorway, then in the hall and so on.”
Scenario:“My 2½-year-old son, Nicholas, wakes me up at least three times a night. He doesn’t want to go to sleep in his bed, so we go to the couch with a bottle and I stay there with him until he falls asleep. Then I move him back to his bed. He’ll nap in a bed without a bottle at his daycare, but not for me. And I’m not a fan of letting him cry it out.”
Line Preston, Winchester, Ont.
Suggestion: “The parents need to make it less appealing for their child to get up,” says Tobin. “This doesn’t have to be ugly; it can be done slowly and gently. When he appears at his parents’ door, they should just say, ‘Shhhhh — go back to bed.’ If they need to, they should get out of bed and walk him back to his room. No elaborate tuck-ins, hugs or cuddles. Once their child realizes there’s no benefit to waking up, he’ll stop.” Reichert suggests moving the back-to-sleep routine to the child’s bedroom. “They need to put a futon or something in his room so they can be there with him, and then gradually work their way out. It just takes a few days after each switch before the child gets it and gets used to it.”
Scenario: “I have an 11-month-old, a three-year-old and a six-year-old, all terrible sleepers as babies. I’m stuck in the rut of nursing the baby to sleep — and he’s waking every one to two hours! You’d think after two kids I would have learned my lesson, but here I am again.” Meredith Taylor, Bolton, Ont.
Suggestion: Maybe it’s time to stop nighttime nursing, says Reichert. “This child is waking up because he loves to nurse. You don’t have to wean him off breastfeeding just because you’re not going to nurse at night anymore.” Reichert admits that this will be hard in the beginning, but says, eventually, the baby will adjust. Otherwise, she cautions, “the night nursing can get out of control. You love your child. You want to be there for your child, but that doesn’t mean that at this stage you have to be so completely drained. You have to set your limits.”
What Worked for Us
“My daughter, Ava, is 5½ months old and has been sleeping through the night for about two months (though obviously we have our bad nights). I swear it has to do with our nightly routine. We eat dinner at 6:30, bathe right after, then it’s straight into pyjamas and one last cuddle and nursing. It stays the same, no matter what, no matter where we are.
“Another thing I did was turn down my monitor. I could hear Ava turn over from a mile away. I found that I was getting up and feeding her more than she needed. When I turned my monitor down, the whimpers and occasional snores were more subtle, and I started to be able to sleep right through them. Now I only get up with her when she really needs me.”
Miranda Morrison, Burlington, Ont.
“My three-year-old daughter, Sarah, was always a catnapper. Most nights after going to sleep, she would be up in half an hour — on and off through the night. When I went back to work when she was a year old, this situation became impossible. After three months of trying to let her cry it out, my husband and I were so sleep deprived that we finally gave up and decided she could sleep with us if that is what she needed. We all get a lot more sleep now. Some days I wonder if she will ever sleep in her own bed, but I also used to wonder if she would play with other kids and not need me by her side, and that has happened, so I’m sure one day she won’t want to sleep with us anymore.”
Debbie Hoffman, Kitimat, BC
“My son moved into his ‘big boy’ bed last January when he was 19 months old. I was transferring him to another room, so I knew I could take the time to get him used to the idea. In November, I painted his new room. In December, all of his new furniture came in and we made the bed and left it that way. Near the end of December, we started doing bedtime stories in the big bed, but he was still in the nursery and in his crib for sleeps. “In January, I moved his crib into the room so that he could still feel the comfort of his crib and get used to his new room. Once I felt he was ready, we moved him into his big bed, but left the crib in the room for another week. These days, he loves to get out of his bed in the morning and come running into our room and shouting, ‘Good morning, Mommy!’”
Laura McBride, Courtice, Ont.
Keep up with your baby's development, get the latest parenting content and receive special offers from our partners