There’s no doubt that sleep is important for all of us, including our children. “Sleep gives cells a chance to regenerate, muscles to repair themselves, and the brain a chance to recalibrate hormone levels that affect mood, appetite and ability to focus,” says Dr Margaret Richards, director at the Paediatric Behavioural Health Department at Cleveland Clinic in the US. “Sleep really impacts how well kids’ brains function. Although most of us think sleep is automatic, the truth is that we must teach our babies to sleep just like we have to teach them manners later on.”
The good news is, we can help our children learn good sleep habits from as young as five to six months, which they’ll carry through into toddlerhood and beyond.
Start by avoiding these common sleep disruptors, and always seek professional advice when in doubt.
Feeding to sleep
Although you want to ensure that your baby doesn’t go to sleep hungry, many sleep experts agree that it’s important not to rely on feeding to get your little one to sleep, and, in fact, there should be a break in between the two, so that children don’t associate feeding with sleeping.
If you always breastfeed right before putting your little one down, she’ll more than likely become dependent on you and the breast to get back to sleep in the middle of the night, as wellness expert and new mom Lisa Raleigh experienced.
“Before I met with a sleep training consultant from Mom’s Helper in Cape Town, my six-month-old daughter, Bella, would wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle and not know how to soothe herself back to sleep. This would sometimes happen three to five times a night, and I was starting to feel really tired and desperate” explains Lisa.
“I often fed Bella to sleep and offered her the breast every time she moaned. However, after working with the sleep consultant for at least a week, we gradually switched the routine and fed Bella as soon as she woke up and then again before her next sleep, but making sure that she was fully awake and alert during feeds. Now when she wakes up in the morning, we open the curtains, I chat to her a bit, and then I offer her milk. I also avoid feeding her in the same room as where she sleeps, to ensure she doesn’t associate the two together,” says Lisa. “This simple change, and a few other tweaks, has made the world of difference, and now Bella will sleep between 10 and 11 hours a night without needing me to help her fall asleep.”
Napping on the go
Your baby should nap in her crib as much as possible. “If she often falls asleep in a stroller or a car seat, she’s going to associate motion with sleep and have a hard time nodding off without it,” says Jodi Mindell, associate director of the Sleep Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia in the US.
“An occasional nap in the car or pram often can’t be avoided, but it shouldn’t become a regular occurrence,” adds Johannesburg-based sleep consultant and owner of Pikanini Baby Academy, Una Van Staden. This is because restorative (deep) sleep takes place when your little one is sleeping on a still surface, such as a cot. Although motion such as rocking or a moving car can be calming for children, it only promotes a light sleep phase, and as soon as the car stops moving, your child will more than likely wake up.
Too much awake time
If you’re dealing with multiple night wake-ups or your child’s up too early in the morning (before or about 5am), she could be overtired from an inappropriate wake time (the total time she’s awake from one sleep to the next, including feeding, eating, playing and nappy changes).
“Babies who are kept awake more than their age-appropriate awake-time schedule become overtired, which is a condition between being tired and exhausted,” says Una. She explains that this condition activates a child’s stress response system, which can result in extreme fussiness and a child who struggles to fall asleep and stay asleep.
To avoid this, parents should watch for signals that indicate that your baby is getting tired, in conjunction with the awake-time schedule.
Here’s a sample schedule:
- One to two months: awake time of 40-60 minutes.
- Two to three months: awake time of 60-90 minutes.
- Four to six months: awake time of 90 minutes to two hours.
- Six to 12 months: awake time of two to three and half hours, depending on nap lengths.
“It’s also important to watch for sleep cues,” advises Una. “Younger babies tend to suck on their fists to soothe themselves, whereas older babies may rub their eyes or pull on their ears to indicate that they’re tired,” she adds. The aim is not to allow your little one to become overtired and to stick to a regular bedtime and naptime schedule.
Not feeding enough during the day
When you’re ready to introduce solids to your baby, at about six months, don’t be afraid to offer a variety of foods from all the essential food groups, including protein, fats, carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables. (Always speak to your paediatrician first if you suspect your child has any food allergies.)
One common mistake most parents make is to only offer breast milk during the day, which often results in a hungry baby before bed. “I exclusively breastfed Bella for the first six months, with a few snacks such as a piece of fruit or veggie puree, but soon realised that as she got older, she needed more and would get hungry faster,” explains Lisa.
“My sleep consultant explained that protein and healthy fats, such as avocado, are important to sustain a baby in the day and night. We eliminated the hunger factor by feeding Bella more in the day. For example, we start the day by offering her milk, followed by breakfast, a good snack an hour later, then lunch, which always includes a source of protein, then milk before her next nap, followed by a snack and dinner, plus another snack and milk before bed. All her meals now include protein, such as cheese, chicken, eggs, fish or meat, plus fat, veggies, fruit and unprocessed carbohydrates like rice or oats.”
Tammy is a wife, mom and freelance writer with 15 years’ experience in the media industry. She specialises in general lifestyle topics related to health, wellness and parenting. Tammy has a passion for fitness and the great outdoors. If she’s not running around after her daughter, you’ll find her off the beaten track, running, hiking or riding her bike.