The road to great sleep

I read an opinion article in the NY Times yesterday that discussed sleep and ADHD. I found it to be quite interesting mostly because it validated one of my long held views of how important sleep is for a healthy person. The article suggested that one possible culprit of the increase in ADHD in recent years could be due to lack of sleep. Interesting…And two, the author suggests that kids these days are just not getting enough sleep, which I totally agree with. My motto from day one (of having a child!) has been sleep begets more sleep.

OK I don’t profess to be an expert on sleep. I only know what worked for our one child. And to be completely honest, my son did not sleep  through the night consistently until he was 10 months old. But he currently, at 2.5 is the most amazing sleeper with no fuss or drama in regards to nap or bedtimes. Is it learned behavior or genetics? Can’t answer that one, but I can tell you what we did and you can test it out yourself ;)

For new parents, I often recommend the book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child which I loved. But I have found that people who are not into reading research or medical type writing don’t seem to enjoy this book as much as I did. Granted his writing style and organization of the book isn’t the easiest, but it’s the content that I found to be the most helpful and the fact that so much of it is science based. I read probably 3 or 4 sleep books and this one seemed to be closely aligned to our son’s natural sleep patterns, so we decided to follow along with many of his suggestions and philosophies.

People ask me how I got so lucky to have such a great sleeper. I don’t quite think it was all luck, although it could be partly due to good sleeping genes as both my husband and myself enjoy sleeping! In trying to think about what exactly we did do, I’ve come up with this list of what I think contributed to Cian’s good sleep habits.

  1. Swaddling. We loved swaddling, but some people just aren’t into it. We did it for every nap and sleep until our son was close to 6 months old. After he continued to break out of the swaddle, we switched to sleep sacks until he was around 2 yrs old. Some people believe that their child doesn’t really like to be swaddled. Perhaps, but I think they don’t like it because they know how effective it is! As soon as you swaddle a baby they will be out like a light. If you find they keep putting their arms out, you could try just swaddling one arm. But the point of swaddling is that it helps keep their limbs from moving around when they are asleep, thereby waking them up. And yes sometimes they will struggle when you wrap them up tightly, but stick with it and they will get it.DSC_3207
  2. Put your baby down before s/he falls asleep, when they are drowsy. This is not always easy when breast feeding, but we would try. Often our son would wake up a bit when being transferred from the breast feeding pillow to the diaper changing pad. For us, this was  good, because it enabled us to put him to bed drowsy and he was able to learn to self sooth. Occasionally we would have to pat his tummy a bit or his head just to let him know we were there and it was ok to go back to sleep. But we tried not to do this consistently so that it would create a dependency.
  3. Pay attention to your baby’s sleep signs.  At infancy, babies all have different sleep signals, so you will have to pay close attention to your baby to figure out what are the signs they show before they are sleepy. It is really important that you catch them in that perfect period before they become over tired. As long as you can do that, you will have no problems getting them to sleep and it should all be tear free (so says Dr. Weissbluth in Healthy Sleep Habits and we found the same to be true as well.) Some examples from our experiences are distant eyes, quiet lull, rubbing eyes, yawn, heavy eye lids. Now with a toddler we find that he gets hyper instead of mellow when he is becoming tired.  Along with sleep signals, I read somewhere that you have 3 yawns to get your baby to sleep. Your goal should be to get your baby ready and in bed before the third yawn! It is really important to avoid getting your child over tired. As soon as they become over tired they will cry and resist going to sleep.
  4. More sleep begets more sleep! I know some people have a hard time with this, but babies and children NEED a lot of sleep and the more sleep they get, the better sleepers they will be. At one point in my son’s early life he went to bed at 5:30 pm! We found that if he went to bed at that time he would sleep until 1 or 2 a.m. uninterrupted, whereas if I tried to wait until 7 he was over tired and would wake up every 1-2 hrs. He now goes to sleep anytime between 6:30-7:30 p.m. I prefer the earlier side, but it’s not always possible with the busy life of a toddler :)  One thing people often say is “oh we need to push bed time to 8 because otherwise we don’t get to see our child before bed”. Nope. You can wait. S/he NEEDS to go to sleep earlier. If you don’t make it home before their bed time, then you will have to just see them in the morning.  Mean I know, but whenever I hear people complain about how wild or grumpy their kid is when they come home from work in the evening all I can think is that their child probably should already be asleep. Sometimes as parents we have to sacrifice things that we want with what is best for our child. And trust me, sleep is as important as good nutrition.
  5. Don’t wake up the baby unless it is to keep to the schedule, but also don’t go out in the car between nap times knowing the baby will fall asleep in the car! I see people make this mistake all the time. “Oh I need to go to the grocery store” well if your child will sleep in the car seat, then wait until it is nap time to go and let them sleep on the way and then sleep while you push them around thDSC_6462e grocery store, but do not go when they are supposed to be awake! Use their awake time to be interactive.
  6. Create a sleep ritual and be consistent with it from the beginning. At infancy, we would feed our son, change his diaper and then swaddle him before every sleep. This ritual has pretty much stayed the same for the past 2.5 years. As Cian got older and began having regular baths his night time ritual became dinner, bath, books, sleep sack and  sleep.  Our current ritual even with a toddler looks quite similar with lunch, potty and then nap or dinner, bath, books and then bed. He knows exactly what is coming next and is ready for it without any fuss. We stick to this routine even if we are running late. We will shorten the bath or read fewer books or whatever we need to do, but this is the nightly routine. Now as a toddler, our son walks into his room, shuts the door and gets into bed himself for nap. These are the habits you want to create.
  7. Minimize the sleep aids. I always wanted our son to be a good sleeper anywhere, not just in his bedroom. So for that reason we did not prescribe to black out curtains, white noise machines, rocking chairs, swings, vibrating chairs, etc. If you can’t take it with you, then don’t do it, or at least that was my philosophy.  We have ended up having 2 sleep aids that have developed organically over time. Cian had a music box in his room that he liked to play with in his crib. Now that has become something he likes to take with him and play before he falls asleep at night. Luckily it is small enough that we can travel with it, otherwise we would have to toss it! And the second is a lovey that someone gave us. He initially used it to cover his face while sleeping (scarily enough at a young age even!) and now still likes to have it when he goes to sleep. Otherwise he doesn’t need the room to be dark, quiet or even be in his own room. As long as he has even one of those two things, he will be asleep in a flash. (And often he will go to sleep with neither because he has left one or the other in another room!) Don’t create sleep aids for your child – if they develop them on their own, then go with it, but don’t decide what you think they need.
  8. Crib. Obviously parents into co-sleeping wont agree with this, but I personally feel it’s really important that the baby gets used to sleeping by himself from the beginning. Cian slept in a co-sleeper type pack-n-play next to our bed for 7 months, but he was always in his own flat surfaced bed. He then transitioned easily into his crib and then into a toddler bed.  If they get used to sleeping next to you, or even in a swing, they are going to want to always sleep next to you or in a swing. Remember what ever habits you create now, will last for a long while!
  9. DSC_4623Don’t be quiet! Don’t feel like you need to be ultra quiet around your sleeping child. they will adapt to noise, trust me! Our son was born in India during one of the loudest festivals with bands playing all day long, fire crackers and yelling and screaming, er I mean singing! By the time he was 4 weeks old another major festival occurred with LOUD firecrackers banging up against his window for 3+ days straight. Not a peep out of him. Here (see photo) he is around 5 months old sleeping in an auto rickshaw as we did a treasure hunt around noisy Bandra. Currently his room is right next to our living room where we watch TV at night and it never ever wakes him up. Shockingly, he even sleeps through the smoke alarm that often goes off right outside his room (we have no exhaust over the stove!).
  10. Do not to over dress your child. I had heard and found it to be true myself that kids will sleep better when they are cooler. Cian always had an air conditioner running in his room in India and now without one, we adjust his clothes to the temperature so that he will sleep well.

At the end of the day, as a sleepy parent you just need to do what you have to do to get your child to sleep, but try to keep in mind that whatever habits you start your with child, you will have to either wean them from or deal with for years to come. Pacifiers, noise machines, baby swings, black out curtains, silence while they are sleeping, sippy cups, you name it. And what ever good habits you start from a young age will stay with your child through the ages (self soothing, sleeping on a hard flat surface, sleeping alone).  Sleep well!

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5 Responses to The road to great sleep

  1. shannon says:

    this sounds a lot like isabel, but lately she has been having night disturbances even though we did pretty much the same thing you’re doing. (her sleep aid was her thumb- it still is. hard habit to break.) she now has a need for a light to be on low to sleep and she gets up most days of the week at least 3 times and comes out bc she says she had a bad dream. (i don’t think that’s true- i just think she wants company and the bad dream is an excuse most of the time.) sometimes she comes into our room around 1 or 2 am and sleeps with us for a little while. just saying that at 2.5 if your kid is a rock solid sleeper that is great but you never know they might go through some restless periods later on, regardless of your best efforts! :) enjoy the long unbroken nights of sleep as much as you can! if i could go back in time, i would have gone to bed earlier to give myself more rest.

    • kkowen says:

      Oh I didn’t mean to say that we get uninterrupted sleep every night! Ha he is just a good sleeper who is happy to go to sleep. We still get nights like you mention! And I’m sure we will again have bad periods, but when it compares to people who have to lay down with their kids for hours to get them to sleep or they cry every night etc. this is a much happier path at least for us! And you know what, when they are grown and we don’t get to snuggle anymore, we may wish we let them be poor sleepers a bit more so we got more snuggles! Xo

      • Shannon says:

        Yes I think you’re right. While I always breathe a sigh of relief when both girls are finally asleep for the night, some day soon they won’t live under the same roof, and ill definitely miss them, even though its tiring now :) have to savor these snuggly days!

  2. Caryl says:

    Karilyn – great article! I remember going through those first few months / years with you. You were always a good source of info on sleep. Thankfully both my kiddies seem to sleep well although we have been through tough nights during teething, fevers, potty training and good old jet lag! What I have come to learn is that habits can be changed in a matter of a few days if you are not careful, or if you want to change them. It takes a little bit of tough love sometimes but kids quickly recognize what the rules are, how to push buttons and WHO or who won’t give in to the pushing!!! Anyway I am glad Cian is still a great sleeper – well trained!!

    • kkowen says:

      Yes it was thanks to you that I kept up with it all! Martha was always so good at sleeping so I knew it was possible. I always wonder if I would have really stuck to 7-7 if I hadn’t been there. Lots if people in the US don’t seem to be as into it as we all were! In a previous edit I had a whole section about how I moaned to you about how I never got to sleep through the night ;) miss getting to share all the toddler trials and tribulations with you. Xo