Sleep like a baby Our comprehensive sleep guide for children
Our comprehensive sleep guide for children – from newborns to preschoolers – addresses the most important questions about forty winks, says Terésa Coetzee
CHILDREN AND THEIR sleeping habits – it’s probably one of the most talkedabout topics among parents.
How many times have you listened to stories (a little jealously) about the wonder baby that started sleeping through at four weeks?
And then there’s the big debate about where children should sleep: in their own beds or snugly between Mom and Dad in a cosy family bed? Not to mention the best age to send your little one to his own room...
The good news is that there are no set rules and regulations about children or their sleeping habits. Just as some kids eat well and others don’t, some sleep well and others not so much. There are no quick fixes, but we do have some guidelines to make everyone’s life a little easier.
KEEPING YOUR TINY BABY AWAKE DURING THE DAY SO THAT SHE SLEEPS BETTER AT NIGHT IS NOT THE SOLUTION
NEWBORN TO 6 WEEKS
Newborn babies sleep for the biggest part of the day – about 18 to 20 hours out of the 24-hour cycle. Your baby won’t easily stay awake for longer than 40 to 60 minutes at a time before falling asleep again. But remember that she’ll want to nurse every two to three hours, although some babies kick off with a four-hour cycle. (Breast babies often want to drink more regularly than bottle babies, as breast milk digests quicker.)
Erica Neser, author of the book Sleep Guide for Babies and Toddlers, writes that many newborns sleep best on Mom or Dad’s chest or at least next to them in bed. In his book Touching, Ashley Montagu even refers to the first couple of months of a baby’s life as the external pregnancy phase.
As the parents, the decision about where your newborn baby will sleep – in bed with you or in her own cot – rests with you. This has been debated for years, but it all depends on your preference. Sleeping problems in newborn babies are often attributed to the children feeling insecure and restless in the big beds in which they’re suddenly expected to sleep. Remember, for nine months your child was safely and snugly wrapped up in your womb – no wonder all the space around her is suddenly intimidating.
Try a portable bed or cradle rather than a standard or camping cot, and swaddle her firmly in a blanket. (Some babies don’t like their hands being tightly swaddled in a blanket. You’ll quickly realise if she prefers her hands above the covers.)
“If a baby lies on her side, it’s easier for her to calm herself by sucking her hand or holding them together. It’s an innate way in which babies soothe themselves. If you put your hands on her shoulder and hip and gently rock her, she feels like she’s being picked up,” Erica explains.
DAY AND NIGHT
You can start getting your newborn baby into good sleeping habits by using an evening routine to separate day and night.
Limit stimulation during the evening routine, and create a calm environment. Draw the curtains, play gentle music, limit eye contact and talking. After her last feed, allow her to sleep until she wakes up herself. There should be no unnecessary cuddling during night feeds, and lights should be low and eye contact, talking and stimulation limited.
It might be a good plan to have a routine from the get-go. You can perhaps bath her, feed her and then sing lullabies or read to her to help her relax. Even if your newborn is too young to understand these signs, the routine will quickly become part of her little frame of reference.
But keep in mind that it will take a good couple of weeks before your baby will understand this routine and then start to distinguish between day and night. And there are no secret tips to speed up this process.
Always be aware of safety. Don’t put anything in the cot that could hamper breathing – this includes toys, cushions and blankets. Also avoid objects with strings and ribbons and sharp edges or corners.
Have your baby sleep on her back. There’s a strong correlation between cot death and babies who sleep on their tummies. If a baby’s lying on her tummy, the chances of her smothering are so much greater, and she’ll also inhale her own carbon dioxide over and over because she’s not yet able to change the position of her head.
Remember, babies who are overly tired tend to struggle even more to sleep well during the night compared to those who also got good forty winks during the day. To keep your tiny baby awake during the day so that she sleeps better at night is not the solution.
A newborn baby cannot be spoilt! If your baby cries or is niggly, it’s completely fine to rock and pacify her until she calms down. Studies have even shown that babies who’re picked up and carried around quite often are less prone to colic.
6 TO 12 WEEKS
Well, the honeymoon is over, for now. The reason why newborns sleep continuously and so well is because there are still remnants of the mom’s melatonin (a sleeping hormone) in baby’s blood. After two weeks the melatonin
is exhausted, and it takes a further four weeks before she starts making her own. Yet it only kicks in by 12 to 16 weeks, round about the same time when baby’s sleeping patterns start to become fixed.
Your baby’s already sleeping a little less and should sleep for 16 to 18 hours of the 24-hour cycle. She probably needs three naps in the day, one long and two short ones. You’ll find she becomes tired after being awake for 60 to 80 minutes. Your baby can still wake up at night for a feed, but one of her night feeds (usually the one at ten or eleven at night) should now start falling away. Your baby can now also start sleeping for six or seven hours before waking for a feed.
Remember to never force a baby of this age to sleep or skip a feed. Her body has to be ready first.
Starting with solids now (before 4-6 months) won’t ensure she sleeps through – in fact, it can just make her sleeping pattern worse.
It’s usually during this time that baby starts struggling to stay asleep through sounds and noises compared to when she was a newborn. Although experts say the house doesn’t need to be dead quiet for a baby to sleep, you may start realising that she does need silence for her naps.
“Give her the opportunity to sleep in peace and quiet, at least for certain times of the day. You can teach older children to respect ‘quiet time’ when noises start waking baby. Background music can help to dim unavoidable noise a little,” Erica says.
3 TO 6 MONTHS
By this time you shouldn’t be up every two or three hours anymore. Your little one should sleep for six to eight hours during the day and for 10 to 12 hours during the night (a total of 14 to 18 hours in a 24-hour cycle).
If your baby is healthy and happy, she can now sleep eight to ten hours continuously at night before she wakes up for a feed. (If it hasn’t happened yet, it doesn’t necessarily mean she’s unhealthy and unhappy.)
She’ll enjoy three or four naps during the day, depending on her awake times, which now last 90 minutes. By six months your baby will probably cut down her daytime naps to two a day.
By the age of six months, babies are physically able to sleep through the night. Whether she will in fact do so, is another issue.
That would probably depend on whether she’s learnt the correct sleeping habits and patterns by now.
AWAKE TIMES BETWEEN NAPS
According to Ann Richardson and Megan Faure (authors of the book series Baby Sense), babies and children can stay awake for this long before they become overtired:
6 TO 9 MONTHS
Your baby should be sleeping between 14 and 16 hours in a 24-hour cycle by now. If she eats properly, she can sleep 10 to 12 hours at night before her next feed. Don’t give her milk when she wakes at night. She probably also only takes two daytime naps now, of an hour-and-a-half to two hours each.
By this time, your baby should know exactly how your bedtime routine works (and she can even start coming up with schemes to stretch it out or postpone it a little!). Again ensure that you follow the routine in the same order. Your baby will love the predictable repetition.
Fix your child’s daytime routine, so that naps take place around the same time during the day. Give her enough opportunity to put herself to sleep. Try not to create a dependence on rocking or either a breast- or bottle feed to get her to fall asleep.
Babies who never had problems with sleeping can now suddenly wake up, as separation anxiety starts emerging at
this age. If your baby goes to bed after half past eight in the evening, she can also wake during the night. It may sound strange, but she’ll probably sleep better if you put her down earlier (between six and eight o’clock). Erica Neser writes in Sleep Guide for Babies and Toddlers that teething is one of the biggest reasons why sleeping habits take a turn for the worse from six months. It can cause sleep disruption for three to four days before and after the tooth makes its appearance.
9 TO 12 MONTHS
She should now sleep between 14 and 15 hours in her 24-hour cycle.
Your child no longer needs to eat or drink before she goes to bed, so try not to get to a place where she associates bedtime with a feed. By now, she’s able to sleep 10 to 12 hours without needing to feed.
She should take two hour-and-a-half to two-hour naps during the day. Ensure she gets enough sleep, as it’s essential for her development.
1 – 2 YEARS
According to Ann Richardson in the book Sleep Sense there are no definite answers as to how much sleep a toddler needs. For her, it’s determined by age, personality, health and stimulation. By this time you should know when she’s tired, though.
But a toddler between 12 and 24 months can’t really stay awake longer than three to three-and-a-half hours between naps. And if she wakes by four o’clock in the afternoon, she should go down for the night by half past seven.
You might consider getting her a bedmate such as a bear if she has separation anxiety. Avoid large posters, paintings and stuff that might look frightening when she wakes up at night.
3 YEARS +
Night terrors and nightmares characterise this age group. These concepts are important to understand. She might also be scared of sleeping in the dark. A night-light might solve this.
If she wakes up crying and screaming, go and put her at ease. Don’t shrug off her fears. If you feel they happen too often, you can take her to a paediatrician. She might have other underlying fears or a problem with adjusting.
Nightmares are quite common at this stage, as well as talking in her sleep. Support her and tell her that you understand. Some children find comfort in a special toy they can take with them to bed. Monitor what your child watches on television.
Other problems that can occur in this age group: • Your child wakes often at night. • She struggles to fall asleep. • She wets her bed. • She gnashes her teeth. For all children of this age, bedtime is generally associated with separation from Mommy and Daddy. To avoid common sleep problems, it’s important for you to have a fixed and regular bedtime routine.
THE TWO BIGGEST SLEEP PROBLEMS
Problem 1: Your older baby or toddler still takes milk at night
When older babies ask for regular night feeds, it is usually because they associate this habit with sleep rather than that they are really hungry or thirsty. So you need to distinguish between “need” and “want”.
This behaviour usually develops gradually because as the parent you seek the quickest and easiest solution to a problem, especially if you’re tired. In this case it’s to give baby another bottle and getting back into your own bed as fast as possible. This is a short-term solution for a long-term problem, though.
Regular milk feeds at night give baby kilojoules (energy), quicken her metabolism, stimulate digestion, cause discomfort because of a full bladder and a wet nappy, and influences her hormone balance. And so a vicious cycle develops: The little one eats badly during the day because of lots of milk at night, which mom gives to make up for the little she ate during the day. Before long the habit is fostered, and the little one then starts expecting a feed in order to fall asleep. Solution: There are two approaches to solve this problem: Separate baby from the feed gradually, or take it away in one go.
It’s important that both parents consider what route to go and make the decision together. Also decide during the day how you’ll react if your little one wakes up during the night. It’s difficult enough to make decisions during the night, and if you’re suffering from chronic sleep deprivation, it’s even harder.
Do your best to remain calm and not
become angry when baby wakes up at night. If your stress levels start going up, you’ll battle to fall asleep when baby finally does. A few ideas: • Try giving water or weak, black rooibos tea instead of milk. • Dilute her milk gradually until it’s so watery that it’s no longer worth her while waking up for it. • Give her 25ml less per bottle per night. But ensure that she still gets the recommended amount of milk in a 24hour cycle. • Always try and get her to fall asleep without a bottle, and try and stretch the times between bottles. • Replace the bottle with a sippy cup or a bottle with a lid that needs to be sucked. • If she asks for more, you’ll have to stand firm and console her in a different way until she falls asleep. • If she asks for multiple bottles at night, you can decide to give her only one and use other methods for every time she wakes up at night. In this way, she won’t need to suddenly get used to going from say 600ml to nothing per night. • You can replace the bottle as a sleeping aid with another like a dummy, rocking or rubbing her back. You can later withdraw the new aid – it’s usually not as hard to break as with the drinking association. • Another plan is to cut the bottle completely during the night and only offer water in a sippy cup. That’s when you’re feeling brave and ready for a couple of wild nights. It can be done! The secret is lots of patience, love and courage. Hold her upright on your lap, and give her a couple of sips. When she’s done drinking, you can rock her to sleep or put her back in her bed. • Sometimes it helps when Dad rather than Mom takes her under his wing at night. Problem 2: Your baby or toddler only wants to sleep in your bed
It’s entirely natural for children to want to be close to their parents day and night, especially in winter! This doesn’t mean that your children will want to sleep with you in your bed forever. At some point in their lives, most children want to have their own little spot to sleep! Studies have shown that sleeping in the family bed (when it’s handled correctly) does not only create a feeling of safety but also helps children to become well adjusted and balanced adults. It’s even been claimed that all children should sleep with their parents until they’re five!
It is a fairly recent phenomenon in our history that children sleep alone. The family bed was the norm until about 100 years ago, and it still is in most parts of the world.
There is no right or wrong place for your child to sleep. Do what works for you and your family. The best sleeping place for your child is where every member of the family will get the most shut-eye.
Some parents decide to keep their baby in the bed up until a certain age, or that the baby sleeps in her own bed for the first part of the night and joins them in the family bed later. Don’t break your head about what others do or say. It’s you who needs to sleep, not them.
“Sleeping musical chairs” is more common than you think, and is considered completely normal. It’s where one or more children come crawling into bed with Mom and Dad during the night, and Mom or Dad goes to sleep in the spare room or in one of the children’s beds until the sun’s up. You never know where you’ll wake up!
THIS IS HOW TO GET THEM INTO THEIR OWN BED:
• You can keep a mattress under your bed, and if your toddler comes to your room at night, whip it out and have her sleep there until morning. • If your little one wants to move from your bed to her own room, first have her sleep on her own mattress next to your bed. Thereafter, you can move her mattress to her own room. Another strategy is to sleep with her in her room until she’s adjusted. Then you can gradually move out of the room. • Some families have a children’s bed, where a toddler can share a double bed with an older sibling. • Children older than three can be given a star chart rewarding them for good nights. • Try and get your little one as far as falling asleep in her own bed and staying there for the first half of the night. That gives Mom and Dad time to spend some special alone time with each other in their room. It’s also important! • Many children ask their parents to lie with them until they fall asleep. It’s not wrong – if it’s practical and it works, it’s actually nothing to worry about. Regard it as your special time with your little one. Massage her back while you tell her a story. • The “disappearing chair” works quite well with very young children. Sit with her on her bed at first. Tomorrow night you sit at the foot of the bed, and then on a chair by the foot of the bed. Move the chair a little closer to the door every night. It might sound strange, but it can work very well! Don’t allow your child to start chatting to you. If she keeps talking, leave (but tell her you’ll come back when she stops talking).
Don’t lose faith – children also grow out of this phase. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself or your child to grow up or become independent. Research has shown that children who are cherished often, later become more independent than children who are pressured to become (too) independent from a young age. YB
JUST LIKE SOME CHILDREN EAT WELL AND OTHERS DON’T, SOME SLEEP WELL AND OTHERS DON’T