First Steps to a Healthy Relationship with Sleep
by Carol Castanon and Andi Metlzer
For many people, there is nothing better than falling into bed after a long day. For adults, the idea of a cozy bed can make them giddy with joy as they think about laying their head on a fluffy pillow and snuggling down into their comforter. But, before a restful snooze commences, adults go through short rituals to prepare for the night’s sleep. Adults do have strategies that help them transition to sleep. For some, it’s a favorite position, reading a book before bed, or opening a window. Adults may not think about it, but those nightly steps help to begin the journey into peaceful sleep.
When babies don’t sleep well we search for an explanation. Is it teething, are they hungry, do they have gas? Are these the reasons babies don’t sleep? Sometimes these reasons are absolutely true. Excluding the obvious reasons, many babies don’t sleep well because they are learning how to calm themselves into sleep, and back to sleep without the company of another.
Many parents think their babies can’t fall asleep without a bottle, nursing or being rocked. This may be the case, but what’s happened is that these babies have begun to rely on an external prop to fall asleep. It may be a parent’s touch, breath, smell or voice that sooth a baby to sleep. The sensory experience of safe is very powerful for the young. In the middle of the night, they may awake fully and cry out to be soothed back to sleep. They have not learned how to fall asleep on their own, or to get back to sleep after waking.
The good news is independent sleep skills can be nurtured in infants and toddlers. Learning these skills at a young age not only provides babies with healthy sleep, but it allows for pleasurable bedtimes. What can parents do to encourage a healthy relationship with sleep? Incorporating consistency and routine into bedtime is a start. It’s good to know consistent bedtime rituals are often unique to each individual family.
Babies and children need structure to help guide them to sleep. By providing them with a consistent routine they know what to expect at bedtime and it makes for a much easier transition from waking to sleeping. Choosing 3-5 steps, or routines, will help cue their bodies that it’s time to wind down and feel safe during the process. Several great steps to a 30 – 45 minute bedtime routine might include:
A bath – it’s a perfect first step that indicates bedtime.
Jammies and brushing teeth – it’s a perfect opportunity to be together.
Books or song, sleep sack and cuddles – this is a perfect way to settle toward sleep.
Self-regulation or Self-nurturing
Some babies are easier to soothe and easily find their way to sleep. While other babies or young children might need more help getting to sleep. Finding the balance between helping your child and guiding falling asleep skills, or creating too much co-dependent behavior can feel confusing. Nighttime parenting can be a difficult time to parent. Noticing what works, what is being taught, and what a child is trying to learn is a good step toward a clearer parent perspective. A clear path can be very helpful as children feel the tension or calm a parent brings to nurturing sleep.
Nighttime can also be a time when feelings emerge around an experience. Is a child managing a separation, an illness in the family or loss of a special person? Has a parent gone back to work, or has the family moved? Is there a new school, or has a new milestone been reached? Has your baby just learned to stand or walk? These are the kinds of questions that nurture a deeper understanding of a child’s experience and may help in finding the words of comfort or information children sometimes need.
When babies and children are getting the necessary amount of sleep they learn how good it feels to be rested and recognize when their bodies are tired. Well rested families are happier and healthier. However, some nights may be more wakeful than others. An underlying blueprint for good sleep provides a landscape for returning to good sleep patterns even after interruptions from illness, dreams, bed wetting etc. Interestingly, one good sleep is more likely to follow another. Nurturing the skill of good sleep is protective and has positive implications throughout childhood!