In my last post, I shared my personal (and lifelong) struggle with insomnia. In this post, I want to share some of the most important tips about sleep that I’ve learned over the years. This post will depend heavily on the insights of Dr. Marc Weissbluth (Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child), who is a pediatrician sleep-specialist; and Dr. Gregg D. Jacobs (Say Good-Night to Insomnia). Both have conducted (and reviewed) a lot of scientific research on sleep, and I can personally attest that their recommendations and findings work.
Before I start, I want to clarify that while I do feel very strongly about this (because of my own intense, excruciating struggle with insomnia), I am not trying to make any person or parent feel guilty about their parenting styles or methods. My goal is not to create guilt. My goal is to potentially help more kids be well-rested, healthy, and happy. My goal is to prevent others from experiencing the limitations and pain I still experience from the handicap of insomnia. We all learn (or don’t learn) how to sleep as babies. I know firsthand the excruciating consequences of not learning to sleep as a baby–and I want parents to possess that knowledge, as well, and be empowered to prevent the same suffering and pain in their own child(ren).
No one will be able to follow sleep rules perfectly. There will always be occasional, important exceptions. Additionally, some kids have certain health problems that need to be fixed before good sleep can happen. And following sleep rules doesn’t guarantee a perfectly happy child. In my experience, it just helps a lot.
So, this post is an attempt to show the reality that we all need adequate sleep. For some, adequate sleep will come easily–these people naturally have strong “sleep systems.” For others, obtaining healthy sleep will take a lot more work–these people have strong “awake systems” and may have never learned to sleep as a baby. Additionally, we’re looking at overall sleep patterns. In other words, how many days a week are your kids getting the uninterrupted sleep they need? How many weeks per month are like that typical week? And on the average day, do your kids appear well-rested, alert, calm, and happy?
Some people may be excellent sleepers and just don’t understand why their kid won’t sleep! I want to share my viewpoint as a kid who never learned to sleep well as a baby and who, even as an adult, still struggles to obtain adequate rest.
Of course there will be exceptions to these “rules,” such as vacations, important events, etc. If your child is usually well-rested, those exceptions should only require a few days (or less) to recover from. My concern is that in our always-busy culture, adequate sleep has become the exception. Everywhere I go, I see exhausted kids who are throwing temper tantrums, and their parents are bewildered and frustrated. I’ve heard multiple people say that they don’t really enjoy time with their kids because of difficult, strong-willed behavior–they look forward to sending their kids off to daycare or school because their kids are just really hard to be around. If adequate sleep would improve the behavior of these kids and help heal some of these strained relationships, I want to help!
I’ve been that exhausted kid, so in my last post, I shared a little of what life is like when someone is chronically fatigued from poor sleep habits.
In this post, I want to share what research says about the importance of sleep. I’ll also cover a few basic guidelines to follow as a parent.
I know from experience that inadequate sleep can be debilitating, and I don’t want my own kids to suffer from sleep deprivation and insomnia like me. Perhaps your child struggles with sleep and you’re feeling frustrated, tired, and powerless. Or maybe your child is very difficult or strong-willed, and you feel like it could be connected to their poor sleep habits, but you don’t know where to turn. My hope is that some of these insights might prove helpful to someone who is struggling with sleep (their own or that of their children), because I know the ongoing pain of that struggle.
Why Sleep Matters
- Sleep “recharges” your brain, enabling you to be alert and calm (Weissbluth, pg.7).
- The process of falling asleep is learned (pg.7).
- Sleep begets sleep (the more rested you are, the easier you can fall asleep).
- Sleeplessness begets sleeplessness (p.113).
- “Sleep deficiency in childhood may harm neurological development; the problems [may] remain “hidden,” not showing up until later” (p.xix).
- Tired children (and adults) are more inattentive; unable to concentrate; distracted; physically impulsive; hyperactive; lazy (p.11); demanding; fussy; (p.25) less adaptable; (p.61) have drastic mood changes and temper tantrums; frustrated; and cry easily and often (p.394).
- Not learning to sleep as a baby often leads to lifelong insomnia (xix).
- It’s possible that sleep deprivation contributes to ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and learning disabilities (p.xix).
- Chronically tired kids often turn into chronically tired adults who suffer from “less resiliency, less ability to cope with life’s stress, less curiosity, less empathy, less playfulness” (p.xix).
- Chronic fatigue can lead to being accident-prone and sustaining more injuries (p.431).
- Chronic fatigue in 5-7 year olds has been shown to increase their chances of being overweight or obese (p.433).
- “Cumulative, chronic sleep losses, even of brief duration, may be harmful for learning” (p.62).
- Being overtired results in stress hormones (like adrenaline), which cause kids to appear “wired, wild, edgy, excitable, or unable to fall asleep easily or stay asleep” (p.113).
Adequate sleep drastically affects mood, concentration, the ability to learn and cope, and the ability to interact well with others. It’s a biological need, just like food.
5 Components of Healthy Sleep (p.14)
- Sleep duration (is it long enough?)
- Sleep consolidation (uninterrupted sleep vs. sleep fragmentation)
- Sleep schedule (is the timing of sleep coinciding with biological rhythms?)
- Sleep regularity (consistency is key)
These components interact to form the overall sleep pattern. If one or more of the components is missing or inadequate, the overall sleep won’t be as restorative or helpful.
5 Stages of Sleep (Dr. Jacobs, Say Goodnight to Insomnia, Ch. 2)
- Stage 1: drowsy, relaxed, ready for sleep (usually lasts a few minutes)
- Stage 2: light stage of sleep; awaken easily (for 30-45 min)
- Stage 3 and Stage 4: deep sleep, difficult to awaken, delta brain waves (45 min)
- Revert to stage 2 for a few min, then enter “dream sleep”
- REM or “dream sleep”: muscles paralyzed, “active brain in a paralyzed body” (variable length)
A good sleeper moves through this cycle in about 90 minutes, and then repeats the 90-min-long-cycle 4-6 times throughout the night.
Everyone has both an “awake system” and a “sleep system.” Some people naturally have a strong “awake system,” while others naturally have a strong “sleep system.” Those blessed with a strong sleep system can usually (easily) sleep very well. Those with a strong “awake system” and a weaker “sleep system” will have more difficulty getting adequate sleep. They, too, can learn to sleep well, but it will be more challenging.
Healthy Sleep Habits by Age (Weissbluth)
Sleep needs and patterns change dramatically in the first year of life. It’s hard to keep up! I’m going to review the basics so the information doesn’t become overwhelming. Feel free to ask questions or leave comments, and I’ll try to answer them. If you’re really struggling, find Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child at your local library or on amazon.com.
Months 0-4 (Ch.5)
Young infants vary in their ability to sleep–some are very easy babies, while others are quite fussy. But all babies this young should be soothed to sleep after 1-2 hours of being awake. That’s the simplest and best way to keep your baby happy and well-rested at this stage. My first 2 children could only stay awake for 1 hour before needing to go back to sleep; my third baby could last about 1.5 hours, sometimes a little more, before getting fussy and needing to go down.
- Motionless sleep is best (the most restorative) – the crib is better than a swing, stroller, car seat, etc.
- Soothing strategies that work: rhythmic rocking or walking; sucking (on a pacifier); swaddling
- Soothe to sleep within 1-2 hours of being awake
Months 5-12 (Ch.6)
- Morning nap develops: around 9 am
- Early afternoon nap develops: usually starts between 12-2 pm
- Late afternoon nap (needed by some babies): starts between 3-5 pm, usually very short duration
- Naps should last at least 45 min
- Bedtime: between 6-8 pm
- Morning wake up time: 6-8 am (for most kids–some may wake up a little earlier)
- Up until 9 months, some babies need to be fed 1-2 times at night because they’re hungry
- After 9 months, babies are not hungry at night and are waking up to play or because they haven’t yet learned to sleep. If they don’t learn now, they will usually develop progressive sleep problems.
- “The failure of children to fall asleep and stay asleep by themselves is the direct result of the parents’ failure to give their child their opportunity to learn these self-soothing skills” (p.272).
- Motionless sleep is best.
- Letting your child cry is really difficult. But watching them feel miserable from sleep-deprivation (and grow up to struggle with insomnia) is a lot worse.
- If your child won’t nap, let them fuss for 1 hour maximum to help them learn.
- If your child won’t go to sleep or stay asleep at night and you know they should be ready, there is no time limit on crying. However, this should only take a few nights (or less!).
- “Whenever parents, however well-intentioned, stop reinforcing a child’s night waking, the habit can be eliminated quickly…the whole process usually only takes a few days” (p.297).
Months 13-36 (Ch.7)
- Some kids drop their morning nap around 13-15 months
- Most kids drop their morning nap between 16-21 months
- Afternoon nap time: usually starts between 12-2pm
- Naps should last at least 1 hour
- Bedtime: between 6-8 pm
- Wake up time: 6-8 am
- “Getting up too early may be caused by going to sleep too late. Earlier bedtimes often prolong night sleep and prevent early wake-ups” (p.331).
- If your child climbs out of the crib, take him back to bed without talking–silent, unemotional; it’s not playtime.
3-6 years old (Ch.8)
- Some children drop their nap around 3 years old
- Naps are usually gone in almost all children by 6 years old
- When the nap disappears, your child may need an earlier bedtime to compensate.
- Bedtime: between 6-8 pm is still best; some kids may tolerate a later bedtime
7-12 years old (Ch.9)
- Bedtime moves later (usually between 7:30-10; 9 pm is the average)
This is a lot of information! It’s also tough to balance everything if you have multiple children; job commutes; activities you want to attend, etc. If it sounds like a ton of work, it truly is. But I can also assure you that having a well-rested, happy child is completely worth the effort. And preventing lifelong insomnia in your child is crucial.
The priority is establishing a routine that allows your children to obtain the sleep they need, and that routine should be followed the majority of the time. Exceptions, of course, will arise–but be prepared to go through sleep training again (after these exceptions) as your child “re-sets” to the normal routine.
Next post: Coping with insomnia (as an adolescent or adult).
[Note: If you come from a Christian background, I understand how this stance on healthy sleep can resemble “following the law” or keeping rules. Weren’t we set free from all that? Since we are no longer “slaves to the law,” why bother with rules? Perhaps some feel like I’m attempting to lay a heavy burden on their shoulders that they can’t (or shouldn’t have to) bear. I readily admit that I’m prone to trying to be good and working hard in an attempt to keep all the rules. However, the law isn’t the problem; the fact that none of us can follow it on our own is the problem. The law paints a picture of reality: It shows us that we were made to love and be loved, and then it shows us that no one can truly and consistently love. Love is willing self-sacrifice for the good of another; love is meeting the needs of another even at great cost to oneself. True love is beautiful and utterly beyond our capabilities, because we are all broken and selfish.
The law shows us the reality (and beauty) that God intends for us, and then it shows how we all fall short. Once we truly realize that we literally can’t love (i.e. be good enough) on our own, then we are in the position to see the immense, breathtaking beauty of our Rescuer. Once we realize we can’t do it, we can’t help but love and adore Jesus, who did it for us and is now rescuing us so that, one day, we also will be able love and know we are loved!
The law is necessary because it shows us reality and points us to the truth that we desperately need help. We desperately need grace, or help in being able to love and be loved. Ignoring the law doesn’t help anyone; it is intended to point to our desperate need and then point to the Rescuer who meets us, right where we are, in our desperate need.
So, while the law does create guilt initially, God’s end goal is the ability to dance in the freedom to love that Jesus bestows and grows in us. The goal is freedom and joy–the goal is the ability to do what we were created to do! The 2 main problems involving the law are a) not knowing the law (and, therefore, thinking you’re fine), or b) knowing the law but thinking you can follow it quite well enough on your own.
Sleep facts and God’s law are obviously not synonymous, so the analogy has many holes, but I did want to mention it. Bottom line: No one will be able to follow sleep rules perfectly. There will always be occasional, important exceptions. We are all broken and live in a broken world; nothing is ideal; everyone will make mistakes and everyone will be tired sometimes. And following sleep rules doesn’t guarantee a perfectly happy child. In my experience, it just helps a lot.]