7 Tips to Improve Your Child’s Sleep…Tonight!
Since becoming a pediatric sleep professional, I have gotten used to people asking me what the “secret” is to getting a baby to sleep through the night.
Of course, there is no ONE secret. Teaching a child healthy sleep habits is a combination of lots of different things. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some shortcuts to push your little one in the right direction!
In private consultations, I find that many families are making the same mistakes, and sometimes it’s just one or two tweaks that can make all the difference. With that in mind, today I am going to share 7 different shortcuts you can start trying over the next few nights to help your child start sleeping better.
Sleep Shortcut #1: Watch the Waking Hours
One of the BIGGEST enemies of sleep, especially for babies and toddlers, is over-tiredness! Many parents are surprised to learn just how soon their children get overtired! In fewer cases, the parents missed the signals that their baby was actually ready for a little bit more awake time, which can also result in shorter naps.
Here is a quick guide to how long your child should be awake between naps during the day:
Birth – 10 weeks: 45 minutes – 1 hour of awake time
11 weeks – 3.5 months: 1 – 1 ½ hours of awake time
3 ½ - 5 Months: 1 ½ - 2 ¼ hours of awake time
5 ½ - 7 months: 2 ½ - 3 hours of awake time
8 – 15 months (or until on 1 nap a day): 3 – 4 hours of awake time
15 months to 3 years (1 nap a day): 5 – 6 hours of awake time
If you make sure that your child is put down for naps within their ideal awake window and BEFORE they get overtired, you will find that they fall asleep more easily at nap time AND that they are more relaxed at bedtime too!
Sleep Shortcut #2: Don’t Be Afraid of The Dark
We humans (babies and toddlers included) sleep best in the dark. Try making your child’s room as dark as possible. If you aren’t interested in changing your child’s room décor by investing in new curtains, here are a couple of products I recommend for an easy way to black out windows:
In many cases, even the glow from a nightlight or a digital alarm clock can be enough to disrupt your child’s sleep cycle.
BONUS TIP: Try to keep your child’s room as dark as possible during daytime naps, too. This can often make a BIG difference in how long your child will nap during the day!
Sleep Shortcut #3: Be Predictable (And a Little Boring)
Babies and toddlers love predictable routines. And a predictable bedtime routine (lasting no longer than 30 minutes) is a great way to let your child know when the time for sleep is coming.
A typical bedtime routine might look something like this:
Put on pajamas
Nursing or bottle
Read a story or sing a couple songs
Make sure that this routine is the same every single time. Remember, you want bedtime to be as predictable as possible for your child!
After your bedtime routine is complete, be boring. Lots of children will try to drag out bedtime by playing games, throwing toys out of the crib, standing up, etc…..Don’t participate! If your child has thrown his blanket or favorite stuffed toy out of the crib, calmly return the item without saying a word. Be boring, and the games shouldn’t last too long!
Sleep Shortcut #4: Feed After Naps, Not Before
For a lot of babies and toddlers, the single biggest reason they don’t sleep well has to do with a feeding-sleep association. In other words, your child has “linked” the ideas of feeding and sleeping. They think that they need a bottle or nursing BEFORE they can fall asleep. By feeding right after nap time instead of before you can help your child break this feeding-sleep association.
IMPORTANT NOTE: This strategy should only be used before naps, not before putting your
child to bed for the night. A full tummy is needed to make sure your child doesn’t wake up hungry during the night! To avoid a feeding-sleeping association at bedtime, have an activity (such as reading a book) right after feeding in the bedtime routine so that feeding is not the last thing they do before getting in bed.
Sleep Shortcut #5: Same Place, Same Time
Remembering that our children love predictability, it is a good idea to have your child sleep in the same place close to the same times every day. This means that nap time should happen in the same place as nighttime sleep rather than in car seats, strollers, your lap at the coffee shop, etc. For many parents, simply changing WHERE their child naps during the day causes a big improvement in the length and quality of nighttime sleep.
BONUS TIP: When you are putting your child to sleep for the night, it is a good idea to make sure that they fall asleep where you want them to stay asleep.
In other words, if your child falls asleep in your arms and then wakes up during the night in a completely different place (like their crib), chances are they will be surprised and start crying to let you know about it! Imagine if you fell asleep in your bed and woke up on the couch!
Sleep Shortcut #6: Try The 1-2-3 System
When your child wakes up during the night or during a nap and starts crying or fussing, try to wait a specific length of time before going in to check on them. The first day you try this, I recommend waiting exactly one minute before going in to check on your child. On the second day, wait two minutes. Three minutes on the third day, and so on.
Everyone (babies and toddlers included) will wake up briefly at the end of each 45-minute sleep cycle. Most adults wake so briefly that we don’t even remember it in the morning. But, children who have not learned to fall asleep independently need a little longer.
The 1-2-3 System gives your child the opportunity to get themselves back to sleep without your help. Once your child has learned this skill, you will likely start to see major improvements with your child’s sleep patterns!
Sleep Shortcut #7: Take Five
Before you put your child to bed (for naps or at nighttime), make sure the five-minute period before they are put to bed is very calm and relaxing. No throwing your toddler in the air, or watching TV, or tickle fights in the five minutes immediately before bed.
IMPORTANT NOTE: I definitely encourage tickle fights and any other kinds of rowdy fun you can think of with your children. It is fun for the whole family! Just NOT in the five minutes before bed. (Right after waking up is a great time to play!)