When trying to decide what to write about for my first post, I decided to go with sleep as it is so important – for moms, for dads, for other siblings, and for babies and toddlers. Sleep sets us up for our daily lives. Sleep regulates our wake cycles, our hormones, and influences so many of our body’s systems. Sleep can have a huge impact on our health, our happiness, and it is just as important to have healthy sleep habits for our kids as it is for us. I will talk about three main points in this post. First, why sleep is so important for our bodies to function and what can happen when we are not getting enough at the right times. Second, how we can optimize our sleep by setting healthy habits before bed and during the night. Thirdly, I will give my professional opinion on the many scientific articles and recommendations on baby and infant sleep. You will not be getting any thumbs up on those crazy “sleep train your baby” recommendations from this RN mom! I advocate room sharing, safe bed sharing, attentive, and loving methods to help your baby feel safe and secure enough to fall asleep and stay asleep on their own.
First, why sleep is so important: During sleep, our bodies have the amazing capability to rest, reset, recharge, and rebalance. Our bodies are amazing creations. They release and rebalance hormones, regulate insulin and sugar stores, lower our metabolic function along with body temperature, and allow our minds to sort through the previous day’s activities. Sleep deprivation is technically defined as anything less than 6 hours at night, but many people – moms including – rarely get that sleep. With sleep deprivation comes many alarming side effects – confusion, memory loss (baby brain anyone!?), general clumsiness, inability to problem solve effectively, inability to multitask, increase in moodiness, shortened attention spans, and feelings of fatigue. Long-term sleep deprivation can affect our body’s ability to balance hormones and regulate our moods, disrupt our immune systems, affect fertility negatively, and lead to unhappiness and depression. Sounds like sleep should be a priority, right?
Second, how can we optimize our sleep and set healthy sleep habits? I recommend setting some basic guidelines when it comes to bedtime routines for you and your family. Three simple tips can drastically improve your sleep time and allow you to get a restful sleep at night. First, decrease light at night as much as possible. My thesis for my MSN was on light at night, so this is big for me. Think about it- for hundreds of thousands of years our bodies were used to winding down and preparing for sleep as it became dark out. With morning light our bodies awakened reset for the new day. Nowadays with bright lights on at night, 24 hour stores and shopping, and constant electronic screen lights in our faces until the minute we close our eyes- our bodies are confused! Tryptophan is a hormone that is converted to serotonin and to melatonin by our brains to help us wind down at night and to fall asleep and stay asleep. Our bodies naturally decrease the production as morning comes, and this helps us to wake up. Bright light at night and especially that light emitted by the screen on your phone and iPad inhibit this hormone, which is turn delays your ability to fall asleep at night. It can also impact the amount of melatonin that is produced, meaning less restful deep sleep. At least one hour before your planned “be asleep by” time turn off all electronics – in fact do not even bring them into the bedroom with you! This way you won’t be tempted to check your email, Facebook, or Instagram one more time. If you have lights on in this house, at night time only use a low wattage, or reduce the number that you keep on. If using a nightlight, use red light – the least disruptive to our hormones. Half an hour before bed I like to do some simple sitting yoga stretches, meditation, prayers, or a restful mindfulness activity to help my mind relax for sleep. Practice the same routine daily for two weeks and I guarantee that you notice a difference in your sleep and restfulness.
Thirdly, baby and toddler sleep recommendations. Let’s get one thing straight off the bat – sleep training is for kids over age 1 who have bad sleep habits and need some remediation to undo the old habits and set new good habits. Sleep training is not for babies! Babies mind’s are not capable of “self soothing”- this is a milestone that babies will reach in their own time just like crawling and walking. It is a mental and emotional milestone so although you can’t physically “see it” like you can see when your baby is crawling or walking please know that it is a milestone all the same. Just as all babies walk at a different age, all babies will reach the ability to self soothe at a different age. Emotionally, you can do more damage trying to “sleep train” your child than good. You can make them fearful of sleeping and scared to be on their own. Do not push independence on your baby before they are ready. If you try to push them to do too much before they are ready it can backfire and create an even clingier, less independent, and fearful child. Babies who feel safe and secure have a greater chance of falling asleep and staying asleep on their own. To new moms, I recommend room sharing with your baby to help establish and maintain your breastfeeding routine. I recommend bed sharing if it is done safely (only with mama, no bulky pillows, no blankets, large mattress size, etc). If you wake up in the night to change a diaper or feed your baby, keep the lgihts low or use a dark lamp shade to limit your and your baby’s exposure to light at night.
To help older babies sleep, I recommend a strict bedtime routine. Stick to the the same routine and schedule and your child will eventually be prepared to fall asleep on their own as they will know what to expect. Our routine includes getting changed for bed, reading, a bottle of milk, brushing our few little teethies, lights out, saying goodnight to our stuffed animals and mommy and daddy, and then in our crib for bed. It takes about half an hour. We have stuck to the same bedtime ritual for about 6 months and our little guy who is 15 months will now sit in bed and get comfy without crying and fall asleep on his own. He is now sleeping 11- 11.5 hours at night. We have a small Gro Egg nightlight in his room that emits a light red light we keep on, and in the summer when it is light out late we use blackout curtains on his windows. Basically the same rules that apply for adults apply for kids with some slight tweaking- low lights, no electronics, dark in the room, a nice temperature (between 68-74 for us), and a bedtime routine.
Stay away from those sleep training books. I have yet to find one that is written from a holistic health point of view and many of the so called “sleep specialists” have no medical degree, no psychology degree, and don’t take into account that each baby is different with different sleep needs. They approach sleep with this mythical idea that we should make babies adjust to our sleep needs, completely negating the fact that these little babies are new to the world and have needs different than ours! Their emotional and psychological health is just as important as their physical health and just because it’s nighttime does not mean that their needs go away. Often a crying baby will just want the comfort of mom and to be held at night. This stage is difficult but it will not last forever. I believe it’s much more important to be there for your child when they cry than to say “they will learn” and let them cry and cry at night until they are stressed to the point of exhaustion and “sleep”. Studies have shown that babies who “fall asleep” after an extended period of crying still have an increased heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure – all indicators of a stressed and emotionally upset baby. This is not the best way, the smart way, or the healthiest way to show your child how to sleep. There is not one right way to comfort your child, or help them to learn to fall asleep. There are many different ways to “do” parenting. Just as babies need love, attention, and nurturing care during the day they also need these things sometimes during the night as well. Please be there for your child until they are old enough to understand you and fall asleep on their own. Sleeping on their own may happen for some babies at 6 months, some babies at 8 months, some at a year, and some later.