Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Sleep Schedules and Routines

Having a child is the most amazing and wonderful thing in the world.  After all, you carried this child for 9 months and anxiously waited for him/her to make their grand entrance into your world and everything is all dreamy and wonderful.  Then you enter into the sleepless nights of midnight feedings, diaper changes, singing, coddling, rocking, swaying, etc. and then you wonder when will you get a full night of sleep again?  Well the answer is sooner than you think! 

Just to lay it out there - I'm not a sleep expert nor do I claim to be one.  But I do have experience from sleep training our 3 children and I can happily say that my husband and I have peace and quiet from 8pm on and we sleep through the night (minus sicknesses/teething issues/nightmares/etc.) because we have successfully sleep trained our children.  So back to my point...

Initially, infants don't have the internal mechanism to put themselves to sleep or even to know day from night.  Many parents think that their child will fall asleep whenever (and where ever) they are tired but the truth is that soothing themselves to sleep is a learned skill and we can gently help shape our baby's sleep habits from an early age. That is why it is important to start establishing some sort of sleep routine within a couple of months of being born.  If anything, the routine is good for you as parents to give you an idea of how to proceed each night.  At about 4-6 months (or maybe even sooner), you'll probably start seeing a sleep pattern develop by your child.  GO WITH THIS!  I made this mistake with the twins.  We had no idea what we were doing until we went to see our Pediatrician for the twins' 6 month check-up and she asked us if we had the kids on a sleep schedule and we were like "WHAT - are we supposed to?"  Well, our Pediatrician recommended that we read Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Dr. Mark Weissbluth and now that book is my sleep bible. 

Now I know that people have mixed emotions about this book and other sleep books.  At the end of the day, as parents, we need to do/read all that we can to educate ourselves on how to take care of our children.  After all, a child is the one item that doesn't come with a owner's manual!  The methods that we each apply to our children can and does vary from family to family and that is OK.  At the end of the day you have to do what you feel comfortable with and what works with your child.  And that is exactly what I like about the Happy Sleep Habits book - this book gives you different options for sleep training (and the various aspects of it) but generally falls in the middle ground with respect to sleep training vs. very strict scheduling and attachment parenting type.  You can try one method or blend aspects of the methods you feel comfortable with.  That's exactly what I did.  With all 3 kids, I closely watched the kids and as soon as I saw the first signs of tiredness, I put them down to sleep. And if they start to cry, then I let them cry it out (to a certain extent).  On some days, knowing just how tired they were, I would let them cry it out altogether because I knew that they were just exhausted and they use their crying as a method of releasing all of the extra energy they have left.  At other times, I would let them cry for 5 minutes and then check on them after 10 minutes, 15 minutes, etc.  Or sometimes depending on the situation, I would go up every 5 minutes to calm him down.  FYI - this isn't a "cry it out" book, but rather a book that teaches you how to see the signs of tiredness and how to establish a healthy sleep routine.  In the end, it all depends on what is comfortable for you as the parent. But always be consistent with your method.  You are trying to establish a routine, which means consistency.  And both parents (and other caregivers) need to be on board with the same method so as not to confuse the child.  Children thrive on routines and consistency - they live in a world that is out of their control and knowing what comes next gives your child a sense of control. Once you have established a bedtime or sleep routine, your child will know that sleep comes after and that is what you want to establish.

There are no right or wrong ways to sleep train your child as long as you achieve the right outcome - a child who falls asleep on their own (and hopefully who sleeps through the night).  Research has shown that adults who suffer from insomnia do not have the internal ability to soothe themselves back to sleep - remember, it's a learned behavior and if your parents kept running into your room the minute you started crying, you never learned how to soothe yourself back to sleep. If your child cries upon waking, give them a couple of minutes - they may fall back asleep but give your child the ability to learn how to soothe themself back to sleep. This is probably the best advice I can give to other parents who are struggling to get their child to sleep - also be patient and be consistent.  But it is comforting knowing that there are tried and true methods to help your child achieve good and healthy sleep habits - read as much as you can and ask your friends with older kids what methods worked for them as well as your Pediatrician (no one knows better about great methods and books than your own doctor).  Good Luck!