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How to Foster Sleep

A peek inside one mom's tool bag for building healthy sleep habits.

How to Foster Sleep

I'm probably jinxing my whole family by saying so, but I have to admit I've got it easy. My 19-month old sleeps for 12 to 13 hours each night and 1 ½ to 3 hours each afternoon. Unless he's teething or ill, he rarely gives my husband and me trouble. Instead, he waves bye-bye or blows a kiss when we lay him in his crib. We're more likely to cry over his cuteness than he is over our absence.

To be sure, our good fortune is more a reward than it is luck. From the start, we've put much effort into establishing a healthy sleep routine. Before his birth, we read up on infant sleep habits and sought recommendations from fellow parents. And since his birth, we've tried to maintain a balance between responding to his cues and following our instincts.

We've run into plenty of criticism along the way. Some friends and family members questioned our choice to co-sleep during the first few months. Others urged us to adopt the “cry it out” method instead of nursing or singing him to sleep. At one point, our (former) pediatrician, upon watching me cradle and rock my sleepy 4-month-old, warned me as if warmth, love and safety are toxic against spoiling my child.

I know what works for one child may not work for another. And there's a small part of me that worries that our second child, who's due in six weeks, will make us pay for the quality sleep we've been getting lately. If that's the case, I'm glad to know I have a little experience to work with this time around.

The following five approaches to healthy sleep are in my parenting tool bag: 

  1. Consult an Expert: Read a book or ten about the sleep needs of children before the baby arrives and keep one around for quick reference during the first year. Most are organized by month — just like an infant's sleep needs and patterns. I would never have guessed that newborns sleep up to 20 hours a day and older infants for 12 hours each night if I had not done any research.
  2. Define Day and Night: From day one, keep the house dark and quiet at night and bright and busy during the day. Humans are hardwired to respond to cues, and the primary cues for sleep are light and activity. Provide the optimal sleep environment and most children will fall asleep and stay a sleep more easily. Nap time is an exception for some children. Some children are comforted by everyday household sounds, and a number of experts recommend that parents go about their daily routine — vacuuming, putting away dishes — during nap time to help their child go to and stay asleep.
  3. Learn Your Baby's Language: To celebrate our son's first birthday, my husband and I watched the videos we had recorded over the course of the year. In one video, I try to console a crying 2-month-old by waving a rattle in his face. No luck. He continued to cry and I continued to try to entertain him. It's a great example of a new parent's inexperience. Little did I know, he simply wanted to sleep — a fact that was instantly clear to me 10 months later as I watched him rub his eyes in the video. At the time, I hadn't yet learned to interpret his gestures and cries. If I had, we all would have been spared a good measure of discomfort and frustration. 
  4. Establish a Routine: If a child learns to foresee naptime and bedtime, the process will eventually become second nature. Our routines change slightly every so often, but pre-nap time has always included milk and books and pre-bedtime has always included bath, the donning of pajamas, and lullabies or books. Unless we're too early or too late, our son cooperates without fuss. 
  5. Foster, Don't Force Sleep: All children need sleep, but the amount each child needs and the schedule that's most natural for each child can differ drastically. One of a parent's many jobs is to determine their child's sleep needs. Another is to build a daily schedule around those needs. A child who is genuinely sleepy will fall asleep and stay asleep more easily that a child who isn't tired or who is overtired.

Managing a child's sleep is one of the toughest battles of early parenthood. A sleepless couple of months is a rite of passage for most new parents. But a little attentiveness, consistency and patience will pay off in the long run.

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