I remember well-meaning friends who encouraged me to sleep as much as I could during my pregnancy...as if anything could prepare me for the years of sleep deprivation that go hand in hand with becoming a parent. Parenting a child is exhausting...mentally...physically...emotionally. But it's also one of the most rewarding aspects of my life.
There are a several parenting philosophies, many of which directly correspond to their sleep approach. Because my husband and I practice attachment parenting, our philosophy on sleep may differ from the norm. Here are some of our tried and true methods for getting all of us a good night's sleep.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel - I strive to maintain perspective by looking at the bigger picture when it comes to parenting. Each stage is short-lived, and before you know it, your infant is a walking, talking toddler. While sleep deprivation is serious with potentially negative consequences, it's temporary. Keeping that little fact in the back of my mind was just one way I dealt with the emotional side of sleep deprivation.
Defining "Sleeping Through the Night" - Once I achieved a 4-6 hour stretch of sleep, I felt like we had reached a milestone. That is because both of my children woke up every 1 1/2 to 2 hours in those first few weeks of life. Sleeping through the night can mean one 5 hour stretch to one mother and a full 8 hours of synchronized sleep for another. How long a baby sleeps is also related to whether a baby is breast or bottle feeding. Typically, bottle-fed babies sleep through the night earlier than breast-fed babies and sleep for longer stretches. It's important to define and set realistic goals about sleep, ideally during pregnancy, so that you are prepared with a plan once the baby is born.
To Co-sleep or Not to Co-sleep? - I've spoken to families who slept better when they co-slept and families who could not sleep while they co-slept. I will say that neither I, nor my children slept well when they were in their cribs. We found that it worked best to co-sleep safely because that is how we achieved the most amount of sleep, particularly when I was nursing. Co-sleeping is a very personal decision and one that families should make with guidance from their pediatrician.
Follow Your Child's Cues - Temperament and personality have more to do with sleep than you would think. Some babies like to be rocked, patted, or swung while others are content to nurse or suck on a pacifier to go to sleep. Very quickly, you'll determine what does and doesn't work for your child. While there are some very informative books on the market about the subject, remember to follow your child's cues first.
Set Realistic Expectations - I can't tell you how many times I was told by well-meaning parents how their baby was sleeping through the night by 6 or 8 weeks old. Fortunately, I did my own research and confirmed what I had learned about infant growth and development as an RN. Physiologically, an infant is not capable of sleeping through the night until 3-6 months of age. Knowing that little fact helped me understand and anticipate my children's awakenings.
Foster a Healthy Sleep Environment - Sleep is the time when the body repairs itself and rejuvenates for the day ahead. I want my children to embrace sleep, rather than fight it or be afraid of it. My husband and I routinely survey our son's room to ensure that it is dark, quiet, and free from distractions. We also strive to convey sleep as a positive experience.
For some babies and toddlers, music or white noise and a small night light can provide the security a child needs to sleep restfully. Experiment to determine what works best for you and your child.
Create a Healthy Sleep Routine - Unless we're out, our sleep routine is the same. Dinner, downtime, baths/toothbrushing, stories, hugs, and tucking in with Mr. Bear and my son's favorite blanket. Sometimes, when we're in a rush, we'll try to skip a step. But my son thrives on that routine and reminds us that we've forgotten something. When it's done right, my son happily goes to sleep, stating, "I'll see you in the morning Mommy."
Stay Consistent - Every night, we aim to get my son upstairs in his bed at 8:00 pm. On those nights when we're out and my son is ready to go to sleep, it shows in his behavior. That is because his body is accustomed to going to sleep at the same time each night. The same is true for his wake-up time; thus the importance of being consistent with his sleep times.
Be Patient - It takes much longer to help your child learn to sleep than it does to say goodnight and let your child figure it out on his own (aka the "cry it out" method). Sleep is just one of the many lessons you'll teach your child. And just like teaching your child to read or ride a bike, it takes patience, time, and love.
Ask for Help! - I had the advantage of living close to my parents when my son was an infant. Once my husband had exhausted his vacation time and returned to work, I wasn't shy about eliciting the help of friends and family members so I could rest. You would be surprised at how willing people are to help you if you just ask.
Sleep is the foundation for mental, physical, and emotional health. I hope these tips serve as a starting point for helping you teach your child healthy sleep habits.
By guest blogger, Caryn Baily, Rockinmama