One of the more common pieces of advice given to new mothers is to “follow their instincts,” when faced with unfamiliar parenting challenges. While this can be excellent advice considering how familiar every mother is with their baby’s daily routine, habits, mannerisms and behavior, instincts can actually be very misleading in certain situations, the most notable of which surround baby’s sleep habits. Because new parents are (rightfully) so concerned with their infants’ sleep habits, there is often a tendency to overcompensate in comforting, soothing and calming their babies to sleep. Instinctively, it seems like the right thing to do, but the effects of relentlessly helping babies fall asleep can end up having the opposite effect. So although maternal instinct remains a wonderful tool for spotting illnesses and recognizing changes in a baby’s normal behavior, keep an eye out for these common sleep scenarios where gut feelings can often lead parents down the wrong path.
1. Baby Falls Asleep Outside of Their Crib
This is a very hard habit to break, if for no other reason than the sheer maternal bliss that comes from a parent rocking a baby to sleep in their arms. Besides that, rocking a baby to sleep is probably the most effective way to get them to fall asleep... for about 15 minutes.
There are two reasons not to do this. The first is that babies develops an association between being rocked and falling asleep, and eventually can’t have one without the other. And since baby sleep cycles last about 20 to 45 minutes, if they haven’t learned to make the transition from awake to asleep without being swayed back and forth in their mother’s arms, they’re going to be kicking up a fuss every time they get to the end of one each cycle.
The second reason is because of the change in environment. Falling asleep in one place and waking up in another is scary. Probably more so for adults because it happens so rarely, but for kids as well, falling asleep and then waking up to find that their surroundings have changed is a jarring experience. “Where’s my mom? Why is it dark? How did I get here?”
So even though it’s a magical feeling and it’s done for the right reasons, parents should resist the urge to rock their baby to sleep. Putting them down in their crib while they’re still awake, letting them get a grasp of their surroundings, and learning to fall asleep independently will result in much longer stretches of deeper, higher quality sleep.
2. The Party Nursery
Parents also have a natural desire to create a safe, comfortable, happy space for our babies. So much so that
expectant parents are often hard at work on it before their children are even born. Looking online, one could scan pictures of immaculately decorated nurseries for a full nine months and not even scratch the surface of the decorative ideas available.
And then there are the toys.
Faux aquariums, high-contrast mobiles, Bruin even offers something called the Mini Crib Activity Center. All of which sounds great, except there shouldn’t be any activity in the crib. Babies should sleep in their crib, and if there are a dozen brightly colored toys, cheerful music, and a thousand flashing lights, the chances of them laying down and relaxing are significantly lowered.
The ideal nursery, according to experts, consists of a crib and a changing table. No feng shui, no elaborate murals, no toys in the crib. This is where baby sleeps, and everything that’s needed for sleep is right there in that empty crib.
This isn’t to suggest that parents should “bore” their children to sleep. It’s similar to the concept of adults turning off the TV and putting away the iPad an hour before bed. Sleep is natural and will come easily to a tired individual, but it helps to remove the distractive elements.
There has never been a child who, after negotiating for a later bedtime, or another bedtime story, or another kiss goodnight, didn’t immediately try to re-negotiate upon getting their way.
Of course, kids should understand that their parents are reasonable people, and respond well when they feel they have some degree of control over their surroundings, but allowing them to negotiate is the wrong way to go about it. Letting them decide what pajamas they want to wear, what story that want to read, and what songs they want to sing are better options to offer.
When it comes to the bedtime routine and the bedtime itself, however, a firm and absolute approach will remove any uncertainty on the child’s part about whether there is room to negotiate.
When it comes to toddlers, the negotiation itself is the victory. Every minute spent pleading for another glass of water or another goodnight kiss is another minute not spent sleeping, and if there’s one thing kids can do for longer than adults, it’s argue.
4. Changing the routine
Parents want their kids to have all the experiences available to them, so they can develop an appreciation for adventure and experimentation, leading to rich, full lives. However, when it comes to the bedtime routine, parents should find one that works for their baby and stick to it like glue. Absolutely every night, the same time, the same activities, and the same length of time for each of them. The bedtime routine should be timed and executed with absolute military precision.
This may sound borderline ridiculous. After all, what’s the harm in switching things up a little? People don’t eat the same thing for dinner every night of the week.
But bedtime routines are not just about getting ready for bed in the sense of PJs and brushed teeth. A well-rehearsed and established bedtime develops a cue in a child’s brain that signals it to start getting ready to go to sleep. This helps to release melatonin, relax muscles, and slow down the brain activity, so that by the time
they’re being tucked in, their little bodies are just thirsty for sleep, and parents who implement a five step bedtime routine and follow it to the minute for a week are going to notice astronomical changes. 5. Getting involved
Of course parents want to help their child get to sleep when they need it, but parents rarely give babies the opportunity to figure anything sleep-related out for themselves for the first few years. They teach them everything they can, but sleep is too personal and too abstract to try to explain to anyone, let alone a baby.
When it comes to actually making the transition from awake to asleep, babies should be doing it completely on their own. Parents should avoid rocking, singing, patting, or lulling them to sleep in any way. Their sleep cycles only last about 45 minutes, so the key to the technique is for them to develop the ability to fall asleep on their own when they wake up in the night. If a child is acting in a way that makes their parent think something is physically wrong with them, it is always a good idea to call a pediatrician. If Mom feels like their little one’s not ready for a big kid bed, they should follow their instincts, absolutely. But when it comes to sleep, there are times when parents might have to go against their nature in order to ensure their baby gets all the restful, rejuvenative sleep they need.
About the author:
Dana began her private practice in Vancouver, Canada in 2003. After struggling with her own child’s sleep, she drew on her dual degrees in Psychology and Education to create The Sleep Sense™ Program, a complete sleep resource for parents which has sold almost 100,000 copies in more than 30 four books on specific parenting challenges.
Over 35,000 individuals follow her Facebook and Twitter feeds, her instructional YouTube videos have nearly half a million views, her parenting blog and website average 90,000 unique visitors per month, and her weekly podcast had over 5,000 downloads within three weeks of its launch. She has been a featured
speaker at major parenting trade shows, a frequent guest on radio and television programs, and her work has been highlighted on CNN, Today’s Parent, WebMD, The Washington Post, and many other prominent media publications. After interviewing Arianna Huffington in May of 2016, she was asked to become a regular contributing writer for the Huffington Post. She has personally trained a global network of over 150 Certified Sleep Sense™ Consultants to carry on her work in countries as diverse as Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Namibia, Finland, and the United Kingdom, as well as the United States and Canada. Today, Dana lives in Sarasota, Florida with her husband and 3 children, where she continues her life’s work to educate and empower families with healthy sleep habits.
If you’re reading this in the early morning while trying to rock your baby back to sleep, then parents: we stand with you. We’ve all been there, trying to figure out when our restless munchkins will let us catch a few more Z’s. While you can’t predict the exact timing of when your baby’s schedule will normalize, it can be helpful to get a sense of how long most babies sleep, why they wake up, and how to help them.