Expert Editions vol. 3: Sleep problems in babies and toddlers

Baby sleep problems

Welcome to the third issue of Expert Editions. This instalment on sleep problems in babies and toddlers is one which I really wished I had the opportunity to turn my attention to in the first year of being a parent, where our baby’s sleep was for us – like many parents – a source of huge anxiety. Throughout my first year I turned to the incredible Baby Sleep Site on a daily basis to help me get through those erratic times, and I’m absolutely thrilled to be in conversation with its founder Nicole Johnson, Senior Baby Sleep Consultant and owner of The Baby Sleep Site to discuss some of the most pressing issues regarding baby and toddler sleep for parents.

What – in your experience, are some of the biggest challenges parents face in getting babies to sleep?

Sleep associations are the biggest issue. Parents start off by putting their newborns to sleep – rocking, feeding, holding, etc. This is perfectly normal, and very sweet in the early weeks and months after birth, but as a baby grows, he or she comes to depend on these sleep associations. So you end up with a 6 month old baby who still needs to be fed or patted or rocked to sleep, even though by 6 months, he or she no longer “needs” that in the way that he or she did as a newborn. So the challenge becomes helping your child learn to fall asleep without your help – and that process is what many of us call “sleep coaching”.

I’d also say that in general, lots of parents struggle with the changing sleep and feeding needs of their babies. Babies grow A LOT in the first year of life, and their sleeping patterns and feeding needs shift what seems like every week! That can be hard for parents to keep up with; just when you think you’ve got your baby’s rhythms down pat, he or she suddenly drops a nap or picks up an extra daytime feeding. It can be really tough to manage.

What would you say is the number one misconception when it comes to baby’s sleep?

The biggest misconception I see is the misconception that babies will just naturally sleep when they’re tired, and wake when they’re rested. In my experience, that is so far from the truth. While some babies do that, far more babies tend to stay awake past the point when they’re tired, and then become overtired, and then become really difficult to soothe to sleep. It can actually be very difficult to spot a baby’s ideal “sleep window” – many parents tell me they have to watch their babies like hawks and put them down at the first sign of drowsiness in order to get a good nap or a good stretch of nighttime sleep.

Another misconception I hear often is that all babies will outgrow their sleeping patterns and eventually just learn to sleep on their own, without help. While some babies will outgrow their nighttime waking and short naps, many babies who sleep poorly during their “babyhood” merely become toddlers who wake often at night and take short, irregular naps. I’ve seen families who had sleepless 3 year olds and had been waiting for years for their “baby” to outgrow poor sleeping habits!

What is the ideal age to start teaching good sleep habits in little ones?

Well, official “sleep coaching” really shouldn’t start until your baby is 4 or 5 months old. At that point, he or she is past the 4 month sleep regression and has more “grown up” sleeping patterns that will work with sleep coaching. However, there is so much you can do during the newborn phase to build healthy sleep patterns, too! You can establish sleep and feeding routines pretty much from day one, and while you can’t really expect a newborn to eat and sleep on a clock-based schedule, you can establish feeding and sleeping cycles (like eat-play-sleep) that help to organize your baby’s day.

What are some of your top tips in getting infants to sleep better?

First and foremost, work to gently wean your child away from sleep associations. You want to get to the point where your child can go into bed drowsy, and fall asleep on his or her own. That is the foundation to sleeping through the night. Why? Because when a child can fall asleep without help at bedtime, that child can also fall back to sleep in the middle of the night when waking briefly between sleep cycles (something we all do). This really is the key to better seep.

A good daily schedule is also pretty important, as feeding is very much connected to sleep. I’ve worked with families whose pressing sleep problems were completely fixed with just a few schedule adjustments – adding a daytime feeding, firming up the morning wake-up time, etc.

Finally, a really easy step to take towards better sleep is to implement a strong, predictable bedtime and nap time routine. A great pre-sleep routine signals to your child that it’s time to settle in and sleep, and it’s often the very first step we take when we work with parents on sleep coaching.

Where do you stand on the ongoing swaddling debate?

Honestly, swaddling is a centuries-old way to effectively and quickly soothe a fussy baby – for that reason, swaddling is awesome and will likely be around for centuries to come! However, there’s more than one way to swaddle a baby, and it’s clear today that super-tight swaddles can be dangerous for babies who roll over, and can cause problems like hip dysplasia, so my team and I always direct parents to safe swaddle guidelines when we recommend swaddling.

As great as swaddling is, however, is it simply not safe to put your baby to bed swaddled if your baby is able to roll over and move around a lot; there’s just too much risk that your baby will roll over while swaddled and suffocate, or that the blankets will come loose and pose a threat. So while swaddling your stationary newborn in a blanket is great, I usually recommend switching to a sleep sack as your baby grows.

Finally, while some babies hang on to their swaddle love for awhile, many babies are ready to transition away from swaddling at 4 or 5 months. This is a prime time to begin weaning from the swaddle, and teaching your baby to self-soothe. Once your baby’s hands are free at night, he or she will likely be able to find fingers and fists to suck on, and self-soothe that way.

In my opinion, sleep regressions can be some of the most trying times for parents – what advice do you have to give parents trying to get through a sleep regression?

I always tell parents to try and do as little “extra” as possible. Yes, all babies and toddlers need extra soothing during sleep regressions – but try to avoid starting up a habit you don’t want around for a long time.

After the baby-stage, toddlerhood seems to bring about a whole new set of sleep problems – could you talk a little about that?

Well, this really stems from two factors: toddlers are mobile, and toddlers are strong-willed. That right there makes for some tough sleep challenges! For instance, one your toddler is in a “big kid” bed, you can bet that he or she is going to test limits and try to get out of bed off and on. It’s just the way it goes. Potty training is also a big deal during toddlerhood, and it has a big impact on sleep sometimes.

The “strong-willed” part is also a big factor here. While your baby may push back a little on your sleep coaching effort, your toddler is bigger and stronger and more verbal – and he or she will use all of that to let you know exactly how he or she feels about sleep coaching!

Finally, I should point out that toddlers often struggle with nighttime fears and nightmares, as their budding imaginations grow. While this is very normal, it can be upsetting to both toddlers and parents alike.

What advice can you give to parent’s whose toddlers seem ready to drop the nap…how can they be sure it’s what they need?

Well, first off, don’t assume that a little “nap strike” is a sign that it’s time to end napping altogether. Nap strikes are common at age 2, but most children aren’t ready to stop napping entirely until between 3 and 4. If your child is between 3 and 4, and you suspect he or she is ready to stop the nap, then take it slow.

On days when your child doesn’t nap, be sure to bump bedtime up. Also, keep in mind that your child will have a mixture of nap and no-nap days – the nap transition won’t usually happen at once. So it’s key that you continue to give your child some “rest time” each day. On no-nap days, that rest time can simply be quiet play time in bed; on nap-days, that rest time ensures that your child has every opportunity to take a good nap. Bedtimes may need to be adjusted accordingly.

Anything else you would like to add?

So often, parents feel alone in their sleep challenges. They feel like EVERYONE else’s babies seem to be sleeping well. I remind parents often that they are not alone; in reality, so many families worldwide struggle with a sleepless child. We average over 1 million visitors to The Baby Sleep Site each month; that’s a lot of tired parents!

And sleeplessness isn’t a small problem; the chronic sleep deprivation that comes with having a sleep-fighting child at home affects a family’s overall health and happiness. So I urge parents not to minimize what they’re going through – it’s tough!

Nicole Johnson is a married mother of two wonderful boys and owner of The Baby Sleep Site. When her eldest son was born, he had a lot of sleep problems – he would wake every one or two hours, all night long! She got busy and thoroughly researched literature and scientific reports until she became an expert in sleep methods, scheduling routines, baby developmental needs, and more. She overcame her son’s sleeping issues in a way that matched her own parenting style, and knew it was her mission to help other tired parents “find their child’s sleep”. If you have your own sleep issues, Nicole and her team at The Baby Sleep Site® can help! Download the popular free guide, 5 Ways To Help Your Child Sleep Through The Night, to get started today.



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