Gentle Baby and Toddler Sleep Tips

by annie on March 7, 2009

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Photo credit: Lab2112 on flickr

This post provides tips for sleep deprived parents that want their babies to sleep better and, like me, do not want to use the cry it out approach. Some of these things I have learned through experience and others I’ve learned through reading research. I should note that I have not necessarily tried all of these things because I do not consider my children’s sleep to be a problem. That doesn’t mean that they never wake up and it doesn’t mean that there are not tough nights here and there, but on the whole I get enough rest and my kids get enough rest.

1. Calming Bedtime Routine

Children need time to calm down and prepare for sleep. Having a consistent bedtime routine can be useful in giving the child cues that sleep time is coming. There are likely things that you do each night before bed, such as putting on pajamas, brushing teeth, reading bedtime story, nursing or rocking, and so on. Try to do those things in the same order to help your child understand what is coming next and learn to calm down through that process.

You may also want to have a few routines that you alternate. For example, one routine for bath night and another one for other nights. One for weekdays and one for weekends. One that involves Daddy and one that involves Mommy. Having these alternate routines can help keep things smooth on nights when things need to change up a bit (e.g. one parent isn’t there, you are visiting friends, a favourite book is missing, etc.)

Also, create a calming environment during the bedtime routine. For example, turn off any bright lights (dimmers are great), television, and loud noises at least an hour before bedtime (ideally no television in several hours leading up to bedtime if you allow television at all). Consider building a massage into your bedtime routine.

2. Lots of Fresh Air and Exercise

With my kids and with lots of other kids I know, this is the single most important factor in determining how well they sleep at night. When our son was going through a really rough period with sleep as a toddler he was spending several hours outside each day running around. When we doubled the amount of time he was spending outside his sleep improved exponentially. Even in cold climates (we live in Canada), I recommend finding a way to get outside with your kids every day (bundle them up and go for several short trips outside if need be) and finding places for them to get exercise (playgroups and indoor playgrounds are great for this, but other options include going for a walk around a museum or a mall or other place where your child can walk for a long time). So if you’re spending 2 hours being active with your baby or toddler, try 4 hours instead and see if that makes a difference. Our kids need that exercise and fresh air anyways, so even if it doesn’t help with sleep, it is a good thing nonetheless.

3. Watch your Baby’s Diet

It is possible that something the baby is eating could be contributing to sleep problems. Some babies that are on formula have sensitivities to certain types of formula. For babies that have started solids, food allergies or sensitivities can impact sleep. Also, certain types of foods consumed too close to bedtime can prevent good sleep. This includes anything containing caffeine (chocolate, sodas, etc.), foods high in sugar, artificial colourings and preservatives, foods high in protein and simple carbohydrates. You should replace those foods with foods that promote good sleep, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables. In addition there are certain foods that contain tryptophan (a sleep inducing chemical) that are good evening food choices (despite many of them being proteins). These include turkey, tuna, certain types of nuts (not for babies), cottage cheese, hard cheese, yogurt, soymilk, tofu, soybeans, eggs, bananas and avocados.

4. Watch for Irritants in Mom’s Diet

If you are breastfeeding, then it is also worth considering whether something in your diet could be contributing to poor nighttime sleep. Usually breastfeeding mothers can eat whatever they want, but some infants are sensitive to certain things in mom’s diet. Dairy is a frequent culprit and can be difficult to cut out (it is an ingredient in so many things, so finding all that hidden dairy can be tough). Kellymom has a great article on dairy and other food sensitivities in breastfed babies. Beyond food, caffeine and alcohol can be other culprits. Both of these are safe in moderation for breastfeeding. However, they can impact your baby’s sleep. Your caffeine intake can make your baby more wakeful (this is of course a catch-22 because if you’re not sleeping well, you’re more likely to reach for a coffee). With regards to alcohol, a study on sleep disturbances and alcohol has shown that infants had poorer sleep in the 3.5 hours after being exposed to even very minor amounts of alcohol in a mother’s breastmilk.

5. Consider Co-Sleeping

Co-sleeping isn’t for everyone, but for a lot of families (mine included), it is the best way for everyone to get a good night’s rest. There are many benefits to co-sleeping and also important co-sleeping safety requirements to consider if you do decide this is right for your family.

6. Consistent Napping

Good sleep promotes good sleep. A lot of parents whose children do not sleep well at night mistakenly think it would be a good idea for them to give up naps. Instead, parents should try to institute a consistent nap routine. The baby’s last nap should not be too late in the day either to ensure that it doesn’t interfere with nighttime sleep.

7. Comfortable Sleep Environment

Wherever your baby sleeps, ensure that it is comfortable. That doesn’t mean adding all sorts of blankets and pillows (which can be dangerous). Instead, it means making sure that your baby is dressed appropriately for the temperature in comfortable pajamas. It may mean using things like white noise to help your baby to sleep. It certainly involves ensuring a smoke free sleep environment, not having smokers sleep in the same room as the baby, and ideally a smoke free home altogether.

8. Adjust Your Expectations

I hate all of the chatter about sleeping through the night. Our society puts way too much pressure on parents in this regard and completely discounts information on what normal infant sleep is. Be reasonable and patient with your child and understand that not every child is the same and also that a child that did once sleep well, may not always sleep well. If a child is teething, going through a growth spurt, sick, working on a developmental milestone, hungry, didn’t get enough exercise or fresh air, is preoccupied by a scary situation during the day, or any list of other things, that can wreak havoc on their sleep. Try to be understanding in these situations and help them get through those tough times.

9. Read, Read, Read

Nothing in this post helped you? Have you done all of these things already? This is just a start and only hits on a few key issues. But people have written whole books on this topic and maybe you could benefit from reading some of them. Elizabeth Pantley’s “No-Cry” series, including the The No Cry Sleep Solution, the The No Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers and the The No Cry Nap Solution (also my review) offer great tips and ideas. I have used these books extensively for myself and to help others. I should note that I didn’t do the logs that she suggests and unless you really want to be able to track and quantify improvements, I don’t think it is really necessary. So don’t throw away the ideas in the book just because the idea of the logs sounds too complicated to you. Just use the book to choose tips and solutions that are a good fit for your family and your child.

Other books that promote gentle approaches to sleep include:

Links to some videos and articles with sleep tips can also be found on the Parenting Baby To Sleep blog’s I Need Sleep Now page.

10. Recognize that This Too Shall Pass

Our kids are only little for such a short period of time. It isn’t always easy dealing with night wakings or sleep deprivation and I know it is frustrating for a lot of parents. I think it is important though to realize that it will pass, things will get better. You do not need to teach your child to self-soothe using cry it out. Your child will learn that skill with time on their own. In the meantime, if these tips are not working and you are frustrated, get some help. Certainly spouses/partners should help each other and find a way to share nighttime parenting wherever possible. Beyond that, find someone that can help you out during the day so that you can take a long nap when things are really rough.

Annie is a mom of 2 kids and blogs about the art and science of parenting at PhD in Parenting.

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