This, to me, perfectly captures what it’s like social-distancing during a pandemic, with kids. There is a lot to be grateful for. And then someone gets kicked.
Everyone is, of course, affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and quarantining/physically-distancing. Most of all are those that have become sick or tragically lost their lives. There are selfless frontline workers, families who are separated or struggling without their usual incomes, people who are living on their own and suffering from the effects of not having personal contact, and so much more.
This is all to say that I am aware that sleep training is not at the front of people’s minds right now. We all have a lot going on. But I also know that everything is harder when you’re chronically sleep-deprived.
If you have a child (or more than one child) who struggles with sleep, then you are probably not sleeping well either. And now, more than ever, we need our sleep.
To cope with stress, to keep our immune systems up, to allow us to be as patient as possible with our families, and to just stay sane.
The good news is that being at home full-time is actually a great opportunity to focus on sleep. So I thought I would list some of the most common issues that can make sleep hard and give some tips to make it all easier.
First things first, how do you know if your little one is sleeping well?
If your child is getting the right amount of sleep overall and their naps generally last for an hour or more, chances are they’re sleeping well.
So how much sleep is the right amount of sleep?
The other factor is how long your little one is staying awake. Not only do you want your son or daughter to get the right amount of sleep, but you also want them to be sleeping at the right times. This is because babies, toddlers, and young children can only stay awake for so long before becoming overtired. And overtired kids don’t sleep well.
So how long is too long?
The later in the day it is, the longer your kids can tolerate being awake. So if your 6-month-old baby wakes up at 7:00 a.m., they’ll probably be ready for nap 1 at about 8:30 a.m. (which is 1.5 hours of being awake). If their third nap of the day ends at 4:30 p.m., then a good time to put them down for bed is 7:30 p.m. or so (which is 3 hours of being awake).
If you have a little one who fights naps and/or bedtime, putting them down a bit earlier for their nap or bedtime can make a big difference.
It seems logical to assume that the later you keep them up, the more easily they’ll fall asleep but the opposite is true.
Okay, so we know how long kids can stay awake and how much sleep they need. But what about the issues you might be dealing with right now? Like short naps, early morning wakings, or frequent night wakings?
Let’s hit each one.
Trouble With Naps
Does your child fight falling asleep for naps? Take 30-minute naps? Refuse to nap in their crib or bassinet? All of the above? You are not alone, friend. Trust me. I hear this from parents all the time.
Any of these issues would be especially frustrating right now because you are home all day, every day. This is why I’m sharing my top 5 tips to help you achieve long, restorative naps for your baby.
Nap tip #1 – Time them right.
This one goes back to the image earlier in this post that shows you how long your baby or toddler can stay awake until they become overtired. If you don’t go beyond those recommended times, your little one will have an easier time going to sleep.
It’s also important to offer your child the right number of naps in a day. Newborns will nap any number of times. For new babies, it’s more about making sure they’re not awake for too long. There is no structure and you’re just following their cues. Babies who are 4 months to 7 or 8 months of age will nap 3 times a day. From then until approximately 15 to 17 months of age, there will be two naps a day. Toddlers then typically nap once a day until the age of 3.
Nap tip #2 – Get into a routine.
If you don’t already have a pre-sleep routine for your little one, now is the time to introduce one. You probably naturally have several steps you go through every time you’re about to put them down to sleep. Finish your routine with something pleasant and soothing (that you don’t mind repeating every day). Sing the same short lullaby, recite the same small poem, or just have a quick cuddle. As long as you’re consistent with it every time, those steps will begin to serve as a cue to your baby or toddler that it’s time to sleep.
If you have a bedtime routine but don’t for naps, then mimic your bedtime routine as much as you can before naps. Again, the more consistent you are, the better.
Nap tip #3 – Mimic what you do at night.
Since I keep harping on consistency, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this tip is all about it too. Whatever your child’s sleep environment is for nighttime sleep, it’s best to do the same for naps. If they nap in their room in their crib or bed, or your room in a crib or bassinet, make sure they sleep there during the day as well.
Now, I will say that newborns can nap anywhere relatively easily. Once they are 6 to 8 weeks of age, they’ll start responding to dark and light cues. That’s when you want to make sure they’re napping in a dark room. And once they’re about 16 weeks of age (ahem, hello four-month sleep regression), it’s especially important to be consistent about where they sleep day and night.
And just like at night, try to make their sleep space as dark and quiet as possible for naps as well.
Nap tip #4 – A little self-soothing goes a long way.
This is the golden ring of sleep training. Babies who can fall asleep unassisted are babies who can self-soothe. Self-soothing is THE skill. If your baby can fall asleep without you putting them to sleep by nursing, bottle-feeding, rocking, holding, bouncing, anything them to sleep, then you’ve cleared the most important sleep-hurdle and are on your way to teaching your little one to sleep well.
The way to achieve this is to go through your pre-sleep routine, soothing your baby to a state of being calm but not asleep. Place your baby in their crib or bassinet awake enough that they’re aware of their surroundings and then allow them to fall asleep unassisted.
Sounds easy, right?
Until the moment you put your sweet son or daughter down awake and attempt to leave. If they are used to you putting them to sleep, they’ll probably voice their indignation enthusiastically. Where are you going? Your work is not done here!
This is when you need to respond in a way that lets your little one know you’re there and love them, but they need to fall asleep on their own. You can do this by giving them some space. You can do this by sitting nearby, remaining calm and boring until they fall asleep. You can do this by soothing them to a calm state and then leaving them to fall asleep, over and over, until they do. It takes work but, if you are consistent with your response, you will teach your baby to soothe themself to sleep. And that is a parenting win.
Nap tip #5 – Beat those 30-minute naps.
Short naps are one of the most common issues I hear about from parents of babies. This is because sleep cycles during naps are about 30 minutes long. To allow your baby to fall back to sleep for a second sleep cycle (which is how we achieve a restorative nap), there are 2 things you need to do.
The first is nap tip #4. If they can fall asleep on their own, the can fall back to sleep on their own after their first sleep cycle.
The second is giving your baby 60 minutes in their crib or bassinet to try to extend their nap. This means that, if you put them down for a nap at noon, you will keep trying for that nap until 1:00 p.m. If they fall asleep right away but wake up at 12:30 p.m., you keep trying until 1:00 p.m. If they don’t nap at all, you get them up at 1:00 p.m., remain positive, and just try again for the next nap.
If your baby is asleep at 1:00 p.m., you don’t need to wake them up. This doesn’t mean that the nap should be from noon until 1:00 p.m. It just means that you will keep trying until 1:00 p.m. If they’re still asleep (or maybe have just fallen asleep) at 1:00 p.m., leave them until they wake up. It is exceptionally rare to be in a situation where it’s helpful to wake a sleeping baby.
One more thing about this 60 minutes: I’m not suggesting that you leave your child alone for an hour. You can be in the room with them, trying to soothe them, the entire time they’re awake. We just want to allow them to go back to sleep and extend their nap. If you keep trying this consistently, their naps will slowly begin to lengthen.
Super Early Mornings
If starting your day at 4:00 a.m. is cool with you, then God bless you. Also, please tell me where you get your energy from.
Even for most early birds, waking before 6:00 a.m. is too early. Which is true for kids as well. Most babies, toddlers, and young kids wake early but any time before 6:00 a.m. isn’t healthy. Yet I speak to lots of parents who struggle with kids who wake before 6:00 a.m., pumped to start their day.
The first step to teaching your child to sleep until a healthy time in the morning is to determine your “OK to wake” time for them.
The earliest time you can choose is 6:00 a.m. The latest is 8:00 a.m. That being said, if your child naturally wakes at 6:00 a.m. every day, you probably won’t be able to make them an 8:00 a.m. waker. This “OK to wake time” is meant to address super early mornings. Now, if you have a little one who was consistently waking at 7:30 a.m. every day and then suddenly starts waking at 6:00 a.m., you could use an “OK to wake time” of 7:00 a.m. or 7:30 a.m. Pick a time that you think is fair to your son or daughter and then start encouraging them to sleep until that time.
How you encourage them to sleep until this time depends on their age.
Younger than 2 years old
If your child is less than 2 years of age, you need to leave them in their crib or bassinet until your “OK to wake time”. This does not apply to newborns. This is for babies who are 16 weeks of age or older.
Getting your baby or young toddler up before their healthy wake time reinforces the early mornings. How you respond to your little one if they wake too early depends on what works for you. You can give them space until it’s time to get up. You can sit in the room like a boring zombie until they either go back to sleep or it’s time to get up for the day. Or you can soothe them in whatever way works for you until they’re calm and then allow them to hopefully go back to sleep.
Keep in mind that the drive to sleep in these early morning hours is less than at bedtime, in the middle of the night, or before naps. The more interaction you have with your little one at this time, the harder it is for them to go back to sleep.
It may not feel like it, but if you stick with this response to early mornings, your child will gradually begin to wake at a healthier time.
2 years old and beyond
The (above) approach for younger kids applies to kids this age as well. But once your son or daughter reaches 2 years of age, you can also introduce a toddler clock.
I’m a big fan of toddler clocks. Both of my boys have one. These clocks not only tell your child when it’s time to get up, but they also use imagery to show the passage of time throughout their nap or night. So, if my son wakes up at midnight, he can see that it’s the middle of the night and he should go back to sleep. If he wakes 15 minutes before his “OK to wake” time, he can see that it’s almost time to get up and quietly play until morning.
It did take some positive reinforcement to teach one of my kids to wait for the yellow sun (the way his clock indicates that it’s morning). My younger son didn’t move to a bed until he was three and he took to the clock right away. My older son, however, was newly two because he kept hurling himself out of his crib and hurting himself. Because he was a bit younger, it took a week or two of rewarding him with a lot of over-the-top praise when he waited for his yellow sun. If he got up too early, I would just quietly walk him back to his room and let him know it wasn’t morning yet. He eventually got it. If I’m being honest, I also told him that Santa made the clock and it was magical and Santa would know if he didn’t wait until morning. I mean, whatever works, right?
Frequent Night Wakings
After about five or six months of age, only one feed a night is needed for nutritional purposes. And from eight months of age on, healthy babies shouldn’t need to feed during the night, especially since they’ve now been eating solids during the day for a couple of months.
Now, I’m not telling you how to parent. If your 9-month-old baby wakes a couple of times a night and you like to nurse them back to sleep, you can do that as long as you wish. I always say to parents I work with and to mommy groups I speak to that if what you’re doing is working for you, keep doing it.
If, however, you’re like so many parents I speak to who have babies waking every hour or a toddler still waking throughout the night, you may be at your exhaustion breaking point. More importantly, little ones who don’t sleep well throughout the night will also be exhausted.
If you have a baby, toddler, or young child who wakes throughout the night (except for the healthy number of feedings babies need, dependant on their age), there is a light at the end of the fatigue tunnel.
My advice is to use the tips from earlier in this post to encourage your little one to sleep through the night. So how do the nap tips apply to night wakings?
Just as you want to time naps properly, a healthy bedtime is critical. A common cause for frequent night wakings is a bedtime which is too late. You also want to make sure that your child’s room (or your room if you’re still room-sharing with them) isn’t overly stimulating. The darker and quieter, the better. And, just like with naps, kids who self-soothe to sleep at bedtime can fall back to sleep between sleep cycles during the night.
To sum it up, don’t keep your little one up too long before bed, keep their sleep space dark and quiet, and leave your son or daughter in their crib, bassinet, or bed drowsy and calm but awake so that they can self-soothe to sleep.
If they do wake during the night other than when they need to nurse or bottle-feed, your response can be just like what I described in Nap tip #4. You can give them some space to go back to sleep. You can sit near them, a reassuring yet boring zombie. Or you can use your touch or voice to soothe them back to a calm, drowsy state. As with everything else, the more consistent you are, the faster you’ll see your little one sleep better at night.
Okay, this post has a lot of information. And it’s also pretty general so, if you have questions or want some more personalized information, you can always book a free 15-minute consultation using the link at the bottom of the post.
And one more thing. It’s hard enough to be a parent who is practicing physical distancing at home with kids. If someone in your home is also a frontline worker during this pandemic, that adds so much more stress to the situation.
This is why I’m offering free services to families of frontline workers.
If you need tips, have questions, or just want some support in getting your family sleeping better during this time, you can message me or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll send you a link to book a free one-hour call. And, if you need more support than that, we’ll figure it out. We all have to support each other and I’m hoping that and the information in this post helps in some small way.