All parents must solve the age-old question of luring their babies and toddlers to sleep through any trick, routine, philosophy or product they can find. The tricky part about sleep is there is no one-size-fits-all method that works for every child.
It’s important to remember that average sleep totals vary significantly with age, says Rachel Shepard-Ohta, a pregnant mom of two and pediatric sleep specialist. For instance, she explains baby sleep is totaled over 24 hours, while toddlers have more consistent(ish) schedules. To know where your little one’s rest should average, check out the sleep totals from the National Sleep Foundation.
If you’re desperately craving improved sleep and you feel like you’ve tried everything, take a deep breath and press on. Here, we spoke with parents and experts on what helps babies and toddlers rest easier, and hopefully, some of their wisdom will benefit your family. Always check the Safe Sleep Guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics and consult your pediatrician if you have any questions or concerns.
Much like learning a new skill, determining the best sleeping method for your family requires research. There are many ways to approach luring and teaching your baby and toddler to sleep, and you need to understand your options so you can access your comfort level. For instance, some parents go for the “Cry It Out” method, while others don’t believe in it.
As a new parent amid the pandemic, Morgan Canclini-Mitchell, a pregnant mom of two and the CEO and founder of two|pr, continuously heard about a few main resources and suggestions for baby sleep. “Obviously, sleep training via an in-person sleep coach was not possible in 2020, so I sourced at-home options that other parents recommended,” she shares. These included Dr. Bucknam’s classic as well as “Moms on Call” by Laura Hunter and Jennifer Walker.
Like most humans, babies and children thrive with set routines. As mom of three and pediatric sleep specialist Maria Lopez explains, when the same things are happening in the same order every day, they learn to predict what is next, giving them a sense of control and predictability. It also makes transitioning between activities easier, like going from playtime to nap time.
“If they know that nap time is coming, they are more willing to transition into it from, let’s say, playtime, and in return, they are more welcoming of sleep,” she says. This makes daytime routines just as vital as nighttime routines. But if your brain is a little mush postpartum, that’s OK. You can use apps like Huckleberry or good old-fashioned pen and paper via this baby log.
Though adults may enjoy the crisp feeling of cool sheets, babies can be startled by a sudden temperature change. Think about it: They go from being cradled in your arms to a chilly bassinet or crib, so they let out a cry in discomfort. Mom of one Katie Waynick learned a sleep hack we learned from our newborn photographer: Warm the bassinet and/or crib with a heating pad ahead of time.
“When we would start bedtime, we would put the heating pad on the bed and let it warm the space up. Obviously, don’t let it get too hot, just warm and cozy,” Waynick explains. “A couple of minutes before putting the baby down, turn off and remove the pad. It helped with the transfers from us to the bed because she wasn’t going onto a cold mattress, and she would typically sleep a full cycle without issue.”
If you want your child of any age to sleep better, dim the lights as the sun is going down, recommends Alie Al-Jadda, a mom of two, a certified pediatric sleep consultant and founder of Memeeno. This goes back to how we are all hardwired to follow the cyclical phases of daylight and darkness. “A little before sundown start dimming the lights and move slowly, gradually, forward with your sleep routine,” she shares. “Dimmed lights help activate the melatonin hormone in response to darkness and help to ease the body into sleepiness gradually.”
You can install dimmers on your overhead lights or switch to lamps only. Either way, you’re subtly sending them the signal it’s time to get sleepy.
Starting from eight weeks and older, babies can respond and notice patterns. This is ideally when you should start introducing a bedtime routine that lets them know rest is on the way. Lopez explains if you have a bedtime routine in place, where the same things happen every single night, you are forming an association between the situation and sleep. “Your child’s brain will get the cue once bedtime routine starts that it is time to get ready to sleep, and just like with daytime routines, it will help your little one to be more welcoming of the moment you lay them down,” she explains.
For many babies and toddlers, a bath can not only be an essential part of a routine but one that helps them get drowsy too. Warm water, calm music and a soft, plush towel seal the deal. You can choose a transitional tub like this one that will last from newborn to a year old when they’re ready to sit in the “big kid” bath.
In the first few months of their life, babies prefer to be swaddled like a tiny burrito when sleeping. How come? It reminds them of being in the womb where they were snuggly tucked in Mom’s tummy — and it cuts down on the startle reflex that usually wakes them up when they slap themselves. (Really!)
You can safely swaddle your baby until they begin to roll over, usually between 3 and 4 months. Swaddling is a top recommendation of Canclini-Mitchell. There are dozens of options available, with Ollie being one of the highest rated and recommended. Other contenders include the Happiest Baby Swaddle, the Nested Bean Sleepsack and the Halo Sleep Sack. Try a few to see what your little one prefers.
One of the most beneficial ways to entice your baby to sleep is by keeping them on a schedule. This varies significantly by age, but generally speaking, it’s focusing on wake windows, feeding your baby the ounces they need during the daytime (so they don’t wake you up at 3 a.m.) and making sure their naps don’t mess with their evening sleep. If this all sounds overwhelming to you, that’s OK. You’re not alone.
Dana O’Malley, a pregnant mom of one and the founder of Kindred PR, took a step back from her nightly battle and decided it was time to call in the experts. “I finally sought 45 minutes of a sleep expert’s time, and it really changed the game,” she says. “It was hard for me to make the changes she suggested, but you need to follow through, and they will work.”
If you’re not ready for a one-on-one session, you can also try online courses, like the Taking Cara Babies Newborn Bundle, which has a cult following.
During your baby and toddler’s wake windows, you should do all you can to stimulate them. This can be through tummy time on a play gym, walking around your backyard to look at nature, sitting in a sit-up chair and many other activities. Not only is this beneficial for their development, but it also makes noticing their sleep cues easier, Lopez says. Many babies will rub their eyes, yawn or start to cry when they’re ready for sleep. You want to avoid waiting until they’re overtired, and thus more difficult to lure to bed.
“When we wait too long to lay down to sleep, our bodies go into a fight-or-flight response,” she says. “As a result, we start producing cortisol, the main stress hormone, which is also responsible for waking us up in the morning and giving us the pump of energy in the morning. Going to bed with a cortisol load in your system will make it difficult to fall asleep, and once you manage to fall asleep, it will make it hard to stay asleep, resulting in a fragmented, restless night.”
Two things are true, according to Lopez: Sleep is a developmental process that slowly matures as your child grows, and sleep is a learned skill and not something that will naturally occur throughout the evolution of your kid’s sleep.
As she explains, a key component of sleep consolidation (connecting our sleep cycles) is having independent sleep skills to not depend on the parents to rest. Many parents also tend to rush to their baby’s side when they first start crying, but this can cause more damage. Babies sometimes cry without waking, and exercising a pause will prevent you from waking them up — and teach them independent sleeping skills.
For those parents who have the budget, the Snoo bassinet helps babies become more independent with sleeping by gently rocking them and playing soothing sounds.
Before your baby arrived, you probably spent countless hours stressing over their nursery. And then, once they were a toddler, you wanted them to have a space they loved. While this is an exciting part of parenthood, Al-Jadda says it’s crucial to adopt a “less is more” approach to their bedroom at bedtime. “Having too many brightly colored objects, toys or decor around the room can also have unintended consequences. It can excite a child’s senses and be distracting when trying to lull your little one to sleep,” she explains.
If you want to keep items in their room — and thus not throughout your house! — consider a quick storage solution like this toy organizer to scoop them up and create a calm space at night.
So what happens once baby rolls over? They have to stop sleeping all swaddled over — and transition to a sleepsuit or sack. This is not a simple task but one that’s made easier with this (appropriately titled) magic sleepsuit, says Reva Minkoff, mom of one and the founder and president of Digital4Startups Inc. “The added pressure and snugness around his chest is like we are holding him without holding him,” she says. “When our son wears the Merlin, he both sleeps and naps longer, and we also give it some credit for helping him learn to fall asleep on his own — even when he was fighting naps, he fought less in the Merlin.”
Some toddlers love books; others love songs. Wherever your child is at, meet them there, O’Malley urges. For example, her daughter loves books and asks lots of questions. “We sat her down one night and read a few books about bedtime routines and explained that we would be implementing similar sleep rules and that sleep is important so she can wake up with lots of energy to run, jump and play the next day,” she says. “When we remind her that sleep helps her have a fun day ahead, she more readily accepts bedtime. While talking through our explanations might work for our daughter, bedtime songs or other routines and acts might work for another child.”
This personalized book from Amazon explains the importance of sleep — and even allows your little one to see their name on every page!
Did you know you should wake your sleeping baby before putting them in a bassinet? Yep, it may seem counterintuitive, but it’s a top tip from Dr. Harvey Karp, founder of Happiest Baby and sleep expert. “Swaddle and feed your baby, turn on some white noise and rock your baby to sleep,” he advises. “Then place them into the crib or bassinet and gently wake them by lightly tickling their feet. Because they’re already swaddled and have the white noise, babies tend to fall back asleep in five to 10 seconds. In those 10 seconds, babies are beginning to learn how to put themselves back to sleep in the middle of the night, without your help.”
For a cute and cuddly white noise machine that offers comforting sounds, try the Snoobear.
Traveling and sleep is a whole other ballgame, so if you’re planning to hit the road with your baby or toddler, Canclini-Mitchell says you can’t leave the house without this essential tool. “No more toting around blackout curtains to every destination and praying that there would be blinds on windows — something you never think to look for when you book an Airbnb before having children,” she says. “We could set up the SlumberPod over our child’s crib when he was in his nursery at home or over a pack-and-play while we were traveling. Either way, he was able to sleep in full darkness.”
Not all babies respond to pacifiers, but if you’re one of the lucky parents who have a baby that likes them, buy a few, Canclini-Mitchell recommends. Why not just one? You or your child are bound to lose them — especially when they really need one.
“As soon as he was out of his swaddle and in the sleepsack/sleepsuit phase where he could reach for things, we started putting multiple pacifiers near him in his crib,” she says. “That way, if he lost one or got upset during the night, he could simply feel around and find another one and pop it in his mouth.”
As a bonus, these pacifiers glow in the dark, making them even easier to see.
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