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Frequently Asked Questions About Sleep

By Lynne Reeves Griffin (2001)

You've done everything you can to promote healthy sleep habits in your child and still your child sleeps less than optimally. Take heart: You're not alone. Poor sleep habits can arise any time in your child's first three years, and the sooner you put a plan in place, the sooner healthy sleep patterns will emerge.

Here are some common sleep issues for young children ages’ birth to three years old and some strategies for setting things straight.

Q: My three-week-old baby is asleep all day and awake all night. What can I do?

A: There are a few things you can do. First, be patient. This is normal in a newborn and will get better as his neurological system matures. Second, get sleep when your baby sleeps...you need your energy to care for your baby. Third, make sleep the priority, not household chores and visiting. Fourth, ask your friends and family to help you out with housework...they really do want to help. Fifth, put your baby to bed before he's fully asleep. The earlier your baby begins to learn to soothe himself, the better. Sixth, remember "night time=quiet time." Your baby will eventually learn daytime is playtime, and night time is for sleeping.

Q: My six-month-old baby sleeps in his crib at night, but only for two hours at a time. Can I do anything to change that?

A: Begin by reviewing what you can expect from a six-month-old baby. Generally, a six-month-old baby can sleep through the night with a nap during the day. Next, start a journal of your baby's sleep patterns and the associations he makes to fall asleep. Look at your baby's sleep associations. Is your baby only falling asleep if you rock him to sleep or after an elaborate routine? Instead, keep the routine simple -- one story or song and then bed. Also, limit daytime sleep to no longer than one or two sleep cycles, approximately fifty minutes each, and keep your baby awake 15 minutes longer each time before you put him back to sleep. Your baby needs to sleep in longer periods less often. Finally, reassure him if crying is prolonged or distressed, but continue with the routine of placing him (on his back and awake) in bed, and leaving the room.

Q: I sing, rock, and read to my one year-old child. But no matter how pleasant I make bedtime, she still cries when I leave. I started sitting in her room until she fell asleep. Now I have my mattress in the room on the floor and still she cries every time I put her down. Where do I go from here?

A: Your child has developed some complex sleep associations. The most troublesome one is that your child can't fall asleep without you. Start by simplifying the routine -- one story or song in the rocker, then the crib, then you leave. Use the same routine each time your child goes to bed. Your child needs predictability. If your child is crying and needs reassurance, you may go in after two to three minutes, but don't talk -- just rub her back and leave. Then extend the length of time you wait to go in again, because your child needs time to learn to rely on herself. Also, make these changes to the routine when you know you can follow through, not before a vacation or if you're going out the next evening. This common sleep problem can be solved quickly as long as you are consistent and stick with your plan. If you give up, the behaviour will continue.

Q:My two and one half year-old used to sleep like a dream. Now he is afraid to go to bed. He has also started waking in the middle of the night and is acting frightened. Should I just let him sleep in our bed until he grows out of it?

A: It is fine to consider the "family bed," but not as a solution to a sleep problem. You must either adopt it long-term, or not adopt it at all. Separation anxiety is a common reason why good bedtime routines fall apart, and setting firm yet loving limits is important. Try to see this time as an opportunity for you to help your child learn to soothe himself. Start by always reassuring him that you are near and he is safe, and never try to sneak out or away from your child. This only reinforces what he is afraid of -- that you'll disappear and leave him alone and helpless. Continue with a simple routine. You may need to reassure him more often, but don't alter the routine, and wait a longer period of time before you go in again. Don't be afraid to set limits on behaviour, and be patient. Separation anxiety will get better as your child is reassured and limits are set.


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Last modified: 01/29/12