I’ve been asked by one of my readers to talk about sleep habits and children. In the first few months of life, baby is adjusting to life outside the womb. This is quite an adjustment and sticking close to mom, being carried, snuggled, and hearing mom’s heartbeat are all soothing things for your newborn. Don’t worry about spoiling a newborn by holding them too much, carrying them around too much, taking naps together etc. Babies need their mamas and you can try to fight against that as much as you like, but it’s going against nature in my opinion. This is a God-born instinct for babies, and I believe children feel secure when they can be connected to their mommies early in life.
There are two aspects of sleep: one is children’s’ sleep and one is parent’s sleep. Parent’s sleep is easy: your sleep will be ruined for years. I’m not gonna sugar coat it. I love this quote:
Fortunately, our hearts are so connected to our kids and they’re so cute it’s worth the sleep deprivation! I asked my chiropractor once when I wouldn’t be so exhausted, his reply, “When your youngest is about 12 years old”. He pretty much nailed it!
The next area I will address is children’s sleep. The first thing I want to say is that children’s personalities play a part, BUT I believe your EXPECTATIONS in regard to sleep are far more crucial. Children live up to the expectations of the parents. Consider the following true example: I have a friend who started rocking her first baby to sleep every night and the child expected this up till the age of 2 years old. This was exhausting and taxing on the mom. Baby 2 came along, and the mom learned her lesson the first time around and was determined not to have to rock this baby. Well baby 2 learned to go to sleep in her bed, and no big issues arose. Was baby 1 different genetically from baby 2 and needed this? Not at all. It was the parental expectation, and what the parents allowed that made the difference in the two children. If you are having sleep issues with your child, it’s because YOU have allowed patterns to develop that are not healthy for the child or yourself.
My view of sleep is that parents should be strict and merciful. Here is what I mean. I believe that you should decide what time you want your child’s bedtime to be. My personal feeling, others can disagree, is that children should be in bed sometime around 7 – 8:00 pm for younger children, and as they get older, increasing that time somewhat but up to Jr. High should be in bed by 9:00 pm. Granted, there can be flexibility in this, especially if the father’s schedule doesn’t allow for him to be home until later, then you will want to work in some time for the children to see their father daily if possible. I also recognize that some cultures have different habits too. When we lived in the inner city, for example, many families kept later hours and slept later in the morning. There is freedom within form, so you have to work out what’s best for your family. Regular, earlier bedtimes for our children worked best for our family. It gave me a little bit of quiet time or time with my husband. I want to give full disclosure here though, I will tell you the ideal didn’t always work. There were many a night in the throes of raising our tribe when I was nursing or pregnant or both, that I would go to bed when the kids went to bed because I knew I would be up during the night nursing, etc. I will also tell you my husband and I are both morning people and have always been early risers. In addition, I never had children who slept more than 10 hours. My hat goes off to mom’s who have 12-hour sleepers but that was never me. Until they were teenagers, lol!
Once YOU decide what time bedtime is, having a consistent nighttime routine will teach your kids the expectation, it will let them know that things are moving toward bedtime. An example of a peaceful routine is to take a bath, read books, prayers, into bed. You may want to add a small snack in there before or after bath. If your child knows this is the routine, they will look forward to it. Of course, there will be nights this doesn’t work. Evenings out visiting friends, special events etc. will get them off schedule but as much as possible, let there be a consistent routine. You should let your child know that when you put them to bed, they are to stay in bed and not get out. Kids are smart. What happens next will set the tone for your bedtime with your child for possibly years. If the child has gone to the potty (should do this before tuck in ), and all is well, if they get out of bed they should be disciplined. You are the parent and part of child training is to help guide your child to have good habits. If you believe that good sleep habits are important for children’s health, growth, and emotional well being (there is research to support this), then it is imperative that you let your child know what the expectation is and if they disobey there will be unpleasant consequences. That is where the strict part comes in and believe me, even though it will be difficult to be consistent it will be well worth the effort. When they are 1 ½ its cute when they get out of bed, but when they are 4 it’s not cute anymore, it’s exasperating. With child rearing in general, if you take the time when they are little (age 18 months to 2 ½ years) to be consistent and set the tone and expectation, there will be very few issues when they are 4 – 5 years. By you setting boundaries for your young children, you are helping them to be secure and setting yourself up for years of enjoyment of your children. All of us have experienced the out of control child in Wal-Mart yelling and hitting their mother, telling her no. The poor mom is at her wits end and wonders how her little angel could have gotten so out of control. Children are not equipped to have no boundaries. They don’t have the maturity to know what is good for them. God gave children parents to guide and teach them.
I have set the framework to developing good sleep routines and habits. Now I’m going to give you a couple things to consider. This is where the mercy comes in. Children at times experience real fears. Haven’t you ever gone through a time of insecurity or fear? Children are no different. Perhaps they heard a scary story, or develop a fear of monsters under the bed, or like my 4-year-old grandson right now has a fear of the Big Bad Wolf! If our child was going through a fearful time, one thing we did was to sit in the doorway of their room with the door ajar and the hall light on. Normally we had a night light in their bedroom. We made them stay in their beds but we reassured them that we are near, they are safe, and we were willing to sit with them for a bit. This was a good time to catch up on reading for us. This worked 100% of the time. Knowing we were near and they didn’t have anything to be afraid of, soon they’d drift off to sleep. These never developed into continual habits. They would grow out of the fear and they would no longer need us to sit there. But we did always leave the door ajar and a dim light, so they weren’t in the complete dark. Other times I would sit for a few minutes then tell them I’d come back to check on them. And I always did. After a couple minutes I’d look in on them, maybe go in and rub their head gently, reassure them and tell them I’d look in on them again. Doing that made them feel safe and they’d drift off to sleep.
What about the child who comes into your bedroom in the middle of the night? My husband and I had a full-size bed for the first 30 years of our married life. A toddler in the bed, thrashing around, putting cold feet on you and waking you up, didn’t make for sound rest. So, what we did was keep a small sleeping bag under our bed. If a child came in during the night, first I assessed if they needed to go potty and get tucked back in which was often the case. Easy peasy. But if it was obvious they had a bad dream or were afraid, I pulled the sleeping bag out and they slept beside me on the floor. I would hold their hand or rub their backs and they went back to sleep. It was reassuring to them and was a good answer for us, we still were able to get some sleep. Todd often said if we had a room full of mattresses and everyone slept in there, we’d probably all get a great sleep every night!
That is how we handled most sleep issues with our gang. I’d love to hear your ideas too. My daughter will be co-sleeping with her baby that is coming in June, so we’ll have her share with us all about that once she sees how that works for her. I’m excited to hear about it! I hope being strict and merciful will be of help with you own littles and sleeping. God bless you and sweet dreams!