There are 4 simple words that make most parents jump for joy: “sleeping through the night.” Unfortunately, this is a term many parents have yet to experience. Did you know that babies over 6 months old constantly transition and cycle between light and deep sleep (known as REM and non-REM)? During these transition periods, everyone experiences partial arousals, as adults, this is when we wake up, turn over, rearrange our pillows, or go to the bathroom. You probably don’t even remember them when you wake in the morning.
We All Wake Throughout the Night
The term “sleeping through the night” actually refers to the ability to put oneself back to sleep while experiencing a partial arousal during a sleep transition. This ability is what we are trying to teach our children when we long for them to “sleep through the night”. Remember, your baby will not have the ability to self-soothe or sleep through the night until close to 6 months (please use adjusted age if your baby is a preemie).
Quality Over Quantity
When we review the quantity and quality of sleep in a child’s day, we must look at the duration and number of disturbances experienced throughout each sleep span. A ten hour night’s sleep with no disturbances is far more restorative than a 12 hour night sleep with multiple awakenings (this does not apply for newborns, who do need to be fed, changed, and soothed when they wake during the night).
You’re probably wondering, “Can restorative sleep occur when my 15 month old gets up twice a night, calmly drinks a bottle, and returns immediately to sleep?” The answer is no – a 15 month old whose sleep is uninterrupted for 11.5 hours (the average for a child that age), will experience a much more restorative night of sleep.
If you’re wondering if your child has been getting good, restorative sleep, think about this: a child with good, quality sleep will have better moods, a higher ability to focus and learn, and overall improved health.
Think about this: three 20-minute naps do not equal the power of one continuous hour of napping. You can encourage your child to gently put himself back to sleep:
1. Put your child in to his crib or bed drowsy but awake (you can do this gradually over a week if need be with The Shuffle).
2. Watch your child’s wakeful windows to avoid an overtired state which will lead to more wakenings and shorter naps!
3. Respond to each of her wakenings, gently offer assurance but don’t resort to your old sleep crutch!
Restorative sleep means un-fragmented, uninterrupted and “motionless.” In order for your baby to experience truly restorative sleep, don’t wake him to eat unless he physically needs to eat (this only applies to babies over 6 months if their pediatrician has agreed).
If you can, keep movement like rocking, swinging, or car riding to a minimum, as movement keeps the brain in a lighter sleep, which is not as restorative to the brain as deep sleep.
Babies Are Naturally Light Sleepers
Just like grown-ups and older kids, infants switch between REM (light) sleep and non-REM (very deep) sleep several times during the night and during naps.
The big difference between baby sleep and adult sleep is, until they’re around two years old, babies log more REM sleep, which is when they dream, and also when they may wake up a bit.
It’s during these partial awakenings they may realize they can’t get back to sleep – unless they’ve learned how. That’s why it’s important for a baby to be able to put herself to sleep – otherwise she’ll need you to come help her every time she wakes up. As your baby learns how to put herself back to sleep, her sleep will become increasingly restorative.
Timing Is Everything
Keeping a consistent schedule of bedtimes, wake times, and nap times will aid your child in getting the right quality of sleep as well as the right quantity. A well-napped baby will sleep better at night and vice-versa. Find out what a typical schedule may look like for your baby.
Know How Long It Takes To Fall Asleep
Did you know that it takes an average of 15 to 20 minutes to go to sleep? This average applies to both adult and baby sleep. In fact, experts say that if you’re “asleep before your head hits the pillow,” you’re probably sleep-deprived.
Keep this in mind if you think your baby is taking too long to settle down, and don’t rush to “rescue” him. It may take him 15 to 20 minutes to land in Dream Land.
The Right Amount of Sleep
Take a look at the general guidelines as to how many hours of sleep the AVERAGE child requires at various ages. Remember, every child is different – some need more or less sleep than others – but the variations should not be huge.
Your child shouldn’t be off the average total by more than an hour either way.
Sleep researcher Dr. Owen said, “Only 5% of the population needs [or functions well with] less than the average amount of sleep recommended, the problem is that 95% of the population thinks they are the 5%”.
Bright Babies Need More, Not Less Sleep
A baby who seems ahead of the curve- interested in the world around her, reaching milestones early- often fools her parents into thinking she needs less sleep than the “typical” baby.
In fact, she needs more. Because she’s so engaged with her surroundings, she often has a harder time shutting down. She’s “too busy” to bother going to sleep.
This kind of baby also knows what she wants and when she wants it, and she’s willing to hold out until she gets it. She can be a little tough to parent. She especially needs you to make sure she gets the sleep she needs (but won’t admit to needing).
Since this type of baby is often able to hide her sleepy cues, you must watch the clock and get her into bed on time. Keep in mind that she may not be a super flexible sleeper for several years, meaning she’ll need utter consistency when it comes to when, where and how she goes to sleep.
Restorative Sleep is Worth the Work
Helping our children (and ourselves!) get the proper quantity and quality of sleep is one of parenting’s biggest challenges, but it is worth taking the time and energy to improve in this area. By becoming aware of your child’s natural patterns and listening to their cues, you can make gentle changes that will affect the wellbeing of your entire family.