By ELAINE HO MEI LI
While sleep seems the most natural act in the world, we are not born with the ability to fall asleep on our own.
The ability to soothe oneself to sleep must be learned, best conditioned and ingrained in a child from birth (though it’s not too late to start them from toddlerhood either).
As a parent, blessed with two very active boys, I have tried asking my mum how she handled her children's sleep problems. She couldn’t advise much, claiming she had “no problems” getting us to sleep.
Thus, I’ve had to take a crash course on this topic to salvage my own sleep ... and sanity.
Tip #1: Find the sleep sweet spot
Whether it’s co-sleeping in a cot next to you or in his own room, a mattress on the floor or even a bassinet attached to your bed, the permutations are endless. Take some time to figure out which arrangement allows the maximum amount of rest for everyone.
My baby sleeps better on my bed, next to me. But some dads can’t sleep a wink if baby’s in bed with them, so one option is for dad to sleep in another room after 11pm. Be creative. Also consider which arrangement allows you to put baby back to sleep faster, before you become too awake to go back to sleep yourself.
Tip #2: Set the mood
Many hold firm to the belief that a child should get used to sleeping in a noisy environment, with utensils clattering and the TV on. Have a heart. You’d find it hard to nod off or stay asleep too if your room was next to a sports bar during football season.
It’s fine if you’re rocking your baby to sleep during the occasional noisy family dinner and want to condition them to sleep through it, but you don’t want to do that all the time because the noise does make their sleep unrestful.
Set the mood for a long night’s sleep with the right:
* Lighting - Turn off the lights or keep the room as dim as possible. Darkness triggers your child’s body to slow down for sleep. For toddlers who fear the dark, use a small night light or keep the door slightly ajar for light to come in from the corridor or bathroom. Use blackout curtains so the morning sun won’t awaken them too early. I blocked out the light so well in our kids’ bedroom that my husband dubbed it “The Bat Cave.”
* Temperature - In this heat, it’s important to keep them cool. If the back of their necks are always wet with sweat, turn on the air-conditioning, turn up the fan or put on cooler pyjamas.
* Clothing - If they’re always kicking off the blankets, get them full-body jammies with covered feet. If the material is too scratchy, get them cotton ones.
* Bedding - Blankets too thin or thick? Waterproof sheet underneath preventing airflow? Mattress too thin, hard or soft for his liking? My boy moves around a lot in his sleep, and used to knock his head on the bars above the bumpers and wake up. I replaced his traditional cot with a playpen that has netting instead of bars – and he can now resettle himself to sleep without my help!
|The 'Bat Cave' in the afternoon with the lights on (above) and off (below).
Tip #3: Do NOT miss naptime
Kids under five years old still need their afternoon naps. If they miss it, they become overtired, making it harder to settle them for night-time sleep. They will not replace the lost afternoon sleep with more hours at night. In fact, they may wake up more! Remember that sleep begets sleep. (See Tip #5 for timing of naps.)
Tip #4: Exercise, exercise, exercise
Wear them out. Before dinner, and if weather permits, get them out of the house and into the playground (with mosquito repellant) for some running, jumping and climbing. Fresh air also relaxes the younger ones, so go a few rounds in the stroller.
Tip #5: Ban before bedtime
Avoid known stimulants at least two hours before bedtime, namely caffeine (which they shouldn’t be having at this age anyway), sugary foods or drinks, and any form of exercise. While it’s great to wear them out at 5pm, it’s not a good idea at 7pm when they have to be in bed at 8pm. Exercise raises the body temperature when it should be going down, in preparation for sleep. Yes, you can wear him out till he knocks out from sheer exhaustion, but he’ll be overtired and won’t have a peaceful night’s sleep.
Tip #6: Attach him to a comforter or “lovie”
We all grew up with a favourite blanket or stuffed toy that mum threatened to throw away because it was hugged / chewed / dragged around till it was filthy and threadbare. From a tender age, we’d built attachments to those “lovies” as they comforted us to sleep and helped us go back to sleep. If your baby shows a preference for a “lovie” (e.g. his thumb, a pacifier, teddy bear, fire engine, etc), make sure it’s safe, thank your lucky stars and let him hold it to sleep! He’ll grow out of it eventually.
My first boy’s “lovie” was either me or his dad, and he refused all attempts to transition him to anything else. For my second boy (who is still breastfeeding), I discovered he loved sniffing my (washed) breastpad, but it was a potential choking hazard so I sewed a spare one to a toy blanket he previously rejected. Now he hugs the blanket to sleep every night.
|The writer's younger son with his 'lovie' - a blanket with breastpad sewn in.
Tip #7: Establish a bedtime routine
This is key. In such a big scary world, with so much to learn and absorb, babies and toddlers depend on routine to make sense of their day. The familiarity calms and gives them a sense of security.
This is especially true for the bedtime routine. The ritual winds their little bodies down and tells them that it’s time to go “night-night.” It also reduces bedtime battles, because they know what’s coming next.
A typical routine should include relaxing activities like a warm bath, a drink of milk, reading a book, a massage, a lullaby, counting sheep, listening to soft music ... the sky and your creativity’s the limit.
One of our children's routine is a cup of milk downstairs (so none is spilled on the bed), a shower, brushing of teeth, pyjamas, lights out, giving him his blanket to hold and sniff, and breastfeeding to sleep.
Obviously not all kids can be breastfed to sleep, so another important part of the routine is the actual putting of the child to sleep. There are many methods that range from the heartless Ferber cry-it-out method to the more humane Dr Sears’ nighttime parenting (no prizes for guessing which one I’m using), but the jury is still out on which is the most effective.
Which method you choose depends on your needs (are you willing to go to your child every time he wakes, or do you need the sleep to function at work the next day?) and the temperament of the baby (mellow vs spirited). Good luck to the parents who try Dr Ferber’s method with a spirited baby. Your child might outlast you, and you might be the one in tears.
Tip #8: Consistency
Once you’ve found what works for you and your family, stick to it faithfully. The order of the activities also matters, so if your child is used to bath-storytime-milk, it may throw things off a little if you change it to milk-storytime-bath for a couple of weeks.
Major life changes (e.g. a move, arrival of a new sibling, mum going back to work), illnesses or big developmental milestones will turn things upside down for awhile, so you can be flexible to suit the circumstances – but return to your routine as soon as possible.
Tip #9: Love
This is perhaps the most important tip of all. Make him feel that it’s safe for him to fall asleep, and that he’s loved. Kiss him. Cuddle him. Tell him how much you love him. Tell him how much everybody loves him. Don’t hold back. All too soon, he’ll be a teenager embarassed by such shows of affection.
The great news is that these tips worked like a charm on my second son, a lovely textbook baby who has met all his milestones on time and can fall asleep in the car seat during a 15-minute journey.
The bad news is that these tips were not enough for my firstborn, a notoriously bad sleeper, who has recently turned three. He is a spirited and intense child, also known as a “high need” child, so getting him to sleep is a lot harder, requiring more complex measures.
I would like to assure parents of such a child that if yours avoids sleep like the plague, it’s not your fault. It’s not theirs either. They’re just wired differently and these basic tips are just the starting point for us. Accept that they will need a lot more planning and help to calm themselves for bed.