Proper sleep is necessary for our mental health, but for many of us, a good night’s sleep remains elusive. New parents especially are known to have sleeping issues and even expect them when they decide to become parents. For new parents and their children, experts have a variety of suggestions on how to get the best sleep possible. Keep in mind there are many theories, methods, and ideas in regard to best sleeping practices for young children, infants, and even adults.
One website devoted to attachment parenting, www.AskDrSears.com, has a whole section about sleep problems that infants and toddlers have, and there are a variety of articles that offer suggestions and solutions to parents. One article is called “31 Ways to Get Your Baby to Sleep and Stay Asleep.” Even the name of the article lends itself to the fact that not every baby is the same—you may have to try different methods to find out what works for you and your baby when it comes to sleeping well.
One suggestion the article provides is to find out what sleeping situation suits your infant best—this could be in a crib in a different room, a crib in the same room as parents, or in the bed with parents. Other suggestions include playing a tape of the baby’s favorite lullabies and making sure your baby is physically comfortable before putting him or her to sleep. Some physical discomforts to watch for include clearing the baby’s nose, soothing teething pain, making sure your baby isn’t allergic or irritated by certain sleepwear fabrics, and changing diapers.
On the other end of the spectrum is Fran Walfish, a child, teen, parent, and family psychotherapist, who has three suggestions for parents to try with their infants in order to avoid future difficulties.
1) “Always put your newborn infant down to sleep awake. Even if you have breastfed and your baby falls asleep, gently arouse her so that she opens her eyes and sees you. Kiss her and say, “Night, night,” and put her in her crib. The reason is that babies need to learn without skin contact to toss and turn in order to find a comfortable spot to fall asleep. This fosters emotional growth versus dependency. Building trust and attachment bonding is key while nurturing every increment toward independence.”
2) “When you bring your infant home for the first time, begin to offer and encourage attachment to a Transitional Object (thumb, pacifier, soft blankie, or stuffed cuddly toy animal). The attachment to a Transitional Object early on will help your baby self-soothe when falling asleep and at times of frustration.”
3) “During the first 6 months of life, you cannot spoil your child. Each time your baby cries, respond quickly and warmly. Nurture, nurture, nurture. Boundaries begin at age 6 months, when babies’ stomachs have developed enough to hold food through the night. At that point, a sleep routine with expectations of baby sleeping through the night can be planned and implemented.”
Larina Kase, a psychologist who specializes in stress, anxiety, and sleep, is also the founder of a website that is a resource for parents who are looking to help their children with issues related to sleep, school, and stress called www.ConfidentCub.com.
She said some issues that could contribute to sleep problems for children include having an inconsistent sleep schedule (sometimes related to keeping children up later so they can see a parent with a later work schedule), as well as fear of nightmares, monsters, and the dark (and being separated from parents in general). It could be beneficial for parents to address any fears before bedtime and also to try to conquer any general worries children have during the daytime so they’re not thinking about them at night.
“Help your child identify fears and worries during the day,” Kase said. “Get practice addressing the worries early on in the day before bedtime, such as through a worry journal. Teach your child to talk back to worries, for example, ‘You’re not the boss of me, I don’t have to listen to you!’ Help your child see that you’re on their side and will work on the worries together.”
Kevin Smith, a pediatric sleep psychologist at Children’s Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Missouri, said that sleep issues are common among children from infants to school-age. These problems can include issues with actually going to bed and waking up at night.
“Poor sleep can negatively affect most aspects of a child’s functioning such as mood, focusing and attention, interpersonal relationships, and learning,” Smith said in an email. In addition, parents can suffer often during at least the first year from sleep deprivation, which can lead to severe daytime sleepiness and inability to function in some daily activities.
“It is estimated that parents of infants lose 200+ hours of sleep in their child’s [first] year,” Smith said. “Lack of parental sleep can affect many areas of functioning, such as mood and attention, and can contribute to stress on the marriage/relationship.”
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel for parents and their children. Here are Smith’s tips for getting a decent night’s sleep:
- Provide a sleeping environment that is conducive to sleep: a quiet, dark, comfortable bed.
- Decrease exposure to light from electronics near the end of the night, as this can make falling asleep harder to achieve.
- Have a consistent bedtime routine and bedtime.
- Provide opportunities for activity throughout the day (but not too close to bedtime) as this can help to regulate sleep.
- If your child is seemingly getting an adequate amount of sleep but is still tired, there may be an underlying organic sleep problem, such as breathing issues or excessive movements at night that are decreasing the quality of sleep. Discuss this with your pediatrician, who may recommend consultation with a pediatric sleep specialist.
Anandhi Narasimhan, an adult, adolescent, and child psychiatrist, emphasizes the importance of sleep and how insufficient sleep time can result in mental health issues.
She said it is common for new parents to suffer when it comes to losing sleep. “Parents with young children often have sleep disturbances due to caring for their young ones,” Narasimhan said. “It can decrease their ability to tolerate frustration, increase irritability, and also increase stress levels. Parents of young children are often affected when their children have sleep disturbances, as they wake up along with their children. Parents may have a hard time falling back asleep after their sleep is disrupted.”
Besides parents having mental health issues along with improper sleep, children can also experience mental health problems when they have sleep issues. “If young children are not getting enough sleep, they can experience irritability, poor academic performance, restlessness, and sometimes even aggressive behavior,” Narasimhan said. “There have been studies that show that lack of sleep adversely affects school performance in young children. Sleep disturbances can often occur with children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety disorders, and with developmental [disorders] such as in autism.”
She has some suggestions for both parents and young children for getting proper sleep:
- Have a bedtime routine at the same time every night.
- Have a bedtime ritual, such as reading for 15 minutes.
- Minimize noise.
- Maintain a proper diet (e.g., no caffeine later in the day for example) and exercise (very important).
- Try relaxation exercises such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation (where different muscle groups are tightened and relaxed), and meditation.
She added that if it’s still difficult to get proper sleep, even after trying some of these different approaches, it might be time to see a doctor and even try a sleep study.
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