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Little Kids, Big Questions
is a series of 12 podcasts that translates the research of early childhood development into parenting practices that mothers, fathers and other caregivers can tailor to the needs of their own child and family. Click here to listen to or download the podcasts. This podcast series is generously funded by MetLife Foundation.

Three Questions on Sleep

I'm So Tired of This:  Three Questions on Sleep

Click on a link to read more about each question:

My 8-month-old has started protesting at bedtime.

My 18-month-old will nap at child care, but won't nap at home anymore.

My 3-year-old just moved to a bed, and has started coming into my room at night.

Q.  Since my 8-month-old was a tiny baby, I have had a regular bedtime routine: bath, quiet play, books, bed.  It worked like a charm. But now, after we've read our story, my son starts fussing and crying as I carry him to his room. What's going on?

A.  The same thing that is probably going on in thousands of other homes where there is an 8-month-old. At this stage of development, babies are figuring out what comes next. You have done such a good job with your bedtime routine that your son now knows that after the story is over, he has to separate from you—the person he loves and wants to be with the most. Why in the world would he want to do that?

Most 8-month-olds are also developing an understanding of object permanence-the concept that things exist even though they can't see them. So now, when you put your son to sleep and leave the room, he may know that you are still out there somewhere.  He is also starting to understand that he can make things happen. He's well aware that if he fusses and cries, he just might be able to stall his bedtime and get to spend more time with you. 

One strategy that can be helpful is to do the bedtime routine in your son’s room. This can make the transition to bed easier and will help him think of his room as a place of comfort and security.  If he is still fussing when you put him in his crib, leave the room and see if he calms on his own. If he doesn't, go in every few minutes for a second or two just to let him know you're still there. Don't turn the lights on or pick him up as that will only get him more aroused and make it harder for him to soothe himself to sleep. If you are consistent and stick with the routine, after a few nights he will likely stop fussing and soothe himself to sleep on his own.     Back to Top

Q.  My 18-month-old son naps at child care like clockwork, every day from 12:30 to 2:30 pm. But on the weekends we can’t get him to go down for even 30 minutes! We do his nap routine, put him in his crib, but he screams until we give up and go get him. By 5 pm we’re all exhausted. Any suggestions?

A.  It can be tough to have a toddler up all day, especially one who is cranky and overtired. And no naps mean no breaks for Mom and Dad. It can also feel pretty frustrating for parents to know that their child is a dream at child care but won’t go down without a fight on the weekend. The comforting news is that this dilemma is pretty common. Here’s why.

First, child-care providers are dealing with children in groups, so there is a greater need for rules and cooperation than there is at home. And children are amazingly adaptable. I remember my own surprise at learning that my 2-year-old, who hadn’t napped since she was 15 months, played quietly with toys and books for an entire hour-and-a-half most days at child care and sometimes actually fell asleep!

Second, there is a difference in the nature of the adult-child relationships in childcare versus home. A childcare provider may care deeply about your son but she does not have the same emotional connection to him as you do. This is why parents almost always find it harder than care providers to set and enforce limits. Parents have a tendency to get love and limits mixed up, feeling they are doing something wrong by setting a limit their child protests. For working parents, enforcing a naptime can be an especially tough limit to set because it means another separation from their child (if only for an hour or two) and loud, unhappy protests.

The first step is to know that you are being good parents by helping your child get the sleep he needs, even if he cries and complains. Keeping this in mind will help you follow through on a plan.  Start by talking with your childcare provider to learn how she helps the children transition to naptime. Is there lunch, then diaper changing, then a story? Does she rub your son’s back? Dim the lighting? Is there music or any other ambient noises? Try to re-create the atmosphere and rituals as much as possible at home. Also keep in mind that a real nap-killer on the weekends is changing your son’s routine. Falling asleep in the car for 15 minutes here and there (as many kids do while parents run errands) means he may not nap when you get home. And if you let your son sleep later on a Saturday or Sunday morning, he may not go down at naptime. So try to keep to your child’s usual schedule as best as you can.

When you put your son down for a nap, put a few soft toys or padded books in his crib. Some toddlers need time to wind down or, after napping, time to wake up; quiet play can often do the trick. (This is not recommended for babies under 12 months for whom soft objects in the crib can be a suffocation hazard.)

If your son cries, go in to comfort him briefly—but don’t linger or take him out of the crib. Give him a cuddle and explain, It’s naptime now. You can decide if you’d like to go back in at subsequent intervals (say, 5 minutes or 10 minutes later if he’s still crying) or not at all. The approach you choose depends on your baby’s temperament and what you feel might work best for him. The going-in-periodically-to-soothe routine not only didn’t calm my 9-month-old son, it confused him, made him angrier, and prolonged the protesting.

Remember, this is a learning process and takes time. Start out with a half-hour as a goal. Put him down, go back in as you’d like.  Then, if he doesn’t fall asleep, go get him after a half-hour. Wait a few days, then shoot for 45 minutes, then an hour. Soon you may find that he is learning to fall asleep on his own.

The most important thing is consistency. Going in and picking him up one day, then letting him cry it out the next is not likely to work and will only confuse your toddler. When you are consistent with his napping ritual, he will learn to adapt more easily and quickly.      Back to Top

Q.  Recently, we switched my almost-three-year-old to a “big girl bed.”  My one fear was that she’d start coming into our room in the middle of the night—and that is exactly what has happened.   How do we nip this habit in the bud?

A.  It is not at all unusual for toddlers—recently liberated from crib to bed—to start wandering at night.  Fearless explorers that they are, they’re determined to exercise their newfound freedom and prolong their daytime fun.  There’s a learning curve here for both of you.  For you, moving your daughter to a bed means establishing and communicating a new set of bedtime rules.  For your daughter, moving to a bed means adjusting to a big change in her night-time routine. 

Look at this switch from your daughter’s perspective:  She may love her new bed and enjoy feeling like a “big girl.”  But her bed is also new and unfamiliar, and perhaps not as cozy as her crib.  When she wakes (as we all do in the middle of the night) she can’t rely on her old familiar crib to help her fall back asleep.  There are no “walls” around her to make her feel contained, her blankets and sheets have changed, and the view is different too.  When it’s night-time and she feels unsure in her big girl bed, you’re the one she wants for reassurance.  And all she has to do is simply stroll down the hall to reach her goal—YOU.

If you want to put an end to these night-time visits, the key is sensitivity plus consistency.  At bedtime, acknowledge that it is a big change to be sleeping in a bed, but remind her that the rule is that she stays in her bed all through the night.

If she does get out of her bed during the night, gently take her by the hand and walk her back to her room.  Tuck her in, but do not sing, rub her back, tell her a story, lay down with her, or do anything that would reward or prolong the interaction.  Try not to even talk very much, except to repeat the rule:  At night, the rule is that you stay in your own bed.  I will walk you back to your room and tuck you in.  You are safe and I love you.  See you in the morning.

The following strategies can help your daughter learn to soothe herself back to sleep during this transition:

  • At bedtime, talk about what she can do to help herself fall back asleep during the night:  You can cuddle your bear, you can rub your blanket, you can think about all the fun things we did today.

  • Use bedrails.  Bedrails give children the illusion of the “walls” they had when they were in the crib and can feel cozy for little ones making the transition.

  • If your child doesn't already use a "lovey", have her choose a new stuffed animal to help her with the transition.  Allow your daughter to choose, within reason, a stuffed animal “that will help you sleep all through the night.”  Remind her at bedtime that this is her “sleepy bear” and if she wakes up, all she has to do is cuddle him and that can help her fall back asleep.  Include your child's stuffed animal in all her bedtime routines like stories, lullaby, and tucking-in at night and naptimes so she grows to associate it with comfort and security.

  • Try using a night-light.  If you are not already, use a dim night-light in your child’s room.  When she wakes, she will be able to see her room, get her bearings, and hopefully feel secure enough to go back to sleep on her own.

  • Give her lots of encouragement.  Putting oneself back to sleep is an important (and sometimes tough) skill to learn.  It’s one your daughter will practice all her life.  When she does sleep through the night in her own bed, acknowledge this as the accomplishment it is:  You should be so proud of yourself—you were able to sleep all night in your own bed.       Back to Top




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