The one thing every mom needs to know when she’s feeling exhausted, stressed-out and filled with self-doubt because her child is not sleeping well is that it is possible to create easy bedtimes, peaceful nights, reliable naps and more “me time”, while also avoiding the “cry-it out” approach. Here are 5 steps to help your child easily fall asleep and stay asleep so that you feel calm, clear, and confident in your parenting choices around sleep.
Step 1: Identify Hidden Sleep Disruptors
Many parents come to me struggling to understand the reasons for their child’s disruptive sleep patterns. The truth is that medical conditions and developmental milestones can both affect sleep. Reflux, silent reflux, asthma, eczema, food or seasonal allergies, and sleep apnea are all considered underlying medical conditions—and they can certainly contribute to your child’s sleep problems.
A child’s major physical and cognitive developmental milestones can also disrupt sleep. Did you know that in the first 20 months of life your child will go through ten leaps? During this period, there are incredible and rapid changes in both your child’s mental and physical development. These changes affect your child’s mood—causing crankiness, crying, and clingy behavior—as well as wreak havoc on your child’s sleep patterns until these newest milestones are mastered. Children wake frequently during the night and often are very fussy and needy. During these times, you may even find your child wide awake practicing new skills in the middle of the night or during naps.
Given that medical conditions or milestones can affect sleep, what can you do? The first step is to rule out any underlying medical conditions that can affect sleep patterns. Consult with your pediatrician to ensure that your child’s sleep is not being affected by a medical condition. If it is, your pediatrician can work with you on what to do to address the medical condition.
The second thing to do is determine if your child is in the middle of a developmental leap. Refer to the Wonder Weeks Book or Wonder Weeks App for more information on your child’s mental and physical leap cycles. To reduce night or naptime waking during these leaps, offer opportunities to practice newfound skills during the day.
No medical condition and no leap? Then it’s time to address and manage sleep disruptions through pediatric sleep science and behavioral modification appropriate for your child’s age and stage.
Step 2: Target the Optimum “Sleep Window” to Maximize Sleep
At each stage of your child’s development, your child has different sleep needs. And children need a lot of sleep: 10 to 11 hours per night for the first nine years of life. But there are other considerations besides the quantity of sleep. Quality matters, too—meaning deep, fully restorative sleep.
Maximizing sleep quality, as well as quantity, begins with understanding your child’s specific “sleep window.” The perfect sleep window opens when melatonin (the drowsy hormone) is at its peak. Falling and staying asleep become much easier at this time.
The interval of wakefulness between nap cycles and bedtime influences your child’s sleep window. It’s important to recognize your child’s sleep window so that you can catch it and maximize your child’s naptimes and bedtimes. An overtired child will be “wired and tired,” acting squirmy, whiny, and demanding—or sometimes goofy and hyper. If you miss your child’s sleep window, the results can include a struggle at bedtime and lots of unwanted arousals at night that require your immediate action and attention. My wish for you is to avoid being caught in this “wired and tired” dilemma.
My #1 suggestion to counter this dilemma is to avoid a bedtime that is too late. That old idea that a later bedtime means your child will be “more tired” and sleep longer and more deeply, well, that is a myth, and the result is often quite the opposite. If your child’s bedtime is too late and you miss your child’s sleep window, your child will inevitably fight sleep at bedtime and have a very restless night filled with wakings that require your attention. Or worse, your child will wake up really early—say, between 4 and 6 am—and want to start the day.
Perpetual sleep battles are exhausting and frustrating for parents. That’s why understanding your child’s sleep cues becomes the key to determining the best sleep window. Look for signs including a general slowdown, glazed or red-rimmed eyes, rosy cheeks, or red eyebrows. These signs are evidence that you’re at the child’s optimal sleep window. But don’t delay: some children have very sensitive sleep windows. For these children, eye rubbing or hair twirling might mean that you are too late and the sleep window is already closing. Some children are really tricky and they hide their sleep cues and do not show you they are tired until they are in a dimly lit room.
I recommend keeping a sleep log for 3 to 5 days. Start watching for the “sleep cues” about 30-45 minutes before each nap cycle and before bedtime, and soon you will surely start to see some specific sleepy signs to help you nail your child’s perfect “sleep window”.
Step 3: Fulfill your Child’s Daytime Sleep Goals
Truly restorative sleep is essential for your child’s growth, learning, and mood regulation. For optimal sleep, it’s essential to recognize that daytime sleep is just as important as nighttime sleep—and honor it.
Your child’s age and stage correspond to daily sleep goals and expectations—extensively researched and documented. For example, a baby between the ages of 6 to 9 months typically needs 3 ¼ to 3 ½ hours of daytime sleep spread between 2-3 naps. Meeting your child’s optimal daytime and nighttime sleep goals sets the stage for drama-free bedtimes and peaceful, restorative nights for the whole family. The first step is understanding your child’s specific age-and-stage daily and nightly sleep goals.
Next, make naps a priority. Skipped naps or short naps actually backfire and create more night wakings and poor-quality sleep—not to mention an overtired, cranky child! Know your child’s daily nap goal and keep track of all your child’s sleeping and waking intervals over a 24 hour time period. Aim to put your child down for the nap at the right sleep window for each nap cycle. For babies 6 months and older, it is beneficial to provide a minimum nap length of 45 minutes which is the duration of a restorative sleep cycle. At the end of the day, you will want to know your child reached their daily “sleep goals.” It is ok if some naps are longer and some are shorter as long as your child has met their 24-hour sleep goals for their age and stage.
Step 4: Be Consistent for Reliable and Predictable Sleep
Your child depends on “patterns” to make sense of the world. Babies and children love routine, which provides security and enhances healthy emotional attachment. Thus, you can see how being consistent in how your respond to your child—even in the middle of the night, when you're tired and not thinking clearly—is critically important to soothe your child and minimize tears and frustration.
Many parents are inconsistent without realizing it. Inconsistently attending to your child can easily create tears, confusion and frustration. Here are some typical examples. Sometimes moms may feed their child to sleep and then other times they try to put their child down without that feed/sleep crutch and the result is usually chaos at bedtime. Other moms may be so exhausted and frustrated that their child’s sleep crutches are not working that they let their child “cry-it-out “ for 15 or 30 minutes because they heard this approach might work, but when they can’t take it anymore and they go in and pick their child up and “crutch” them to sleep. Can you see how this inconsistent response can be really confusing and frustrating for your child? If you are inconsistent in how you put your child to sleep and how you respond when they wake up, you may inadvertently train your child to cry for a different response. If this has happened to you, don't beat yourself up, instead, I suggest that you focus on consistency. Decide on a routine for your child going into bedtime and follow that pattern each night. Decide how you will respond in the middle of the night. One of the best ways you can enhance sleep is to live by the mantra “consistency is key”—encourage this mantra for every family member who cares for the child.
Step 5: Make Learning “Sleep Skills” a Priority
Moms have so many personal and professional demands on top of their family obligations. Moms work really hard and consequently, they are tired. In fact, did you know that parents lose an estimated 44 days of sleep in the first year of a child’s life? That is 1055 hours of lost sleep. If that’s not sobering enough, 21% of children who have sleep issues in infancy continue to have sleep issues until their third birthdays—and often beyond. My goal is to help you avoid being one of these statistics!
The first thing to fully understand is that, for children 6 months to 5 years of age, sleep is actually a learned skill. The act of learning to sleep includes three important life skills: self-regulation, self-settling, and self-soothing. Children 6 months or older can typically become highly dependent on negative sleep associations, also known as “sleep crutches” or “sleep props.” A sleep crutch is something a child needs in order to fall asleep or go back to sleep. Sleep crutches are not bad or dangerous and they can work beautifully and reliably—and they are often necessary during the newborn phase from 0-6 months. Often, though, as a baby gets older, stronger, and more mobile, those useful sleep crutches start to shift or—worse—stop working. Thus, if your old sleep crutch tricks no longer have that same magic, it’s a sign that your child is ready to learn the all-important sleep and life skills of self-settling and self-soothing.
Many parents feel guilty or really resistant, having heard horror stories of “cry it out.” Know that there are several ways to gently and safely coach children on developing the “skills of sleep” to independently and peacefully go to sleep and stay asleep without the need for multiple negative sleep associations or crutches. First, if your child is 6 months or older, avoid putting him or her down in the crib or bed already fast asleep. If you put your child to sleep by rocking, nursing, walking, bottle feeding, or lying down with him or her, unfortunately, the child becomes highly dependent on you to go to sleep. When your child wakes during the night, your child will expect the same or similar “sleep crutches” from you in order to go back to sleep. This creates a “no-win” situation where a parent is constantly “on-call” to offer a sleep crutch at bedtime and every nighttime arousal and every nap interval. This is clearly not a sustainable parenting approach over the long-term.
Let’s face it, if your child doesn’t sleep well, nobody else in the house is sleeping either. Your child’s sleep affects the entire family’s health and dynamic. Lack of sleep compromises overall health and immunity and greatly diminishes energy and vitality. Lack of sleep negatively impacts concentration and job performance. Lack of sleep creates tension in personal and intimate relationships and ultimately compromises overall life satisfaction and well-being. In this sleep-deprived mode, nerves are frazzled, self-care disappears, and everyone suffers.
Ready to break the “sleep crutch cycle”? Deep, restful sleep is so important— for your child and for every member in your family. By making it a priority for your child to learn the sleep skills of self-settling and self-soothing, you are not only breaking the” sleep crutch cycle”, but you are creating an important opportunity to teach your child life-long healthy, sleep habits. With consistency and the right step-by-step approach that honors the child’s temperament and age, it is absolutely possible for you to be a loving and responsive parent while also helping your child learn sleep skills without “crying it out”. The result is that your child will fall asleep faster, sleep more deeply, and start their day in a good mood and you will create a harmonious household where every family member sleeps soundly and wakes up happy in order to enjoy a full and well-rested life.
I would like to take this wonderful opportunity to help you navigate these difficult years and establish a gentle, age-and-stage-appropriate approach to claim the all-time-salve to everything- the deep, calming effect of sleep. My science-backed practical solutions to help parents create the right circumstances and the right environment to gently their the “skills of sleep.” It’s time to transform your family with a simple step forward. Connect with me to schedule your 45 Min Sleep Strategy Session where you can talk LIVE to a sleep expert and determine the right, next steps to help you solve the sleep struggles once and for all so everyone sleep again!
Certified Gentle Sleep Coach & 3x International Bestselling Author “The One Thing Every Mom Needs to Know” & The One Thing Every Mompreneur Needs to Know
Joanna is a nationally recognized Pediatric Sleep Expert specializing in guilt-free, gentle sleep coaching, who helps mothers tenderly teach their children the “skills of sleep” in a loving and nurturing way so moms can stop living life in a sleep-deprived, overwhelmed haze and finally experience blissful sleep for themselves and for all family members. Her mission is to ensure that moms wake up rested and elated after a peaceful night, knowing their child benefited from the essential sleep needed for healthy growth and development.
Sleep matters…to everyone! Joanna helps sleep-deprived families get where they need to be: well-rested! There is no need to “Cry-it-Out.”
"Easy bedtimes, peaceful nights, reliable naps and confident parenting are yours. I provide Guilt-Free, Gentle Sleep Coaching Solutions using proven, evidence-based methods and expert full-service support via Zoom for families all over the USA. Over the past decade, I have helped over 1000 families solve their child’s sleep struggles and finally sleep through the night. That’s more than 3000 family members now sleeping blissfully. Let me help your family sleep better too! Sleep is bliss, let’s get you more!"