When you get enough sleep, everything is better. When you don’t get enough, everything is worse. But what should you do if your baby’s not sleeping?
Guest post by Brian Comly of MindBodyDad
The evidence is clear that babies need sleep and so is the advice from health professionals and researchers. It’s recommended that newborns get 14-17 hours of sleep (including naps), infants get 12-15 hours, toddlers 11-14 hours, preschoolers 10-13 hours, and children aged 6-13 years old get 9-11 hours of sleep each night.
The advice is straight forward and so are the benefits, yet 35% of kids ages 4 months to 5 years old and 38% of 6-12 year-olds don’t get enough of it.
I am very sensitive to even small amounts of sleep deprivation (just ask my wife) so I’ve always made sleep a priority. As an occupational therapist, I’ve learned about the importance of sleep, especially for young children, so when we had kids I set out on a mission to give them the tools and the environment to maximize their sleep.
The return on investment on this is incredible. The difference between the few nights when my toddler and infant don’t have a full night of sleep (or nap) and the times they do becomes very evident in their mood and behaviors (and mine too 🙂).
While the times they can’t fall asleep are now few and far between, the research shows that consistently getting inadequate sleep leads to a higher risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, aggression, and worse academic performance.
You got advice from your friends family, and pediatrician but, still, your baby’s not sleeping. Here are the sleep strategies we started using early on when our babies weren’t sleeping (and which we continue to use to prevent it from happening again).
7 Tips for When Your Baby’s Not Sleeping
For hundreds of thousands of years, humans have been reliant on the sun to tell us when to go to bed and when to wake up. Thanks to artificial lighting, this is no longer the case. The kids watching “one more show” gets easier and easier until it’s meltdown time. One strategy we use is to set a go-to-sleep alarm. Instead of just using an alarm to wake up in the morning, we use a version of one to go to sleep at night. At 7 pm on the dot, Alexa starts playing the “brush your teeth” song to cue our kids to brush then it goes right into instrumental lullabies (well, alternative music lullabies but they don’t know the difference). From there, it’s pajamas, books, and bed.
This consistency with going to bed early is important because of the way we sequence sleep stages at night. Deep sleep is the stage of sleep most important for waking up feeling refreshed and humans get more of this stage earlier in the night. This makes it more important to go to bed earlier than to sleep in. Set that go-to-sleep alarm and maintain that routine.
ADD IN NOISE
For the first 9 months of life, your baby was hearing lots of swooshing, swishing, and jostling in mama’s belly. This created a sense of comfort and ease. Once they entered the world, however, the consistency of these sounds (among many other things) was lost. This desire for familiar and consistent sounds, though, stays with the baby for a long time and many babies tend to sleep better with a sound machine producing white noise (or any other color-of-the-rainbow nose you can think of).
One small study of 20 neonates found that 80% fell asleep within 5 minutes with white noise and only 25% fell asleep spontaneously.
Another advantage of white noise is that it drowns out sounds from the rest of the house (e.g. that colicy new sister). It’s important to note that not all babies and children like white noise and some do better without it. It’s also important to make sure that the noise isn’t above the recommended 60-decibel limit (download a sound meter app on your phone to check yours).
TEACH THEM TO SLEEP
Putting your baby in a bassinet, crib, or bed to sleep and teaching them to sleep are two totally different things. It’s tempting to let your child (regardless of their age) fall asleep on your shoulder as you rock them before putting them down but this teaches them to be self-reliant on you for one of their most critical needs. Instead, use the down-regulation techniques below up until the point where they fall somewhere between awake and asleep. At this point, get them to their mattress and let them melt away.
Throughout the day, your child’s brain is constantly managing an intricate dance between the flight, flight, or freeze system (sympathetic nervous system) and the rest, digest, and repair system (parasympathetic nervous system). When they play or manage big emotions they’re activating the fight, flight, or freeze system. When they eat, read, or go to sleep they’re activating the rest, digest, repair system….or at least they should.
It’d be nice if there was a switch to flip to turn this on but often times kids end up ruminating or staring at the ceilings just like many adults. Teach your child the skill of down regulation by meditating, reading with a slow, soothing voice, or performing a breathwork technique. My favorite breathwork technique to down regulate is “double the exhale.” Simply double the amount of time exhaling to your inhale (e.g. 3 seconds in/6 seconds out) while breathing through your nose.
You can also create a calming corner for your child to retreat to before bed that’s comfortable (e.g. a beanbag or padded chair) and with limited sensory input (low lights, sound, calming smells from essential oils). For babies, you can use skin-to-skin and rocking movements to induce this.
CONSIDER THE LIGHTING
Lighting is one of the most influential factors when it comes to sleep. When light hits our eyes, it stimulates the production of cortisol which is important for modulating our circadian rhythm. This means that it’s important to get sunlight directly to your eyes within 30 minutes of waking up. On top of improving sleep quality, this early sunlight exposure improves alertness, and mood, and decreases irritability. The minimum effective dose is 10,000 lux or about a minute on a sunny day and up to a half hour on a cloudy day. An alternative to this is a light therapy lamp.
While it’s important to bombard the eyes and skin with light in the morning, it’s important to avoid blue light at night. Evening time blue light exposure zaps our natural melatonin production and makes it more difficult to fall asleep and get quality sleep when we do fall asleep. Avoiding blue light, especially in the winter time, is an uphill problem in modern society so the next best alternative is to change the light around you. I take a deep dive into the impact of light, how to choose the best light, and ways to block it in my blog post, but the TLDR is:
- Use toxin-free candles instead of lights at night
- Use low-temperature, flicker-free red light bulbs for bedrooms
- Hang black out curtains in all bedrooms
- Use a sunrise alarm clock for a gradual morning rise.
GET THEM MOVING
If our kid’s brains are tired but their body is wired, they’re not going to sleep well. To avoid this they need movement, movement, movement. Ideally, get them outside and have them play. Go on hikes, have play dates, make up obstacle courses and scavenger hunts. If the weather is a factor then go to the mall or find an indoor play house or just tough it out. Of course, this will make them fall asleep faster and get better sleep quality but beyond that, picture their face staring at that screen in the house and now picture their face doing a scavenger hunt.
LIMIT EMF EXPOSURE
Make sure children are far away from any devices that produce EMF (electromagnetic field) radiation such as routers ad Wifi-based baby monitors. A baby is born with a very thin layer of skull covering most of the brain and open parts between the skull bones where the brain is covered only by a flap of skin (called fontanelles). This limited protection means that even weak EMF signals near the baby are penetrating into the developing brain.
The American Academy of Pediatrics acknowledges that children are more sensitive to EMF and the health concerns include causing developmental delays and cancer. The research on EMF and children is still in its infancy (no pun intended) with lots of speculation, including impacting sleep and growth, it’s best to abide by the precautionary principle. That is, if there’s suspicion of risk without evidence then avoid it if you can.
A baby’s brain is growing at an incredible rate (700 new connections a second!) and the cost of moving EMF-producing devices further away is low risk/high reward in my eyes. Move EMF devices out of the room or, at the very least, far away from the baby, especially when they are sleeping.
You know sleep is critical but what do you do when your baby’s not sleeping? The good news is that you’re not alone and there are simple strategies you can implement. Use these tips to change your baby’s sleep issues quickly:
- Be consistent
- Add in noise
- Teach them to sleep
- Down regulate
- Consider the lighting
- Get them moving
- Limit EMF exposure