If you have not already done so, please read Blog Posts 1 through 5 that describe how sleep is important and beneficial. I will post specific information for parents and children based on my book, “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.” Please do not be put off by my book’s length. This is a reference book. Read only the topic of interest to you.
Can parents help older children sleep better? Yes! Even for adults (mothers, fathers, and soldiers). Blog Posts #1–5 describe how important it is for adults to develop healthy sleep habits.
I studied a group of babies at 4 months of age and again at 3 years of age (Blog Post 48).
At 4 months of age, infants with an Easy temperament had a total sleep duration of 15.6 hours and infants with a Difficult temperament had a total sleep duration of 12.3 hours.
At 3 years of age, children with an Easy temperament had a total sleep duration of 12.5 hours and children with a Difficult temperament had a total sleep duration of 11.2 hours.
Between 4 months of age and 3 years of age, some parents put forth a great effort to help their child sleep well through the night and other parents put forth less effort to help their child sleep well. Some children developed easier temperaments and some children developed more difficult temperaments between 4 months and 3 years. Sleep durations and temperaments at 4 months did not predict sleep durations and temperament at 3 years.
At 4 months
At 3 years
|Total Sleep Duration|
At 3 years (hours)
From 4 months to 3 years, longer sleep durations by age 3 years are associated with a trend towards easier temperaments, independent of sleep durations at 4 months. For example, children with an Easy temperament at 4 months who remained Easy at 3 years had a total sleep duration of 12.4 hours, but those who developed a Difficult temperament at 3 years slept 11.8 hours.
The opposite also occurs. Remember, small increases in sleep durations can produce big benefits (Blog Post 6)! Going forward, practicing healthy sleep habits will tend to make your child temperamentally easier:
The moment my daughter, Amanda, arrived home from the hospital, she exploded with a very bad case of colic. I took her to the pediatrician’s office several times, only to be told there was “not a thing wrong, relax.” I also received several suggestions about nursing and a pat on the back. All of these suggestions irritated me, and I felt as though I was being perceived as an anxious, first-time mother. After twelve weeks of crying and screaming, Amanda was evaluated by two child development specialists. I decided we should work with one until my daughter’s crying and screaming settled down. We also saw a psychiatrist, who recommended medication and also suggested that we continue to be followed by the development specialists. In the meantime, our lives had become a nightmare. Amanda cried most of the day and always screamed in the evening. To our horror, this behavior had worked itself into the night hours, too.
By 5 months, we were referred to Dr. Weissbluth for what we hoped was a sleep disorder. I say “hoped,” because we were at the point of seeing a pediatric neurologist and having an EEG done. I was very frightened for my daughter, and my husband and I were exhausted. I was eager for the consultation. My daughter had definitely been cursed with colic. Could this now be wired exhaustion from a sleep disorder caused by the treatment for colic—rocking, swinging, motion all the time? It was. Amanda was old enough now to try “crying it out.” (Blog Post 25). It was the most difficult thing I’ve had to do as a new mother. The first night, Amanda screamed, choked, and sobbed for thirty-two minutes. I remember feeling sick to my stomach.
The first two days weren’t too terrible. However, the third and fourth were almost intolerable. Amanda would cry through her entire nap time. Then I would get her up to keep Dr. Weissbluth’s time frame going. Her temperament after these episodes is known only to mothers who have been through the same ordeal! When she would scream for over an hour during nap time and in the evening, I felt cruel, insensitive, and guilty. Three things kept me going: my husband’s support; Dr. Weissbluth’s concern, encouragement, and compassion; and the fact that I knew it had to be done—Amanda had to learn to sleep. It took Amanda about a week to catch on to the idea. The bags under her eyes faded, her sporadic screaming attacks stopped, and her personality was that of a predictable baby—a sweetheart when rested and a bear when past a nap time or her bedtime.
When our pastor asked us if our 8-month-old son, Henrik, was a “serious, sullen” boy, I knew we had a problem. Just one month before, my friend had sent us a note saying how Henrik was the happiest baby she’d ever seen. She could elicit a belly laugh from him with just a sideways glance. Now our pastor, an experienced grandfather, was pulling out all the stops—goofy faces and exaggerated sneezing—and Henrik wouldn’t crack a smile. But it wasn’t because he was suddenly sullen or serious; he was exhausted. What I had hoped was just a napless phase that he’d outgrow was catching up to him and choking his vibrant personality. We needed help. While Henrik was sleeping better at night, his daytime naps were becoming history. Over the past two months, his decent, if erratic, nap schedule had faded into two brief naps and then disappeared altogether. Getting my son to fall asleep was never an issue; nursing or rocking soothed him easily. The problem was getting him to stay asleep once I set him down. As soon as I’d set him in his crib, his back would arch and he’d be choked up before he touched the mattress. “Nap time” had come to mean Henrik crying in his crib until my nerves couldn’t take it anymore, or him sleeping soundly on me.
I knew he needed to learn to soothe himself to sleep, but crying it out just didn’t seem to work. The longer I’d let him cry, the more he would work himself up. I knew sleeping on me wasn’t a good solution, but when I’d see the dark circles under his eyes and hear his voice husky from crying—and especially when he got his first cold—I just couldn’t let him cry anymore. He needed sleep. So I’d get comfortable with him on the sofa and hope a good movie was on cable. We set off for our consultation with Dr. Weissbluth. After studying our son’s erratic sleep patterns, he recommended an earlier bedtime and regular wake-up times for my son. Dr. Weissbluth explained that Henrik was going to bed too late and wasn’t getting enough sleep at night. (Henrik usually fell asleep between 8:00 and 9:00 p.m. and woke up around 7:00 a.m.) This lack of sleep and a consistent schedule—as odd as it may seem—is what was keeping him from being able to cry himself to sleep during the day. He was too overtired to sleep! Dr. Weissbluth suggested a 7:00 p.m. bedtime and a 7:00 a.m. wake-up for the long-term goal, but said that we’d probably be looking at a 5:30 p.m. bedtime until Henrik’s napping got better. Once Henrik was up in the morning, we were to stimulate him through walks, outings, and vigorous play. After that, a soothing period would precede his attempt at a 9:00 a.m. nap. I was to continue putting Henrik to sleep in my normal way (nursing and rocking) and then set him down in his crib. I was then to leave him alone for one hour either to sleep, cry, or a combination of the two. Then, after his midmorning nap, we were to repeat the process for his attempt at a 1:00 p.m. nap (or earlier if no midmorning nap was taken). And then we’d go about our afternoon until it was time for the evening soothing. He asked us to chart our sleep data so we could clearly see Henrik’s progress. When we got home, we played and played, and then I soothed Henrik to sleep. When I set him down for his afternoon nap, he cried. I said a quick prayer, told him I loved him, walked out, and closed the door on my wailing son. As I walked down the stairs, I breathed in slowly, reminded myself that I was doing this for my son’s well-being, and hit the pause button on my emotions. I spent fifty-nine minutes emailing friends with one ear to the monitor to see if and when he’d stop crying. Didn’t work today, I was telling myself on the way back up the stairs.
But by the time I got to his door, I realized he was quiet. He fell asleep after fifty-nine and a half minutes of crying. If I had gone up one minute sooner, I would’ve cheated him out of this accomplishment. We were on our way. The midday nap was the first to get back on track. It took about a week for him to be able to go down at all without crying, and he was still only sleeping for a half hour at a time. But he was sleeping—and on a schedule! I used to think that because Henrik was an erratic sleeper, a sleep schedule wouldn’t work for him. Now I know that Henrik was an erratic sleeper because he lacked that schedule. While the idea of a schedule sounds limiting, establishing a schedule was the most freeing thing for our family. We are now able to make accurate plans instead of having to wait around and guess when our son would be ready to go. The midmorning nap was more of a challenge. For two weeks he cried through his entire midmorning nap. It was difficult to put him down each day knowing he would cry, but his success in the afternoons, along with the giant hug I’d receive when I came to get my teary son, gave me the strength to keep going. Then one day he cried himself to sleep after just twenty minutes, and from then on he would stay sleeping after we put him down. It took two weeks for Henrik to get back to two naps a day, but he did it. Despite Henrik’s sleeping for only thirty to forty-five minutes at a time, Dr. Weissbluth told us we should get him as soon as he woke up. He suggested we keep the 5:30 bedtime, which would naturally help lengthen his naps. Our days are now virtually tear-free. My son is thriving on his new schedule. He’s back to his giggly, healthy, and well-rested self. Instead of being the sullen boy in church, he’s now the chipper angel who sings out loud with joy—with or without the rest of the congregation.
(To be continued)
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