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.
Unhealthy sleep schedules usually evolve in infants and young children when parents keep them up too late at night. Parents do this because they enjoy playing with their baby or they cannot put the child to sleep and instead wait for their child to crash from total exhaustion, or both. Some parents leave work late, have a long commute to the daycare site to pick up their child, and then arrive home even later. This lifestyle is extremely difficult for the child if naps are not regular at the daycare center and she is put down to sleep too late at night. If it is impossible to have an early bedtime under these circumstances, do the best you can. A bedtime that is only a little late is not as harmful as a bedtime that is way too late. Don’t beat yourself up over this but do your best to protect naps and early bedtimes on weekends. Bedtimes are based on drowsy signs (Blog Post 9), not clock times, so please do not compare your child’s bedtime with that of another child. Also, realistically, circumstances may make it difficult for parents to synchronize soothing to sleep at night with the onset of drowsy signs. For some parents, the reality is that a bedtime that is too late is unavoidable. Even so, try to move the bedtime just a few minutes earlier. But an important point is that a little earlier bedtime, just a few minutes earlier, will benefit your child. A little bit of extra sleep goes a long way (Blog Post 7). Also, perhaps good quality naps might mitigate the adverse effects of a too late bedtime. Good quality naps are naps occurring before the child becomes overtired; good quality naps occur in synch with nap rhythms. However, some babies simply are brief nappers.
If parents can cause problems that interfere with good naps, why can’t parents make their babies nap longer? This question provides a good example of the asymmetry between sleep and wakefulness. Sleep is not the absence of wakefulness; rather, the brain automatically and actively turns on the sleep process and simultaneously turns off wakefulness. You and your child can force wakefulness upon sleep, but you cannot force sleep upon wakefulness. You and your child can motivate or force yourself and her into a more wakeful or alert state, but you cannot force anyone into a deeper sleep state. So sleep and wake states are different but not opposite. Nap duration between 6 and 18-24 months is a stable individual characteristic, some children are born to be short nappers and others will be long nappers.
Not napping means lost sleep. Over an extended period of time, children do not sleep longer at night when their naps are brief. Of course, once in a while—when relatives visit or when a painful ear infection keeps the child awake—a child will make up for lost daytime sleep with longer night sleep. But day in and day out, you should not expect to satisfy your child’s need to sleep by cutting corners on naps and then trying to compensate by putting your child to sleep for the night at an earlier hour. What you wind up with is a cranky or demanding child in the late afternoon or early evening. Your child pays a price for nap deprivation, and so do you.
Spending hours during the day holding your child in your arms or in a rocking chair while she is in a light, twilight sleep also is lost sleep because you have delayed the time when she will fall into a deep slumber. It is similar to having a bedtime that is too late. It’s a waste of your time as well. Brief catnaps during the day, motion sleep in cars or baby swings, light sleep in the stroller at the pool, and naps at the wrong time are all poor-quality sleep.
All previous Blog Posts relate mostly to night sleep. If your child sleeps well at night, she wakes up in the morning well rested, which permits better quality naps, which promote better quality night sleep. The reason night sleep and day sleep interact with each other is that your child remains at a lower level of neurological activation that produces a virtuous circle of healthy sleep. If either night sleep or day sleep is off, a vicious circle may occur causing your child to be at a higher level of neurological activation resulting in bedtime resistance, night wakings, short night sleep duration, and problematic naps. The reasons that previous posts focused more on night sleep then day sleep (naps) are:
Parents have more influence over night sleep than naps for three reasons:
Parents have less influence over naps than night sleep for three reasons:
(To be continued.)
My name is Marc Weissbluth and I’ve been a pediatrician since 1973. This baby sleep blog will help you create a healthy sleep schedule for your child. My baby sleep advice and sleep training will teach you how to get a baby to sleep through the night. To stay updated with my latest baby and child sleep blog posts, be sure to subscribe today.