Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child
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Early Bedtimes
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Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child

5th Edition: 
A Step-by-Step Program for a Good Night's Sleep

Buy now

Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child

5th Edition: 
A Step-by-Step Program for a Good Night's Sleep

Buy now

Report 2Early Bedtimes

Introduction

Early bedtimes are based on drowsy signs (Blog Posts 79) because a late bedtime causes an increase in neurological arousal (a second wind) that interferes with falling asleep and staying asleep. Even a few minutes earlier might make a big difference (Blog Post 6).  Better night sleep will cause better naps and as a result, and eventually, your child will be able to stay up later. A temporary, super-early bedtime might be needed to get things going. The wake-up time might be only a few minutes earlier or surprise, she might sleep in later! Sometimes, a slightly earlier bedtime alone, while responding to all crying, is an effective sleep solution for a parent that does not want to let her child cry (page 240, in Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child).

Drowsy in this context doesn’t mean about to fall asleep (half-closed eyes, barely able to keep open). When my son was a baby he would become very still about 10 minutes before he fell asleep—he is a wiggle worm, so it was noticeable. He would also gaze for long periods of time at something. This was the window when he needed to be put down for his nap. If I waited until it passed and he was really tired, he would fight sleep. So when “the stare” appeared, I would check his diaper, swaddle him, and put him down. He would gaze at his mobile for a while and then fall asleep.

When our daughter Jaden was born, we were anxious to start off on the right foot with her sleep habits.  We immediately focused on no more than two hours of wakefulness with a bedtime around 10:00 or 11:00 p.m., which was very easy to accomplish. After a few weeks, though, we still weren’t really seeing very long nighttime stretches. When Jaden was 8 weeks old, we visited Dr. Weissbluth to discuss her sleeping pattern. Dr. Weissbluth told us that at 6 weeks, we should have incorporated an early bedtime in addition to keeping shorter periods of wakefulness. We left wondering whether an early bedtime would really work for someone so young. We really expected that Jaden would be up within an hour or two after we put her down. We started off with a 7:00 p.m. bedtime. She still woke up in the late evening to eat, but we put her promptly back to bed. There were a few bumps in the road for the first couple of nights—sometimes she would wake up a few times and cry—but we kept at it. After a few days, Jaden went from sleeping a four-to-five-hour stretch in the evening, to seven, then eight, then nine or ten hours a night. In fact, she seemed happy to be sleeping so much! If she woke up to nurse, she would eat and immediately fall back asleep as soon as we put her back in her crib. We couldn’t believe how easy it was. The earlier we got her to bed, the better she slept. Her daytime naps even seemed longer and more restful. She is now 7 months old. We now try to get her down between 6:00 and 6:30 each night, and she is extremely happy about it. (So are we!)

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.

We had never been very consistent with Meg’s bedtime. We would put her to bed when she appeared tired (rubbing eyes, yawning), anywhere from 7:00 to 7:45 p.m., but occasionally even later. It usually took her between fifteen and thirty minutes of crying to fall asleep. I thought this was normal. She had always gone to bed rather late, and she had always taken a while to fall asleep.

At Meg’s 9-month appointment we asked Dr. Weissbluth about her night waking. He made a very simple suggestion. He told us that we should put Meg to bed twenty minutes earlier at night. He said that her night waking would disappear and she would still wake up at a normal hour in the morning. I told him that we had been putting her to sleep when she appeared tired, at around 7:30 p.m., give or take thirty minutes. He said that once she appears tired it is too late and she should already be in bed.

The first night we put her to bed at 6:45. We were very skeptical. We were sad to put her down so early when she seemed so wide awake and happy. She cried for about five minutes and then fell asleep, and with no night waking! The same thing happened the next night—about five minutes of crying and then asleep until morning. Sometimes she would wake up as early as 5:30, but we would give her a bottle and she would fall back to sleep, sometimes until almost 8:00!

It has been almost four weeks since our 9-month appointment. Bedtime is an absolute joy. Meg eats dinner, takes a bath, and is in bed about 6:30 p.m. Sometimes I hesitate to put her down so early when she seems to be in such good spirits, but she cuddles with her blanket and her doll, sucks her thumb, closes her eyes, and sleeps till morning. It’s the sweetest thing I have ever seen.

My friends and family look at me in disbelief when I tell them my 14-month-old daughter goes to bed around 6:30 on her own (without a bottle or rocking or crying) and sleeps soundly until 7:00 the next morning. The training exercise of putting the baby to bed drowsy but awake so they can learn self-soothing is the key. The crib, her bedroom, naps, and bedtime are a place and time of relaxation and enjoyment for our daughter and for us! No crying, no anxiety. I will admit it wasn’t always easy and there were trials and tribulations . . . but once you get over whatever humps are your challenges, it’s relatively smooth sailing. My experience this past year can be described as follows: 0–3 months is unnerving and exhausting, especially for the first-time parent; 3–6 months is anxious, wondering if you are doing the right thing; 6–9 months is more rewarding as you start to see your efforts really paying off; 9–12 months brings a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment; and 12 months and over makes all the training worth it.

At 18 months it became apparent that Anna was ready to make the transition from two naps to one, but would need some help because she fought the midmorning nap. We began, as Dr. Weissbluth suggested in his book, by gradually delaying the midmorning nap till 11:00 or so. Over a two-week window we were able to continue to push back the nap to sometime between noon and 1:00 p.m.

In his book, Dr. Weissbluth suggested an earlier bedtime to help prevent night waking or early-morning waking. Anna was going to bed at 6:30 p.m. and sleeping until 7:00 a.m., so we really questioned this theory. My husband and I agreed that Dr. Weissbluth’s advice has always been right on the money, so we decided to put her down an hour earlier. We feared that she would wake up at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. after her usual twelve or thirteen hours of sleep. To our surprise, she awoke at 9:00 a.m., and she was in the most cheerful mood to date!

Family, friends, even strangers constantly tell us what a happy, cheerful child we have. The reality is that she is a very well-rested child.

When we met with Dr. Weissbluth, Jared, now 19 months old, was waking up every hour and a half to two hours during the night. He would have to fall asleep while we were walking and carrying him on our shoulder. When placed in the crib, Jared would awaken and abruptly “pop up.” He would only sleep in the bed “nest” we created for him on the floor of our family room. We endured three months of the night waking before we consulted Dr. Weissbluth.

We were instructed to place Jared in bed in an awake state between 6:00 and 7:00 P.M. in the evening and that we should leave him there until 6:00 in the morning. Our initial reaction was that Jared would carry on relentlessly when placed in his crib so early, and that the recommended approach was too strict and would never work. Much to our shock and delight, the first night we tried the new routine, Jared was asleep after five minutes of crying, and remained asleep for eleven hours, not waking until 5:30 the next morning. During the next two nights, Jared went to sleep on his own, with no episodes of crying. On the fourth night, he lay down in the bed with his favorite stuffed animal under his arm, as he has done since. Our baby was clearly overtired from going to bed at 8:30 p.m. and not being allowed to relax and go to sleep without interference. We never expected it to be so simple and provide such an immediate result. Jared wakes up happy, energized, and ready for a day full of adventures. Now, several months later, Jared is most happy when going to bed at 6:30 p.m., and will go to his bed himself if he is tired.

Comments

  1. Hello,
    Your book has been tremendously helpful. Our daughter is 13 weeks old and we put her to bed usually around 7pm, however no matter what she wakes up between 3-4am wide awake and alert. We feed her then promptly put her back to bed until she wakes us up (usually between 7-8am) again. We’ve experimented with earlier bedtimes here and there but the 4am wake up still occurs. Anything we are missing? Please help! Thank you.

    1. You are blessed to have a child with great night sleep!
      1. If your daughter is wet, soiled, hungry, or thirsty, continue to go to her. If not, consider extinction.
      2. Circadian rhythms for night sleep begin to develop at 6 weeks and for day sleep, 3-4 months. Focus on naps. If she naps well and continues to have a reasonably early bedtime, the night waking will disappear.
      3. If there are any external noises (from the street?) that awaken her, consider a white noise machine.
      Sweet Dreams,
      Marc

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