- Rocking babies to sleep. Although a lovely thing to do, rocking babies to sleep is not a good idea for poor sleepers. Rocking a baby or feeding them until they fall asleep can cause frequent awakenings through the night. They learn to associate falling asleep with rocking or eating. Then when baby goes through the typical light arousals during the night they can’t go back to sleep until they reproduce that association. I would never discourage rocking your babies, just try to time putting them to bed so they are sleepy and then fall asleep in their own bed. Some people have babies who sleep well even if you rock them to sleep, and for those lucky parents, I say by all means keep rocking them! I was not that lucky and had an infant who only wanted to sleep if we held him. We learned that it was hard for any of us to get much sleep that way. Hang in there, because by age two he was a great sleeper.
- Tiptoeing around the sleeping baby. Infants spend 9 months listening to mom’s voice and her heartbeat. For some reason, when babies are born we put them in a quiet room and tiptoe around whispering “don’t wake the baby.” It wasn’t until my second child that I realized how important stimulation is to young babies. The second one slept great with a two year old screaming around the house. Now they are 3 and 5 and we still play a noise machine all night long. Static on a radio also works well in a pinch.
- Getting off schedule. School age children are particularly sensitive to variations in schedule. Studies show that children with regular bedtimes do better in school than ones who don’t have a schedule. As often as possible, stick to the schedule over the weekend. (I am talking to all you grandmas out there who think “what happens at grandma’s stays at grandma’s.” We know why we have sleepy, cranky children come Monday morning!). For teens, do not allow them to do what comes naturally and stay up until 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday night, then sleep until noon Saturday and Sunday. It doesn’t take a medical degree to figure out that you can’t turn around and go to bed a few hours after you wake up and expect to fall asleep quickly.
- One more glass of water trap. Set bedtime rules and stick to them. Children do best if they know what to expect. Be clear that we brush teeth, get two books, and have a small glass of water next to the bed. Whatever you choose, just be consistent. You may be like us, and before you know it your 3 year old has turned bedtime into a 45 minute battle including 6 books, 3 trips to the bathroom, 2 pj changes, 5 dolls to tuck in, 3 pairs of socks because all of them “don’t feel right” and 2 exhausted parents ready to wave a white flag and crawl into bed in hopes that she eventually falls asleep somewhere.
- TV in the bedroom. Don’t do it! (Pause for the collective groan of children everywhere). For older kids, this is by far the most common mistake and moving the TV out is the most effective way to fix sleep problems. There should be no screen time (TV, video games, computer work, texting, etc.) for at least 1 hour before bed. Limiting bright light in general can be helpful. And no matter what kids think, they don’t sleep better with the TV on. Get a noise machine if they need something, but a TV is too much constant background noise and light.
Remember, children younger than 12 months old are safest on their backs to reduce the risk of SIDS. Co-sleeping (sharing a bed with an infant) is not recommended because of the risk of SIDS.
If you’re looking for more information, my favorite book is Solve your child’s sleep problems by Dr. Richard Ferber. Often incorrectly labeled as the “just let-them-cry book,” it’s really a lot more with great information covering everything from infants to nightmares. For another resource, The American Academy of Pediatrics publishes Sleep: What every parent needs to know, edited by Dr. Rachel Moon.