Sleep! It’s so important for your baby’s brain development, and also for your daily functionality. After three to six months, most babies have figured out how to sleep for long stretches at night, what we call “sleeping through the night.” It takes awhile for babies to adjust to the 24-hour cycle of a day, including discovering the appropriate time for long sleep is at night. When it happens, parents are very relieved. But sleep is constantly evolving for children and their patterns may get interrupted several more times throughout the course of early childhood. Today our focus is navigating sleep transitions to help you get back your 8-hours of sweet dreams every night.
No matter how your baby learned to sleep through the night, whether by naturally self-soothing, the Ferber method, or crying it out, you were probably grateful that it happened. And anything that interrupts that peaceful balance that you had when you returned to a full night of sleep may be seen as nothing short of disaster. When your child is sick, you pull the plug on the pacifier or you travel, for example, sleep patterns may be interrupted and take some time to get back on track. Usually within a week or two, you can all normalize and enjoy a quiet household at night. But there are some bigger sleep transitions that may be more difficult to navigate.
Babies usually nap at least five times daily until around six months of age. At that point they may begin to only need three naps a day, typically two in the morning and one in the afternoon. As the naps begin to drop one-by-one, sleep transitions may pose a problem as your child’s body adjusts to a new schedule. You may notice that your child can power through the time of the dropped nap, but can barely make it to the next nap or bedtime. You may need to move an afternoon nap to an earlier time or even push up bedtime so your child gets an appropriate amount of sleep when he needs it.
The worse sleep transition caused by naps is usually when the last nap goes and your child is awake for 12+ hours a day. This usually occurs between three and five, and it can be rough. Many parents mourn the loss of this last nap because it offered a much needed break for them too. If you feel your child is struggling during this transition, initiate “quiet time” or “rest time” when your little one spends time in his room doing something sedentary like reading a book or playing with a quiet toy. Some kids simply like to lie in bed during this rest period. It helps slow the body and rejuvenate to hopefully keep your child happy and even-tempered for the rest of the day.
Getting a “Big Kid” Bed
Cribs are fabulous for keeping your infant or toddler contained. But many toddlers learn how to climb out of their cribs as early as 18-months. This can be a major hazard and may mean your child is ready for a new bed. The first thing to try is a sleep sack that might keep your tot from being able to climb out. If that doesn’t work, it’s time to shop for that “big kid” bed. And then your child has the newfound ability to get out of bed whenever he wants, which can once again cause sleep transition issues.
Hopefully you can keep your toddler in his crib until at least 2½, when most kids have better self control about staying in their bed or at least their bedroom. Experts agree that the best way to approach a new bed is by making a big deal about it and setting rules. Explain that big kids get big kid beds because they are responsible enough to follow rules. The biggest rule is that you sleep all night in your own bed. When your child does come into your room, immediately take him back to his bed. These boundaries often help children and parents navigate sleep transitions with a new bed. It may take some time and your child may be more tired than usual from spending time playing around his room rather than sleeping, but you’ll eventually find the rhythm again.
Everyone dreams but babies lack the memory, imagination and fear for bad dreams. When your child gets older, scary dreams may begin to keep him up at night and frighten him so much that he fears staying alone in his room. Bad dreams tend to be about imaginary things with toddlers, but older kids sometimes dream about real fears such as a burglar, fire or other life-threatening situation.
Experts suggest talking through dreams can help your child overcome his fears. Ask him about good and bad dreams and share your dreams as well. Remind him that, although we may dream about people in our lives or realistic situations, dreams are not real and they go away. Some parents make a worry jar for their kids so they can write down scary thoughts and feelings and lock them away. Also, try to get your child to replace bad thoughts with something happier to help them work through waking from a bad dream all on their own.
Sleep transitions are hard on kids and parents but they are usually short lived. Hang in there and this phase will pass too.