What Are Your Best Sleep Tips for Parents? A Q&A with an Expert
This article is part of a Q&A series in which a healthcare professional in our community answers your frequently asked questions. Here, we talked to Jared Minkel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist who develops digital therapeutics at Twill. Minkel offers strategies to help parents of young children get a better night’s rest.
We asked: “I have young kids who keep interrupting my sleep. How can I sleep better?”
Jared Minkel, Ph.D.: If there’s one thing parents know, it’s that once you have a kid, your days of spending a solid eight hours a night in bed may be limited. Whether they’re coming into your room when they have nightmares or getting sick in the night and waking up early, children are notorious sleep interrupters. Here are a few tips that may help:
1. Try sleep training.
If you have a baby at home, sleep training can help them get on a schedule. Sleep training gets a bad rap—some people think it’s cruel—but I worked in a pediatric sleep center for a while, and it can be done pretty gently. Ignoring your kid when they cry is only for the worst-case scenarios and is only done if it’s really in the child’s long-term best interest. So, they’ll have three bad nights instead of five bad years.
Talk to your child’s pediatrician if you’re interested in sleep training. They can give you the basics and also refer you to a behavioral sleep expert if you want to work with someone closely.
2. Don’t believe that buying something will solve the problem.
Some people spend money on things like a really expensive mattress. These products rarely help and may not be worth the price. If a kid’s not sleeping well, it’s probably more of a behavioral or environmental issue that an expert can troubleshoot.
3. Keep a consistent bedtime routine.
A positive bedtime routine is really important for your child. Nighttime rituals like brushing teeth, taking a bath, and reading a story help to signal that it’s time to go to bed. It’s best to always do these things in the same order so they become automatic. If each night is a little different, your child will probably notice and find ways to delay bedtime.
And do your best to avoid reinforcing unwanted interruptions to a sleep routine. For instance, if before bed, you read them one book per night, don’t let a child talk their way into reading four, which will certainly result in a later bedtime. If they walk into your room in the middle of the night, don’t make a habit of allowing them to sleep in your bed if you wish they wouldn't.
It’s better to be consistent even if your child protests. It’s harder to undo a bad habit.
4. Encourage your child to fall asleep in their own room.
If they fall asleep in one place, like the couch or your bed, and you carry them to their bedroom, that can be a problem because then they wake up, they don't know where they are, and they start looking for you. Imagine how disorienting it would be for you to fall asleep in one place and awaken in another!
If they're at the age where they're in a crib, the idea is to put them down in the crib drowsy but awake. People commonly nurse an infant until they fall asleep, put them in a crib, and tiptoe back to their own room. The kid wakes up—last they knew they were nursing, and now suddenly, they're alone in a bed, and it freaks them out.
So, it’s much better to nurse them, and if they fall asleep, wake them up before you put them in the crib. You can move nursing to earlier in the sleep routine if that helps.
5. Follow nap recommendations for your child’s age.
Naps can be hard to manage. When and how long a child should nap is very different by age. So, talk to your pediatrician about when they should be napping, and follow their recommendation. The same basic guidelines apply to naps as to bedtime. A positive, consistent routine is helpful. Naps are often very difficult, though, so if you struggle here, you’re certainly not alone!
It’s also important to be aware of how much total daily sleep kids need at different ages. General recommendations from the National Sleep Foundation are as follows:
- 14–17 hours for newborns
- 12–15 hours for infants
- 11–14 hours for toddlers
- 10–13 hours for preschoolers
- 9–11 hours for school-aged children
- 8–10 hours for teenagers
Your child might need a much earlier bedtime than you think. Your pediatrician can advise on that, as well.
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