Diana shares her experience as a former sleep-deprived mom as well as her wisdom as a certified child sleep consultant. She offers parents the tools required to get their babies to sleep and in turn find the much-needed rest they deserve.
Timing is key when working on a baby sleep schedule. It’s important to make sure to find a balance between not enough awake time and too much. This is referred to as sleep pressure.
If your child is taking a short nap and waking up happy it is likely that the amount of sleep pressure that they have built up before their nap is not enough, and it might be time to extend the wake period before that nap. On the other hand, if they take a short nap and wake up upset, they might have built up too much sleep pressure and therefore gone into overtired mode.
In addition to a proper waketime before each nap, it is critical that a child’s bedtime is on point. Bedtime will fall between 6:30 and 7:45 on a regular basis, although an earlier bedtime is necessary when going through nap transitions or dealing with an early morning wake up.
It should take your child no more than 20 minutes to fall asleep at bedtime. If it takes longer than that, then you need to adjust the prior wake period. Here are some general guidelines regarding maximum awake times by age:
Under two months old: 45 minutes to an hour
Three Months: 1.5 hours
Four Months: 1.75 – 2 hours
Five Months: 2 – 2.25 hours
Six Months: 2.5 hours
Seven Months: 2.75 hours
Eight Months: 3 – 3.5 hours
Nine Months: 3 – 3.75 hours
10- 11 Months: 3-4 hours
12 Months: 3.5-4.5 hours
Learn Your Child’s Sleep Signals
If experimenting with different wake times is not successful, start paying closer attention to the signs your child is giving you before each nap and bedtime and see if those can lead you in a better direction. It is important to understand that there are a few different things that their signals might signify.
The hormone melatonin helps you fall asleep and stay asleep. When a child is beginning to sleep longer stretches at night and lengthening out their naps, they are naturally producing melatonin. Note that even just a short while after waking in the morning or waking from a long nap you might see your child yawn, appear lethargic, or rub their eyes. This is due to their body adjusting to the new amounts of melatonin. Don’t these confuse signs of melatonin production with sleep signs/cues.
However, if your child is due for their next nap or bedtime within the next 30-45 minutes and you are in the process of determining the correct wake period, then you must watch for your child’s sleep signals and let them lead the way. If you see a sleep cue, such as yawning or a lull in energy, it’s time to go into the room and begin your normal 10-15 minute soothing routine.
It is also important to be able to distinguish an overtired sign from a sleep cue. Once your child becomes overtired sleep it is going to become more difficult for them to sleep.
Some examples of overtired signs are being fussy/cranky and rubbing their eyes. If you see an overtired sign then head straight into their room, sing their song, say their key phrase and put them in their crib (learn more about a soothing routine). You want to put them in their crib (awake) within 5 minutes of observing their overtired sign(s).
Having an understanding of wake guidelines by age and being observant of your child’s sleep cues can help you settle into a successful sleep schedule with your little one.
The sleep training process will have it’s highs and lows. The key is to learn from what isn’t working. Here are some common issues that I see parents run into during sleep training.
Stay consistent with day sleep and night sleep
Some parents will think that teaching their child to self-soothe only at night will make the process easier. The opposite is true. A child that young cannot differentiate the difference between day sleep and night sleep. If they are fed, rocked or bounced to sleep during the day, they cannot be expected to put themselves to sleep at night without those sleep associations.
Make sure every aspect is considered
Another reason that a sleep training effort may fail is because there are some pieces of the puzzle that are missing. It is important to make sure that not only have you picked a method that works for your parenting style, but also that ALL of the pieces are in place. This includes making sure the sleep environment conducive to sleep, choosing the most appropriate sleep training method, taking into consideration day sleep and wake times, and removing all crutches/sleep associations. If one of these pieces are missing it can cause a setback in the process.
Avoid having an overtired baby
One of the keys to sleep training is to not let the child get overtired. To ensure this, it is important that the wake period in-between naps is not too long. If they are, it will lead to poor naps and then leave you with an overtired baby when you begin the sleep training at night. In addition to considering the wake times during the day, you also need to make sure that the timing between the last nap of the day and bedtime is also not too long, because this is the most sensitive wake time of the entire day.
Many families are reluctant to use an early bedtime. This is understandable, especially when both parents work full time and they feel like they never get to see their child if they go to sleep early. It is important to remember that this is temporary and it is what is best for the child. The early bedtime is biologically advantageous to their child learning how to self-soothe and getting the restorative sleep that they need.
If this is the situation in your family, set aside some special one-on-one time with them on the weekends, or if possible, wake up early with them in the morning and spend time with them then.
Feeding too close to sleep time
The number one sleep crutch that is used to put a child to sleep is the breast or the bottle. This is why it is essential to separate the two. It is best to avoid feeding your child too close to nap time, instead feed them when they wake as opposed to before they go to sleep. I also always recommend avoiding feeding in the sleep environment.
Sleep training done right can provide amazing results. Don’t get frustrated with the process, just remember to stick to the plan.
When families reach out to me about sleep training there are always a lot of questions about the process. They can be apprehensive about what it all entails and if it will actually work for them, but with some general guidelines sleep training can be successful for everyone.
Pick a sleep training method that works for your family
When I have my first consultation with a family I present them with multiple options for sleep training methods. They always ask which one works best. My response is always the same, “All of them work, but you need to pick the one that you feel most comfortable with and will use consistently.”
If you are more comfortable with being in the room, then choose a method that allows you to be present. If you think that your presence is doing more harm than good, then take that into consideration as well. Every family is different, and in order to be successful it is critical to take into account the needs of both the child and the parents.
Come up with a solid sleep training plan
I have found that in most instances parents know what to do, they just don’t know how to put a plan in place in order to get the job done. There is a lot of guesswork, worrying if they are approaching it the right way, and wondering if they are missing anything. Taking some time upfront to develop a plan that allows the parents to think through the process and better understand how to handle situations that arise, even at 3:00 AM when they are dead tired and at their wit’s end.
Give it your best shot the first time
Many people will turn to a sleep consultant after experimenting with sleep training their child. While this is completely understandable, it is important to keep in mind that a child who has never been sleep-trained before will take to the process better than a child who has been through the process, but didn’t succeed. So for parents who want to take sleep training on themselves, my advice is to have a solid plan in place before you start and stay dedicated to it.
Start at night
The drive to sleep is greater at night than it is during the day. This is why it is important to always begin sleep training at night, as opposed to with naps. During the night, their bodies will naturally help guide them back to sleep which gives them ample practice all throughout the night. After a full night of teaching your child to self-soothe, these skills will serve valuable the next day at naptime. Although, it is important that the sleep training process includes both day and night sleep.
Develop a support system
One of the most important elements of my job as a child sleep consultant is to provide support. Even when parents have established a plan, they will always second-guess themselves every time they are having a rough night or an unsuccessful nap. When they question their decisions many times it will cause them to stray from the plan, especially when a parent is already sleep deprived. A child sleep consultant provides that support and encouragement to keep things on track and not let one setback derail the whole process.
The dreaded early morning wake-up! Most parents have gone through it at some point. Unfortunately, there is no snooze button on that alarm. An unexplained early morning wake-up can be difficult to navigate through, but rest assured that with some adjustments you can get back on track.
First, let’s define an “early morning waking.” The rule of thumb is anything after 6:00 am is fair game for waking up, but nothing earlier is considered “morning”. In fact, I advise my clients to treat a 4:00 or 5:00 am wake-up the same way as they would treat a waking in the middle of the night. It is best to use your sleep training method until 6:00. If your child falls back to sleep by 6:00, great, let them sleep until 8:00 (but not later, it’s also important not to let them sleep too late). If they don’t fall asleep, I suggest doing a “dramatic morning announcement” at 6:00, which means opening the curtains, turning on the lights, and switching from stoic night-time parent to happy/fun daytime parent ready to start the day. Keep in mind that the first nap should be adjusted based on how long the child was awake in their crib before 6:00 am.
Finding the underlying issue for early morning wake-ups is a process. Below are some troubleshooting tips to help you determine what is happening with your little one. I recommend starting with the first two, since they are the basics.
The Sleep Environment: When it comes to the sleep environment it is important to make sure that it is as dark as possible. When the sun starts rising early in the morning it is especially important to keep that room dark until at least 6:00 am. Also, make sure there are no distractions in the room, such as anything that glows in the dark, lights up, or makes noise (other than white noise which I recommend).
Self-Soothing: Another essential element to fixing the early morning waking is making sure that your child is falling asleep independently and without any props, such as a pacifier. Creating a sleep routine that doesn’t rely on rocking or feeding to sleep helps your child become an independent sleeper. This means ALWAYS placing them in their crib awake, so when they wake during the night they know how to put themselves back to sleep.
Earlier Bedtime: Contrary to what many people believe, another reason for early morning wake-ups is due to a late bedtime. If there is too much time between the last nap of the day and bedtime, this will result in a wake-up prior to 6:00 am. Early bedtimes are essential during a nap transition period or when working to correct a sleep deficit. Bedtime should be between 5:45 and 7:30 pm after a solid schedule has been established, otherwise it will be the culprit for perpetual early wake-ups. In addition, a child without a solid daytime schedule could show signs of their sleep deficit early in the morning. This is why it is critical to take into account the entire 24-hour schedule when it comes to sleep, and why we handle nap training and night training at the same time.
Reaching a New Milestone: A milestone, such as crawling, rolling over, sitting up, standing, will almost always cause a disruption in sleep, many times the disruption is in the morning. There isn’t much that you can do other than give your child as much time during the day as possible to practice their new skill. This is always surprising to many parents, but your child will wake up and remember the new milestone immediately and start practicing right there in their crib.
Night-Feeding: Another reason for an early morning waking could be due to hunger. If your child is consistently waking at 5:00 am and not going back to sleep I suggest offering them a feeding at this point. Especially if it has been 3.5-4 hours from their last night feeding. While some children naturally phase out night feedings all together, others still hold onto at least one until the end of the ninth month.
While there is no one solution to the dealing with early morning wake-ups, with these troubleshooting steps you will likely find the cause, so you all can sleep a little longer in the morning.
One of the top reasons that families work with me is because their child is waking frequently at night. In most cases I find that the child is fed each time to put them back to sleep, which is creating a bad habit of night waking’s and/or short naps. I have seen this with children as young as four months and as old as 3.5 years.
Here are some tips I provide parents who have fallen into this trap.
Use Age Guidelines for Feedings
There are some general guidelines around feeding that I recommend parents try to stick to, unless otherwise instructed by a doctor, for example, a concern about your child’s weight gain.
Average Night Sleep for Babies
Feedings every 2-3 hours during the day and night. This can mean as many as five night feedings.
Three night feedings, first stretch is about 5 hours long.
Two night feedings, first stretch is about 5 hours long.
Two night feedings, longest stretch is 6 hours.
One night feeding, longest stretch is 6-7 hours.
*In order for baby to go longer than 6-7 hours at night solids need to be well established, meaning three meals per day consisting of all four food groups in addition to milk.
This is the average age that babies will drop all night feedings. They may be an occasional night feeding, but children are able to sleep through most nights.
The best way to address the issue of your child waking out of habit is to teach them how to put themselves to sleep. Once they learn to self-soothe, they will no longer look to you (or food) to help them fall back to sleep. When a child wakes out of habit and has not yet learned these skills, they think they NEED help returning to sleep. Once they learn how to do it themselves, they will begin transferring themselves from one sleep cycle to the next without looking for help from Mom and Dad.
The majority of people who seek my help will report that their child is taking 30-45 minute naps, which is because that is the length of one sleep cycle. Once they are taught to self-soothe, they will extend their naps by putting themselves back to sleep during brief wakings.
How do I know if my child is waking because of habit or hunger?
During the newborn stage, it is expected that your child will wake frequently. As they grow it’s important to be able to differentiate if their waking’s are out of habit or hunger.
They are likely waking because of hunger if…
Your child is falling asleep independently at the beginning of the night and still waking up.
Your child falls back to sleep quickly after a feeding.
Your child is eating and then sleeping a good 3-4 hour stretch.
If your child is stuck in a pattern of eating too much at night and not taking in enough calories during the day.
If your baby does not get a feeding and they stay awake crying for an extended period.
They are likely waking because of habit if…
Your child is fed and continues to remain awake.
You always put your child to sleep by either feeding them or rocking them to sleep.
If their sleep environment is not conducive to sleep. Things such as night-lights, crib mobile, the room being too hot or too cold, or too much sunlight could be creating a habit of waking. Learn more about creating a sleep environment conducive to sleep in this blog.
Like all bad habits, this too can be reversed. It just takes time and consistency.
When my son was young my husband worked away from home, and I was alone with a baby who did not sleep. My son and I both became sleep-deprived and I was desperate for a solution. It was a situation that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. That is when I discovered a certified child sleep consultant that changed my life! She helped me gain control of our sleep and within two weeks my son went from an overtired, irritable baby, to being rested and happy. I was able to enjoy being a mother, because I was finally well rested and happy also!
After going through that experience I knew I wanted to help other single parents. Without a second parent, when you have a fussy baby you don’t have the option to hand your baby to the other parent and take a break. This can lead to sleep-deprivation, emotions running high, and things can quickly spiral out of control.
There are two things that I recommend to all parents, but they are especially important for single-parent households – a schedule and “me” time.
Stick to a Schedule
When a parent is home by themselves, they have to take their child with them when they get groceries, go to the doctor, and for every other little outing that inevitably comes up. This can lead to missing a nap or pushing bedtime back for a little one. As a result, the child is now expected to sleep at a time that does not coincide with their circadian rhythm. This leaves parents baffled at the fact that their child, who should be extra tired, is now throwing a fit and fighting sleep. They should be crashing, right?
This is a big misconception; in fact it works the other way around. When a child misses their scheduled sleep time, their body immediately starts producing cortisol, which helps to give them their “second wind.” By the time the child who skipped their nap or missed their bedtime is put to bed, they have already entered the “overtired” state and large amounts of cortisol is running through their body. This makes it hard for the child to fall asleep…and stay asleep.
This is why it is so critical to keep a consistent schedule. It may make it hard to get your errands done or appointments planned, but it will help both parent and child in the long run. Never underestimate the power of a solid schedule. A set routine is essential in order to maintain sanity.
Carve Out “Me” Time
It is critical for a new mom to carve out some time for herself, even if it is just to sleep! This can be hard for a new mom who feels guilty leaving her child, even for short periods of time, but it is so important.
If you have the luxury of having a family member close by, ask them to watch the child for a couple of hours once or twice a week. Use this time to rest, get things done around the house, or just go out for a cup of coffee with a friend. If you don’t have family close, reach out to a neighbor or a friend. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It is important that we have time to rest and recuperate after nonstop supervision of our toddlers and infants.
Whether you are a single parent or have a spouse who works away from the home, it is even more important to make sleep a priority. Although you will have to schedule outings and activities around their sleep times, in return you will have a well-rested and happy baby. Children who are having their sleep needs met will thrive due to the fact that these proper amounts of sleep are contributing to their cognitive development. And let’s not forget the endless number of reasons that it is just as important for the parent to be rested as well.
Make the Bedtime Routine Special: A consistent bedtime routine is crucial to establishing successful sleep habits. The bedtime routine is specific to each family. It might include activities such as reading a book, singing a particular song, or taking a bubble bath. The consistent routine can help provide the child a sense of calming, and lets the child know what to expect each night before it’s time to go to sleep.
One Hour Rule for Napping: Implement the “one hour rule” to ensure restorative sleep. A 60-minute nap is fully restorative, so it is important to keep a baby in their crib for the full hour even if they wake beforehand. If they wake up before 60 minutes crying, parents can go in quickly and try to soothe them back to sleep.
Creating an Ideal Sleep Environment: The child’s sleep environment can have a significant influence on their sleeping pattern. Being mindful of the temperature, distractions, and the amount of light in the room can help ensure a peaceful atmosphere conducive to healthy sleep.
Staying a Step Ahead with Sleepy Cues: Most children give us hints, or “sleepy cues”, when they are starting to get sleepy and entering their natural sleep wave. It is important to be able to differentiate a child’s sleepy cues from signs of being over-tired, to be proactive with naptime and bedtime. Once a child gets to the overtired state, they usually have missed their sleep wave and it can make sleep more difficult.
Avoid Sleep Crutches: It’s easy for sleep-deprived parents to fall into the trap of using sleep crutches. A “sleep crutch” is something that a child depends on in order to fall asleep, such as laying with them until they fall asleep, nursing/drinking a bottle in order to fall asleep, or motion sleep such as a rocking, car or swing. The process of breaking a sleep crutch is challenging, so it is best to be prepared so you don’t have to go back and correct this behavior.
Establish a Comfort Item: A comfort item provides a sense of security and enables the child to fall asleep more easily. It considered any tangible object that helps a child fall asleep, such as loveys, special blankets, or stuffed animals.
Start Teaching Self-Soothing at 16-weeks: A baby who can self-soothe is a baby who can calm itself down, and fall asleep independently. This means when they wake at night during non-feeding times, they are usually able to quickly fall back to sleep without mom or dad’s help. If you start early on you will have plenty of time to practice your timing and figure out what works for your child.
When a child turns 16 weeks, their sleep needs are different than that of a newborn. Now, sleep can be scheduled and a regular bedtime routine should be well established. Figuring out your child’s sleep patterns is half the battle; the other half is coordinating them into a schedule.
Many of my clients will tell me that their child takes 30-35 minute naps, on the dot! This is very common and is occurring because that is the duration of the first sleep cycle. Children who are waking after just a half hour, have not yet learned how to transition to the next sleep phase without waking.
When do I need to be concerned about short naps?
Newborns nap throughout the day and the only time frame we use to decide when we will put them to sleep is their wake period in-between naps. Other than that, a newborn is not ready for a strict schedule to be enforced. It is very common for newborns to take several short naps throughout the day. Once we hit 16 weeks, (if you child was born early, this needs to be adjusted) we will try to lengthen these naps until they provide full restoration.
How do I get my baby’s naps to lengthen?
A 60 minute nap is fully restorative; this is why we implement the “one hour rule.” The terms of this “rule” are simple; keep your baby in their crib for the full hour even if they wake beforehand. There are two ways this can be done.
If your child has woken up happy, leave them for the duration of the hour and see what happens. If they have woken up and they are upset, you can also remain out of the room (if you can tolerate the crying.)
The other option is to go back in quickly and try to soothe them back to sleep.
How do I know if the nap has been restorative?
The first thing to determine is that the nap was at least an hour long. If so, chances are your child had a restorative nap. Next, you can tell by the mood your child is in when they wake. If they wake happy, this is a good sign pointing toward an adequate and healthy nap. If they wake upset, their nap was probably not long enough.
Restorative naps are an essential part of establishing a healthy sleep schedule. The morning nap provides mental restoration and the afternoon nap provides physical restoration. The reason naps are so tricky and a solid nap schedule takes so long to establish is because the drive to sleep is less during the day now that they are no longer a newborn. The hormones that tell their bodies to sleep are now being disbursed at nighttime instead of sporadically throughout a 24-hour period. Always remember that naps are an essential part of the sleeping puzzle, if they are not fully restorative they will cause night waking’s, mood fluctuations, early rising.. And the list goes on!!
Many people ask my advice on how they should go about getting their baby to nap. It is important to remember that the number of naps, the length of the nap and the timing at which they begin all need to be considered when trying to master a successful nap schedule for your little one.
Let’s start with the 3 main factors that influence a good nap:
1) Putting baby to sleep before they become overtired.
2) Being put down for their nap at the same time as their biological sleep wave.
3) Having baby fall asleep independently and without props.
Make sure their wake times are kept appropriate for their age. If a child is kept awake took long, they reach the overtired state which then makes it even harder for them to fall asleep. Always look for sleepy cues! Start watching for them after your child has been awake for just one hour. Also, there are overtired signs that often signal that we have missed their sleep wave. Always make a note of sleepy cues and overtired signs, what they were and when you saw them, this way you will know a time frame for when they usually pop up.
(Check my blog post for a chart of sleepy cues and overtired signs!)
Although considering how long your child has been awake is very important, so is knowing when their biological sleep wave will occur. Babies have natural rhythms that send signals to their brain to either be awake or asleep. Putting your child down at a time that does not coincide with their sleep wave is going against what their brain is telling them to do. Not only will it be a battle trying to get them to sleep, the sleep will not be as restorative and you will most likely have a cranky child on your hands when they wake from their nap.
The third factor is easier said than done, but once your child has mastered falling asleep without help, they will be able to do so around the clock. Items such as a pacifier, lovey, and stuffed animals are considered “comfort items” and not props. Comfort items are a great way to help your child fall asleep on their own. Make sure you are familiarizing your child with these items during their bedtime/naptime routine. When you go into their room to check on them, always place the item back in their hand and remind them that it is there.
What is considered a sleep prop?
A sleep prop can be anything from nursing to sleep, rocking to sleep or using motion sleep (car ride, stroller or a swing). When a parent resorts to one of these methods to get their child to sleep, it might work for the initial put down but as soon as the baby goes from one sleep phase to the next, they will wake. Each time they wake, they will think that the strategy that got them to sleep in the first place must be repeated in order for them to fall back asleep. This is simply because they have not learned otherwise. There are also less obvious props such as lying with your child until they fall asleep, letting them hold your hand or stroke your hair while they fall asleep. I highly recommend using “touch” when teach your child how to fall asleep on their own but you must always remember that the parent controls the touch!
5 quick Tips:
Establish a consistent soothing routine that will take place for 15 minutes prior.
Do not let them sleep in past 7:00 am .
Do not let them nap longer than 3 hours.
Make sure they are awake from their morning nap by 11am.
When becoming a parent, educating yourself on standard sleep regressions and milestones is a great way to stay ahead of the curve. The sixth month mark is often a struggle; many of my clients first reach out to me during this time. Figuring out the right amount of naps and when to establish bedtime can get tricky. Here are some quick rules to follow to aid in this process:
Experiment between 2 and 3 naps. Some children at this age will favor a 3rd nap, while others will do better with just 2 naps and an early bedtime.
If your child regularly skips nap 3 and has an earlier bedtime, you can learn how to use a 3rd nap on occasion if necessary.
Morning nap is mentally restorative and afternoon nap, physically restorative. The 3rd nap provides no restoration and is only used to save the over tired state at bedtime.
Before a child turns 6 months, a 3rd nap is necessary. A 9 months of age, all children will drop the 3rd nap and consistently take two naps per day. It is the period of time in between when you can experiment with each scenario in order to see which is best for your child.
A child between 6-9 months needs 14-16 hours of sleep in a 24 hour time period and can handle between 2.5-3 hours of wake time.
Here are some ways to know if your child should take a 3rd nap.
If both the morning and afternoon nap lasted 30 minutes or less. (Because this is not enough day sleep.)
If your child did not fall asleep at all during afternoon nap.
If it is a special occasion for your family and your child will be in bed later than usual.
*A restorative nap lasts at least 45 minutes. (60 minutes is ideal for full restoration)
Things to remember about Nap 3:
The most important part about taking a 3rd nap, is figuring out when to do it. I tell parents to remember “3 for 3” because I find that 3:00 is usually a great time to aim for a 3rd nap. However, all naps should end by 4:00pm and a child’s wake time will be the deciding factor for figuring out when to the nap should begin. Don’t forget to do a solid and consistent 15 minute soothing routine before this nap and all others. Keep in mind that if you are shooting for 3:00, soothing needs to begin promptly at 2:45. If you find your child takes a little while to settle and fall asleep at this time of day, soothe at 2:30, lay down at 2:45 with a goal for them to be asleep by 3:00.
My rule for naps is that if you are in your home, your child should nap in their crib. However, if necessary, it is OK to use motion sleep for the 3rd nap of the day. This is primarily because it provides no restoration and will be just a “catnap.” This is an exception to the rule of not using motion sleep. If you need to run an errand, or pick up an older child from daycare or an activity, it is OK to let your little one take this nap in their car seat or in a stroller as you are out an about.
An early bedtime will be your saving grace during the 6-9 month period. Don’t hesitate to put your child to bed as early as 5pm if you have too. A child closer to 6 months, should be put to bed approximately 2.5 hours after they woke from the last nap of the day, and a child closer to 9 months, should be put down approximately 3 hours after they woke from the last nap of the day.
Remember, it is Ok if each day is different as far as nap times and the amount of naps in the day as long as you are working toward consistency. It might take between 3-6 weeks for naps to iron out but that is common when transitioning from one sleep schedule to another. If your child normally takes only two naps, it is perfectly acceptable to add a third nap if they are having an off day; and vice versa, if your child normally takes 3 naps, it is Ok to use an early bedtime instead of nap 3 on occasion. The goal is to figure out which scenario your child favors and know how to use the other option when necessary!