Helping Kids Become GREAT Sleepers: Tips & Trips from a Mediocre Mama!

It goes without saying that sleep is one of the cornerstone issues new parents face. When I meet other moms, it comes up within minutes of conversation because so much of our well-being depends on how our little ones sleep at night! Without sleep, it is hard to function much less find joy in raising babies. Thankfully we have coffee and friends to love on us and encourage us along the way. Most of my sleep philosophy comes from advice from other mamas, endless visits to the pediatrician, and experience raising my four babies!

I'll preface by saying that I believe sleep is like 95% uncontrollable. Some kids come into the world as great sleepers and others... not so much. So if you have a four-year-old who's still not sleeping through the night, you're probably screwed.

This advice stems from my experience controlling the "other 5%." I will say that all four of my children sleep between 12 and 14 hours a night, their ages are five, four, two, and 7 months. When my daughter was born, my husband worked out of town for most of her infancy and toddler years. My sanity depended on her sleep schedule and we had such a rough start!

Here are a few of the things I learned along the way...

1. Start Them Young

Experts say the first three months, there is little hope of putting a baby on a schedule. I follow the protocol of nursing/giving a bottle right at bedtime, in a dark room, then laying my baby down while they're still awake. This is so important from the very beginning so that your kids learn to fall asleep in their bed instead of your arms! This is like a 50/50 happening in at first because I love having my little ones snuggle me; but eventually my need for a break wins out and I lay them down awake, say some soothing words, then shut the door. 

Baby Charlie's room, blackout curtain source
A doctor told me that once an infant sleeps through the night, they are able to do it again, without a middle of the night feeding. This was not my experience with Mack, but my other three started to go without middle of the night feedings somewhere between 8 and 12 weeks. They went through changes and growth spurts (I still follow "Lucie's List" to get e-mailed updates regarding Baby Charlie's expected milestones!) but I found letting them fall back asleep on their own through the night led to better sleep habits with each child.

While sleep training, I will let my babies cry for a few minutes. This is different for everyone! I do support some of the "cry it out" methodology. I will go in and soothe every so often, pick up my baby, calm them while standing next to the crib, then lay them back down and try again. During this time, I don't speak to them or turn on the lights. Before we start bedtime, I make sure they're full and have a dry diaper so I know that's not the source of crying. This can go on for quite a while when you first start! Honestly, I can remember doing it in 2 hour stretches at first, soothing every 10-15 minutes. Overtime they will recognize this is time to sleep and the crying may stop completely (it always did in my case!) 

2. Stay on Schedule

When my oldest was a few months old, I read somewhere that babies at that age need between 12-14 hours of sleep a night. I realized since I woke her up at 7am so I could get to work, that meant she could go to sleep between 6 and 7 pm. I thought it couldn't hurt to try, began putting her to bed at 6pm, and it worked! This was a lifesaver for me as my husband wasn't home and parenting alone all day left me exhausted and in need of some alone time. I also worked from home in the evenings and it gave me time to eat dinner, watch my favorite show, and get some work done! Now my daughter is 5 years old and in kindergarten. In the summers bedtime is way more laid back but we're getting back into our old routine. I put the little boys to bed by 6:30, and the big kids are in bed at 7.

I can see how this wouldn't work with people who work outside the home, have nightly sports/activites, and later dinner times. We still spend so much time at home that it is no problem for me to feed my kids around 5 pm, then do baths, books, and brush teeth! 

3. Binky/Lovey

Two of my kids kept pacifiers and now I have two thumb-suckers. Each person also has their own "lovey" a small attachment blanket or stuffed animal I introduce around 9 months/a year. I love things that can help them recreate their sleep environment. We try to keep these just for bed time and as soon as my toddler sees his lovey, he instantly puts his thumb in his mouth and lays on the floor! 

Archie and his beloved truck blanket

4. Sound Machine

Again with creating that environment, having a sound machine helps us set the stage that sleep is different from anything else we do. Mike thinks I have damaged our kids' hearing with these (because they all shout non stop!) so I am keeping the volume lower than I used to. When we travel these are always packed, and I keep a back-up around if one happens to break. I've crawled into sleeping kids rooms with a flashlight in my mouth to put batteries in these during thunderstorms-- just in case the power goes out!

5. Black Out Curtains

Everyone's room is as dark as possible. I have blackout curtains over every window and also several of them have brown pillow cases tacked up as well. Since it is still light out most of the time we go to bed, I have to trick them into thinking it's dark and also don't want my kids woken up by the sun in the mornings. We operate in a war-time mentality around here when it comes to bedtime, and their rooms are like little bunkers! 

The boys' room, blackout curtains from Target, not pictured: old diaper boxes filled with various clothes and garbage, a clump of used bandaids I found when I made Mack's bed, and a stack of contraband toy weapons I found in the closet

6. Short Routine

Until my kids are two or three, I give them a kiss, lay them in bed, and walk away. I read a story to my older two, then pray over them and sometimes sing one song. I don't lay with them very long although I feel this is important and when my husband is home, I spend more time talking and hearing their little thoughts and stories. However he is still gone a lot and I have been with these sweet people all day and usually am ready for some me-time! 

7. I Do Not Negotiate with Terrorists!

Nobody got out of bed the first few years but now I'm getting a lot of repeat offenders-- asking for cups of water, urgent cries for a bug bite remedy, complaints about growing pains. Most of the time I will simply send them back to bed. Sometimes the door from the lower-level opens and I will just shout, "No!" from the couch before even hearing their requests! This doesn't always work and sometimes it's easier to give in and quickly meet their demands and send them back to bed. I really try to nip anything in the bud as quickly as I can, and often offer bribes for staying in bed if it is becoming a habit (something simple like the promise of a glass of orange juice or a few chocolate chips with breakfast usually does the trick!)

8. Middle of the Night Shenanigans

You know how they say with adults, it takes you 21 days to make something into a habit? With kids, I think it's 1 time. My kids will wake up in the middle of the night to tell me something then BAM, we are having middle of the night conversations for 6 months! I am a heavy sleeper and can't be relied on in the middle of the night to help anybody. Thankfully I will hear the baby but the big kids are often left to fend for themselves.

Once when Mack was three, he came upstairs to tell me he wet the bed. I told him I'd come help him, but fell back asleep! The next morning during breakfast, I remembered what had happened and said, "Oh no! Mack what did you do, I'm so sorry I never came!" And he happily said, "That's okay Mom, I just changed my clothes, threw the yucky pull-up in the trash, and laid a blanket down where I peed and went back to sleep!" Three cheers for independent kiddos-- but I really did feel bad for not showing up! 

9. Wake-up Rules

We have a strict rule that nobody wakes up before 7am. That is super hard to enforce with babies. I think some kids just need less sleep than others! However, when mine were little, I would put them back to sleep if they woke up early. Sometimes I knew they were hungry, so at 5 or 6 am I would give them a few ounces, change their diapers, and put them back to bed. Eventually it became a habit for them to sleep late and they skipped the early wake-up time. Mack used to go to bed at 7pm, then sleep until 9 or even 10 am! I have an early riser but I put her to work, having her help me make everyone's breakfast and do a few quick chores so there is less incentive to wake up early!

The room of my early riser, who makes her bed every morning, packs her own lunch, and lays out her outfit for the next day as soon as she gets home from school. Basically she acts like she's not related to me in every way-- and it is all kinds of awesome! 

Disclaimers:


1. One of my kids woke up every two hours through the night, until he was ONE years old, and he also barely slept during the day unless I was holding him or he was in his jumper.

2. If people are sick or teething, every rule goes out the window and it is crazy-town.

3. None of my babies/toddlers are great nappers-- even the 7 month old barely takes two long naps a day and often goes with one short one, falling asleep in the car here and there between errands and school pick-ups. I think this is the price I pay for having great night sleepers. That break during the day may be more important to you, and then you should do what's best for your own family!

4. I have always loved the idea of having my kids sleep in bed with us but I just can't do it. I do not sleep at all when they're there and for some reason, neither do they. We just stare at each other all night until I get up enough energy to walk them back to bed. I love the idea of co-sleeping though and support it in every way! 

5. If my kids don't go to bed by 7 or 8 pm, they are up until 9 or 10-- every time. I think there is a window and once it closes, they are ready to party... indefinitely!

I can't stress more that every family and kid are different. If you don't spend as much time with your kids during the day, I can see how you would want to stretch those evening hours. It is is amazing how well kids thrive when they are simply loved.

I would love to hear any tips you have, please share in the comments anything that works for your family that I may have missed!

3 comments:

  1. I love reading your words! I wholeheartedly endorse your wisdom, having 4 kids myself, but older (10,8,6,4). Also, I am still giggling to the vision of you shouting "NO!" if you hear the door open ... Hahahahaha! I've totally done that. And the co-sleeping. Some of my kids could handle it and others absolutely stared. H i l a r i o u s and TRUE. Thank your for sharing your wisdom from the frontline.

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  2. I am totally with you on this. Finch started out a terrible sleeper but by 7 months I needed a break more than I didn’t want to hear him cry, and he learned very quickly (just a few nights and no more crying). I love my kids but can I put them to bed at 7 pm forever? It’s glorious. And I don’t even spend all day with them :)

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  3. I regularly tell Lucan that the only reason he can come out of his room at night is if he is in fire.

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