By Terrence Matteo, Ph.D.
Lack of sleep is a common complaint that parents of infants and young children bring to child development professionals. Biology and genetics can play a role in how children sleep. Some children are inherently good sleepers while others are susceptible to problems. Here are some common questions and answers about sleep.
When should I start forming good sleep habits? Start from the very beginning by developing a consistent, regular schedule for your baby’s eating and sleeping. Research shows that both children and adults need to set a regular time for sleep and be as consistent as possible. We are creatures of habit—our brains respond well to patterns! Establishing a regular schedule will help babies learn to anticipate what comes next and will result in better sleep patterns.
How do I help my baby learn to fall asleep on his/her own? Develop a relaxing bedtime ritual with only two or three steps, such as a bath or reading a book. End the ritual with your child relaxing in his or her own bed. The best thing you can do is allow your baby to learn how to relax and self-soothe. Research consistently shows that babies who fall asleep on their own in their own rooms stay asleep longer and sleep better.
What if my baby wakes up at night? Waking up throughout the night is the most common sleep problem with children. Most are able to fall back to sleep after a minute or two if they can soothe themselves, however infants and young children who have difficulty with self-soothing may need additional help. Rather than soothing your baby yourself, help your child get comfortable. Reassure your child that everything is fine and that you are close by. Stay in your child’s room for only a minute or two and then allow your child to self-soothe to fall back to sleep.
What factors contribute to sleep problems in children? Firstborn children are often more prone to sleep problems, but babies with illnesses, colic or multiple ear infections also tend to have sleep issues. Physical changes in the environment (noise, or changes in light and sound) or lack of a regular bedtime can interfere with a typical sleep routine.
How do I know if my baby has a more serious sleep disorder? If changes in the environment fail to work and healthy sleep habits are already in place to encourage sleep, consult your pediatrician. If your child exhibits loud snoring or breathing, pauses in breath while sleeping, sleepwalking or sleep terrors, seek help from a professional, as these are signs of a possible sleep disorder.
Terrence Matteo, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and director of the Children’s Developmental Center at Easter Seals Southwest Human Development, which provides programs and support for more than 135,000 children from birth to age 5 and their families.