Do you schedule your child’s sleep times or do you follow their natural sleepy cues?
Wouldn’t life be convenient if our babies would sleep on our schedule so we could fit in grocery shopping, playdates, and dinners out with family? Unfortunately this is not how babies and small children work. If we ignore their natural sleep windows and try to put them onto a “sleep schedule” we face bringing an irritable, moody, and overtired child along with us on these outings AND we risk their nighttime sleep falling apart.
Why would nighttime sleep fall apart if I’m putting them to sleep at a consistent time that works with our family’s schedule?
I’m sure you have heard of the term “second wind”. You’ve probably experienced this phenomenon at least a handful of times in your life. This second wind provides you with a burst of energy when you have gone past your initial phase of exhaustion and sleepiness. As useful as this can be for adults who need to function at their jobs past 3pm, this can have a detrimental effect on your child’s sleep. In babies, we call this burst of energy a cortisol rush. When you blow past your baby’s magic window of opportunity for sleep, you often see renewed energy. Life becomes a game and they fight sleep with everything they’ve got.
Imagine how hard it would be for you to fall asleep in the middle of a second wind. Your baby, who is still learning their sleep skills, would have an infinitely harder time fighting off this excess energy to fall into sleepyland. If a baby’s sleep windows are missed during the day, the cortisol remains in their system and messes with their nighttime sleep. This is one of the biggest reasons why babies wake up so often during the night. They are having immense difficulty putting themselves back to sleep between sleep cycles BECAUSE they still have this cortisol in their system.
How do I avoid this?
Watch your baby’s sleepy cues. Common sleep signals include: staring off into space, less activity, yawning, loss of interest in people or toys, increased fussiness, and rubbing their eyes. Eye rubbing is a later sleepy signal and staring off into space is an earlier sleep signal. Watch your baby for a few days to observe their own unique tired cues. Once you have differentiated the early cues from the late cues, calculate how long their sleep window is (this is the time that has passed between your baby showing early sleepy cues and late sleep cues). Most babies have a 15 minute sleep window. This means that you have approximately fifteen minutes after seeing the “seven mile stare” to getting them through their naptime routine and into their crib or bed.
If they are in meltdown mode or have an increased activity level by the end of your naptime routine, you have missed the window. Next time, shorten the routine so you get them down early enough. The goal is to have them in their sleep place by the time they are rubbing their eyes.
By following your child’s natural sleepy cues instead of imposing a sleep schedule, you can find out exactly how their circadian rhythm is set and avoid many struggles around naptime and bedtime.
I’m following my child’s sleep signals. What else can I do to help them sleep?
What are your child’s sleep signals? Would you like help coming up with a plan that will work for your child’s unique needs? I can help.