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Thursday
Dec132012

Sweet Dreams: The Whys and Hows of Healthy Sleep

by Avital Nathman

photo: konstantin sutyagin - fotolia.com

It’s no secret that parenting comes with its own set of special challenges, and for many, the one that tops that list is sleep. From frequent sleepless nights with newborns to navigating bedtime routines with toddlers and wake up routines with teenagers, sleep tends to be a constant issue, creating frustration, worry, and uncertainty in many parents. Ask any sleep-deprived parent, and they’ll tell you why sleep is so important: Beyond allowing us to be well rested so we can function to the best of our abilities, sleep is vital for the health, development, and well-being of babies, children and teenagers. 

With sleep being so important, it’s no wonder that parents end up having a multitude of sleep-related questions and situations that they struggle with. When it comes to newborns and babies, most of the questions revolve around how long, when, and where babies should sleep. As children get older, challenges tend to revolve around naps, bedtime avoidance, nightmares, sleepwalking, and more. 

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that there is a plethora of parenting books devoted to sleep. Attachment Parenting guru Dr. Sears has taken on the topic in his book, The Baby Sleep Book, and he’s not alone. From Elizabeth Pantley’s No-Cry Sleep Solution to Gary Ezzo’s controversial On Becoming Baby Wise, there is a wide range of books touted as having the best and most reliable methods of providing everyone in your family with a full night’s rest. 

Despite the variety in expert opinion, sleep still tends to look different depending on the family. Some families find that they get the healthiest, most restful sleep by safely co-sleeping, while for others, each family member needs their own bed or crib. Some children learn to go to sleep on their own early on, while others still need plenty of soothing to be able to drift off peacefully. I’m sure my son’s own infancy looked much different than the kid down the block. Bedtimes occurred in a family bed, usually while I nursed him to sleep. We found that the easiest way to get my son to nap was to pop him on our backs into our mei-tai style carrier and go for a walk, do dishes, vacuum, etc... until he was sound asleep. That worked great for us and prevented lots of frustrations at failed crib-only naps. For others it probably sounds like the worst method ever, but what it came down to, was that my son was able to get in his necessary sleep without turning our lives upside down. 

And that seems to be the takeaway pediatrician Erica Kates hopes most parents glean when it comes to sleep. Dr. Kates, who practices in Ludlow, Massachusetts, says that as long as all safety rules regarding sleep are followed, parents should, “explore what is right for your individual child and your family. If a suggestion from a book or family member doesn't feel right to you, it probably isn't right for you. And go with what works, as long as it's safe.” As far as those safety concerns go, Dr. Kates reiterates the rules that families should follow for healthy, secure sleep habits: “Infants under a year of age should not sleep in an environment with fluffy blankets and pillows, to avoid suffocation. Infants should always be put down to sleep on their backs, facing up [...] and some other common sense ones - e.g., don't have a baby in your bed if you are using drugs or alcohol.” 

In hopes of learning some additional helpful sleep solutions, I also spoke with sleep and parenting consultant, Beth Grams Haxby, who has been working with families on sleep-related issues for ten years. In addition to presenting on sleep at conferences and to groups of educators, parents and medical professionals, Grams Haxby guides parents through the common struggles associated with sleep. She notes that most parents come to her looking for ways to help their babies sleep for longer chunks through the night and eventually to sleep for most of the night, something parents of older children can also struggle with. Grams Haxby is more than happy to help families practice healthy sleep habits, since, according to her, “families are drawn to filling their children’s lives with activities that aim to enrich their cognitive and physical development. What they often don’t recognize is that without enough sleep, their children won’t be able to truly benefit from those activities.” 

While there are no magical solutions for sleep, both Dr. Kates and Grams Haxby have a few recommendations that will at least help families attain better sleep. 

●      A regular bedtime: According to Grams Haxby, “parents are often amazed at the positive impact that setting a regular schedule has on their child’s ability to sleep well. Learning that sleep is a biological process, one that is governed by our brains and that thrives on regularity, can be eye-opening for parents and help their resolve to set and follow a regular bedtime for their children.” 

●      A consistent bedtime routine: Grams Haxby explains that “a bedtime routine “cues” the body into sleep,” and “should be relaxed, quiet, and comforting.” The routine part is key, according to the sleep professional: “Research has shown that routines that happen in the same order each night are more effective than routine that have the same activities but occurring in a different order! Longer bedtime routines are essentially time spent with parents, not “cueing” into sleep routines. Very short routines may feel rushed and be less settling for children.”

Dr. Kates offers these suggestions: “Try a relaxing bedtime routine, even for older kids and teenagers. This can include soft music, dim lights, reading, a warm bath, a cup of herbal tea, or any other quiet, relaxing activities.” 

●      Be mindful of light & darkness: Certain activities before sleep can lead to fitful sleep according to Dr. Kate, who suggests avoiding television/computers/video games in the hour before bed: “Even though television can feel relaxing, the bright flashing lights give the brain signals that it's morning and time to wake up.”

Grams Hixby stresses the importance of darkness during sleep, to help our circadian rhythms: “A darkened room enables the body to work in conjunction with this “internal clock” which signals the brain to secrete melatonin as night approaches.” Bright light, however, does play an important role as well:  “Open the shades in the morning, not only to allow sunlight to stream in (and help set the internal clock for the day), but also to ensure that the bedroom is seen as a bright and cheery place in the daytime. Sometimes children who have struggled with bedtimes or night times think of their room only as a dark place to sleep, associating it with feelings of discomfort rather than of warmth and pleasure.” 

Both professionals made sure to note that feeling confident and comfortable with sleep-related decisions is key, and that while they may not look the same for every family - that’s okay. It may be hard to remember, especially when exhausted from multiple sleep-deprived nights, but most sleep-related challenges are usually temporary, and a good night’s sleep - for everyone in your family - can become a reality and not just a dream. 

A former teacher and lifetime learner, Avital Norman Nathman is a play-at-home mama, freelance writer, wife and feminist (and not necessarily in that order). When not gardening, cooking or dancing around the house, you can catch her musing about motherhood and feminism at www.TheMamafesto.com

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