The sun rises and sets each day, winter invariably gives way to spring, and every April, Uncle Sam comes a-knockin'. Unfortunately, your child's sleep habits aren't likely to follow such a predictable pattern. One day your angel is dreaming through the night, then for the next two weeks she's bawling like crazy at 2 a.m. "Sleep isn't linear -- there will always be some ups and downs," notes Erica Komisar, a psychotherapist in New York City. "The trick is figuring out how to quickly get back on track."
There are dozens of reasons why sleep habits can veer from perfect to problematic. "It could be something obvious, like a virus or a vacation, or it might be nothing in particular," says Jodi A. Mindell, PhD, sleep expert and author of Sleeping Through the Night. Her advice: give your child the benefit of the doubt for two nights in a row. "It could be that she really is scared, or hungry, or cold. But by the third night, it's time to take action," says Mindell.
We talked to experts about their ground rules for a good night's sleep (see box on page 30 for more details), as well as their action plans for handling common sleep disruptions. Read on for their best tips to ensure baby gets her zzz's.
Avery Brandon, of New York City, was proud to report that her daughter Skyler was clocking almost 12 hours of sleep at 4 months. So Brandon was taken aback a few months later when Skyler started waking several times a night. Although she'd finally settle down after nursing, even that was no help by the third or fourth time. After a few nights of this, they saw the doctor. "Her eye was a little gooey and she just wasn't herself," says Brandon. Her pediatrician diagnosed pinkeye and gave Skyler drops. By the next night, there was already some improvement. "We white-knuckled it every time she cried -- and she would stop in a few minutes. After 11 hours, I had to wake her to nurse so I could go to work," reports Brandon.
Be patient. The experts agree that sleep rules pretty much go out the window when you're dealing with a sick child. "Anything that comforts your child is going to work, whether that's nursing, giving her eye drops, or putting a wedge under the mattress to ease an ear infection," says sleep specialist Michael Breus, PhD.
But set some boundaries. "It's much better for you to go to your child than vice versa," Mindell says. That's especially true if you're allowing him to come into your bed. "Once you get them in your room, it's almost impossible to get them back to theirs," she warns. Set up an air mattress in his room so you're nearby if he needs you in the night.
Get back to business ASAP. Once your child is better, return to her regular sleep schedule. "It's hard to break a habit of being held to sleep if it goes on for more than a few days, so give her the extra attention she needs when she's sick, then slowly back off," says Marc Weissbluth, MD, a pediatric sleep expert and author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Twins.
Whether it's a vacation or a weeklong visit from the cousins, getting out of the bedtime routine can ruin even the best of sleepers. For Katie Miller, of New York City, the combination of travel, birthday parties, and the holidays was more than her son could bear. "Henry wasn't a great sleeper to begin with, and then around his second birthday in mid-December, he got completely overstimulated," says Miller. First he stopped napping, she says, then he took an hour to fall asleep, woke up every hour and wouldn't settle back down, and was crawling out of the crib and getting up at 5 a.m. "Even once we got back from our trip, it went on for about a month."
Acclimate quickly. If your itinerary has you crossing time zones, adjust your child's schedule as soon as you can. "A week before you leave, either stay up or get to sleep about 15 minutes earlier, depending on which way you're traveling," says Breus. Continue every day until your departure. Once you're at your destination, set your schedule to the local time zone. "Kids don't adjust nearly as well as adults, so be patient," he warns.
Get 'em tired. "Make sure there's some physical release, especially if they've been sitting for a long time," Komisar says. Being active will also help release stress and encourage a healthy night's sleep.
Reboot upon return. "I learned from my mother: when you get off schedule, have a 'reset' night -- with an extra-early bedtime -- to reestablish the routine," says Dr. Weissbluth.
My nephew, Alex, was an ideal sleeper, reports my sister-in-law, Lauren Shaffer -- that is, until around his first birthday, when he started talking. "Instead of just crying at night, he'd shout out 'Mama!'" she says. Shaffer couldn't resist the lure of her son calling for her, and she'd rush to him. After a few days of walking around like zombies, she and my brother-in-law, Jay, took action. "I told Jay not to let me go to Alex," says Shaffer. It took about a week, but he soon returned to being a good sleeper
Practice makes perfect. "We frequently see children developing sleep setbacks during milestones like crawling, pulling to stand, walking, and talking," says Mindell. "Often they're so excited about their new skills that they just want to try them out." So let them -- but during daytime hours. Take them to the park to walk, and give them plenty of room on the floor if they're learning to crawl. "The sooner they master these skills, the less desire they'll have to practice them constantly," she says.
Schedule some wind-down time. "Dial back on activities about 30 minutes before bedtime," says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Nap Solution. Focus on less physical things like reading or listening to music to help your baby relax.
Stick to your guns. Pantley agrees with Lauren and Jay's approach: "Don't run in every time your baby calls your name. Listen for a few minutes on the monitor and see if he settles down first -- he could just be trying out his new skills."
When Patty Lehn, of St. Joseph, Illinois, brought Kate home from the hospital, 2-year-old brother Parker started waking up several times in the night. "He became much more needy," notes Lehn. To ease the transition, Patty and her husband, Brian, lavished more attention on Parker during the day and involved him in Kate's care. "We let him get her bottle or take out her tub at bathtime, and it's definitely made a difference in his sleep habits!"
Make it a family affair. Follow Lehn's lead and involve your older child in some of the more basic care. But don't do it to the exclusion of all else. "Your child still needs to feel like she is her own person and needs her own playtime," says Pantley.
Around the time my daughter, Layla, turned 3 1/2, she suddenly began to have a persistent fear of shadows in her room at night. It's probably not a coincidence that her first year of preschool was wrapping up, which meant far less structure than in her previously busy days. Bedtime became a battle as she kicked off her blankets and insisted that someone stay with her until she fell asleep. More often than not, my husband and I wearily gave in. Big mistake. After a few days, "just this once" became a nightly habit. It wasn't until we convinced her that our dog, Jett, would keep her safe by sleeping outside her bedroom that we were able to leave without the tears.
Make her feel safe. "Around age 3 1/2 or 4, many children begin to develop nighttime fears," says Mindell. "They're aware that there are things out there that can hurt them, although they tend to be fantasy things like monsters." Turns out my strategy of putting Jett on watch was on track. "Even a goldfish can help kids feel more secure," says Mindell. A special blanket or stuffed animal may also do the trick.
Keep it calm. Play soft music or nature sounds and use a low-wattage night-light.
Be respectful of their fears. "Many children project their anxieties from the day into the dark, as a monster in the closet or under the bed," says Komisar. Talk about what happened during the day and ask whether anything is bothering them.
When it was time for Samantha Batutis to move from her crib to her bed, she started to put up a fight, recalls her mother, Gail Shust, of Long Island City, New York. "Sam was very resistant," she recalls. To keep her daughter motivated, Shust created a one-month countdown calendar to "B" (as in bed) day. "Every time she slept in the bed, she got a sticker on the calendar, although she still sometimes napped in her crib." By the end of the month, Sam was happily sleeping each night in her new big-girl bed.
Set up a reward system. Shust had the right idea, says Breus. "Once the kids have new freedom, you have to keep them motivated to stay in bed." He notes that bribery was the best strategy for his son when he made the transition from crib to bed. "We picked out ten toy cars and told him that if he stayed in bed the whole night, he'd get a car. The next week he had to stay in bed for two nights in a row, then three, and so on, until he forgot about getting out of bed entirely."
Make sure your timing is right. If your child is sleeping happily through the night in his crib, don't feel like you need to rush the situation, notes Mindell. A crib tent can also prevent your tot from scaling the sides and keep him safe inside.
Alyssa Shaffer lives in New York City and is the mother of twins.