If you are a parent, you know that lack of sleep directly affects your child’s mood and behavior. You probably would also agree that the quality of your child’s sleep is essential to his or her good health.
What is much more alarming, however, is that poor sleep as a baby can have far-reaching negative consequences in your child’s later life. Although it is so critical, helping your baby to establish healthy sleep patterns is still one of the most underestimated contributions to your child’s long-term wellbeing.
In this article, I want to give you an overview of why sleep is so vital for your baby and what you as a parent can do to improve your baby’s sleep.
Sleep problems in children is a fact
Research shows that about one in three children is struggling with getting proper sleep. Sleep problems often already occur during the first year of life and include irregular sleep patterns, difficulties getting to sleep, and nighttime awakenings.
Sleep problems tend to continue or reappear in the preschool years and are often linked to childhood behavior problems, hyperactivity, and psychiatric symptoms. Poor sleep in a child can also lead to health problems of mothers such as maternal depression.
7 reasons why sleep is so vital for your child
1. Infant sleep and brain development: It’s a well-known fact that it’s during sleep when the body repairs itself and recharges its batteries. But what is particularly critical is the relationship between sleep and brain development. In other words, the amount of sleep directly impacts whether your child’s brain will develop and function properly in the future. Why? Getting adequate sleep is highly beneficial for the brain’s neuroplasticity, the ability to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to training and learning.
And here’s the deal: The most crucial period for these processes to occur in the brain is during the first three years of life because that’s when your child exhibits the largest amount of slow-wave (deep) sleep.
That means if your child doesn’t get enough sleep during the first stage of his or her life, the chances are that the brain won’t properly develop. This can have far-reaching negative consequences such as reduced learning skills and attention spans as well as hyperactivity and ADHD. Therefore, sleep doesn’t only make your kid healthier but also smarter!
2. Infant sleep and growth: Another essential factor of not getting enough sleep is that your baby may not grow adequately. Keep in mind that babies spend about half their sleeping time in deep sleep. As growth hormones are primarily secreted during deep sleep, too little sleep can affect the growth process and the immune system.
3. Infant sleep and the heart: Sleep is also essential for your baby’s heart because it helps to lower the level of stress hormones and cholesterol in the blood. A high concentration of stress hormones and cholesterol can damage your baby’s cardiovascular system – just like in adults.
4. Infant sleep and weight: Poor sleep has a direct effect on your child’s weight. Infants who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to become overweight and develop diabetes when they’re older.
5. Infant sleep and infections: Sleep is also crucial for your baby’s immune system. Lack of sleep leads to reduced secretion of cytokines. Cytokines are molecules that help to regulate immunity and inflammation in the body.
6. Infant sleep and injuries: If you are overtired, you stumble more often and bump into objects. Same with your child: Sleep deprivation results in clumsier and more impulsive movements which increases the risk of accidents and injuries.
7. Infant sleep and family life: Over-stimulated children have a difficult time calming down to rest. They become cranky and clingy and more demanding of their parent’s attention because they learn less from their environment. In other words, when your child doesn’t get enough rest, you and other family members are risking to become chronically exhausted, which makes it more challenging to maintain the family dynamics.
Your role as a parent for establishing healthy sleep patterns in your baby
The direct relationship between good sleep and your child’s wellbeing require that you as a parent, help your child develop good sleep habits at an early age. And there are a lot of simple techniques you can implement right away to achieve this.
Let’s take, for example, persistent night awakenings in infants and toddlers. Many parents feel that their children will not go to sleep unless they feed or rock them to sleep. The reason for this behavior is often simply because the child has only learned how to fall asleep by being fed or rocked.
Or in other words, the child hasn’t learned how to soothe himself to sleep without parental attention. If your child doesn’t get the opportunity to develop strategies to fall and stay asleep on its own, it’s more likely that he or she becomes dependent on outside stimuli to assist with falling asleep.
How do you know if your child doesn’t get enough sleep?
Some signs of sleep deprivation are immediately evident to parents where others are not so obvious. Meltdowns at the end of the day are often a sign of an overtired child desperate for sleep. However, if you are unsure whether your child is getting enough sleep, ask yourself these questions:
- Does your child have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep at night?
- Does your child wake up in a bad mood?
- Do you have trouble to get your child out of bed in the morning?
- Does your child appear overtired or act sleepy during the day?
- Does your child take several short naps throughout the day (e.g., in the car or carriage even during short rides)?
- Is your child clingier or needier than usual?
- Is your child throwing tantrums often or does it get cranky and irritable in the late afternoon?
- Does your child continuously rub his eyes, pull on her ears, and / pr yawn
- Is your child impatient, inattentive, hyperactive or acting aggressively?
If you have answered yes to two or more of the question, it might be that your child is not getting enough restful sleep. As we have seen, this can have significant effects on your child’s health. Let’s now look at how sleep coaching can help you to establish healthy sleep patterns in your baby.
What is baby sleep coaching?
Baby sleep coaching is simply the process to assist your baby in learning to fall asleep on its own at bedtime and throughout the night. It’s normal that your baby wakes up during the night. However, with sleep coaching, your baby learns to soothe him- or herself back to sleep without requiring your assistance. Therefore, it is also highly beneficial for you and your partner because it allows you to get a full night’s sleep as well.
When can you start to sleep coach your baby?
It is important to notice that babies are not born with the ability to self-soothe themselves to sleep. Up until about the age of four months, babies’ neurological and biological systems are still underdeveloped, and they need to rely on you for every need – also when it comes to sleep.
However, just because you cannot start formally sleep coach your baby before the age of four months, doesn’t mean that you cannot start laying the foundation for healthy sleep habits. If you start early, you may be able to minimize the amount of sleep coaching later on. For example, beginning around the age of six weeks, you can strengthen your baby’s own biological rhythm by establishing a regular bedtime routine.
But at the age of about three months, most babies have started to develop more regular sleep-wake cycles. They also have discontinued most of their night feedings. Therefore, the baby sleep coaching process can begin between the ages of 4 to 6 months when most babies are capable of sleeping through the night.
As a general rule of thumb, most babies are capable of sleeping through the night without a feeding by the time they’re four months old and have reached about 14 pounds. Some babies begin to sleep through the night when they reach 13 pounds. If you have a premature baby, remember to count the age from the approximate due date, not from when they were born.
How to establish healthy sleep patterns in your baby?
Recent research has shown that babies and toddlers are more relaxed and happier after they have been trained how to fall asleep on their own. They are more likely to fall asleep faster and become better able to soothe themselves to sleep. Also, infants who have not established good sleep patterns by eight months of age are likely to have frequent night awakenings still at age three.
The two most important things you can do to develop healthy sleep habits in your child are to have a consistent bedtime routine and to put your infant to bed while he or she is drowsy but still awake.
And don’t delay things! You can start by putting your four-month-old infant to bed while she or he is still awake. In most cases, this simple step guarantees that by nine months of age your baby sleeps much better than a baby whose parents had waited until the baby was asleep in their arms before laying him or her in the crib.
It is proven that sleep is much more critical in early childhood than we ever realized before. Not only because infants and toddlers who get the proper amount of sleep are happier and are better able to focus and learn from their environment. Equally important is that sleep deprivation in early childhood may compound sleep problems later in life.
So it is crucial that you, as a parent, assist your child in establishing healthy sleep patterns before sleep deprivation may become a lifelong issue. You can do this by implementing some simple but effective sleep coaching techniques such as a consistent bedtime routine. If you begin the sleep coaching process early, you’ll be off to a good start to prevent long-term sleep problems in your child.