When you have a poor sleeper, it can often seem as if every other child in the world is sleeping better than yours. In truth, babies and toddlers who go to sleep easily and sleep through the night are in a very small minority. Sleep is unpredictable in the early years, rather than following a constant, positive upwards trajectory, it frequently dips and gets worse (see HERE for more). The sad reality, is that 'good sleep' (aka sleeping through the night reliably) often doesn't appear until the third year of life. No wonder then so many exhausted parents, trying to juggle the reality of infant sleep while living in the modern industrialised world (the two are at great odds with each other), turn to sleep training to try to fix their children.
The difficulty here is in this desire to fix something that isn't actually broken. Sleep training tends to punish babies and toddlers for problems that don't belong to them. They are left to cry, put down while they still need a hug, denied milk when they are hungry and ignored when they most need comfort. I don't actually believe any parent wants this for their children, yet their exhaustion leaves them with no other choice. Or so they think. There are in fact, many ways to gently improve infant sleep that don't involve any sleep training at all. Here are eight of them:
Sleep Friendly Lighting
A quick Google Image search for "baby nightlight" returns many beautifully designed, attractive lamps and light shows. 99% of these inhibit sleep. Many parents don't realise that lighting is a key influence on sleep. Light that is on the blue colour spectrum inhibits the hormone of sleep, melatonin, and tricks the body into thinking it is daytime and thus time to be awake. It isn't just obviously blue light that is an issue though. Most white light is actually very blue, especially energy-saving lightbulbs and halogen spotlights. So too is light that looks green, blue, purple and pink. Which coincidentally tend to be the colours used in most child night lights. Research has shown that for light to be non-inhibiting it needs to contain very low levels of blue light. Naturally, our ancestors would have lit their nights with fire and candles, both sitting on the red colour spectrum. We can replicate this effect by using red light at night. If you're not keen on red light (many toddlers associate red with monsters, or danger, and it is quite hard to read a bedtime story in red light) then consider investing in a Lumie Bedbug, a world first nightlight that features very low levels of blue light, while still producing a white/peach coloured glow. The Bedbug also features a special sunset mode, dimming gently over a period of 15 minutes, which is perfect for toddlers and older children. The cuteness of the little bug is a further winning feature, along with its sleep promoting properties.
The Bedroom Temperature
Our modern homes tend to be well insulated, retaining heat and saving us money on our fuel bills. Central heating quickly and efficiently heats our homes too. This can and does cause a problem with sleep. The optimal room temperature range for the best sleep is 15-18C, or 60-65F. Unlike most infant room thermometers indicate, 18C/65F isn't the best temperature for sleep - it's at the very top end of the optimal range! Trying to cool the bedroom to somewhere in this optimal range can really help sleep. If you have air-conditioning and are in a hot country, you're not going to get this low obviously, but turning the AC down a degree or two is worth thinking about. This doesn't mean the child should be cold at night. The aim is "warm body, cool room". More on this later!
The Bedroom Humidity
Temperature aside, air conditioning and central heating can cause trouble with sleep in another way. Playing havoc with room humidity. Anything that dries the sleeping environment can mean that the child wakes more for milk. Where an adult may take a glass of water to bed to place next to their bed, babies and toddlers tend to wake and cry for milk if they have a dry mouth. This doesn't mean that fixing the humidity will stop the child from needing to feed at night, far from it, but it will remove those extra humidity related feeds. This tends to be more of an issue for children who are mouth breathers, sleeping with their mouths open. The best humidity for sleep is around 30-50%. If you use air-conditioning or central heating, you may consider adding a humidifier to the room.
Bedding and Night Clothes
Remember in point three, we discussed "cool room, warm body"? This is where what you dress your child comes in. Sometimes adding an extra layer of clothing, such as a long sleeve vest, or upping the tog rating of a sleepsac can really help sleep. Generally speaking, in the optimal room temperature zone, you're looking at 2-3 togs. While sleepsacs can help to keep kids cozy, by avoiding loose blankets and duvets that fall off the bed (I don't recommend either under 4years), they can also inhibit sleep when the child rolls over and gets caught up in the huge amount of extra fabric around their legs. Some children also really hate having their feet covered by anything, unsurprisingly since we tend to sleep better with the ability to have our feet exposed. For this reason, I always recommend sleepsacs that have separate legs and uncovered feet, like these, or these (tip: leave the booties off!).
If you sing your baby to sleep, or use a mobile, or stuffed animal that plays music for fifteen or twenty minutes at bedtime, you could be causing your child to wake more. Why? Babies and toddlers have very short sleep cycles, lasting for 40-60 minutes depending on age. At the end of this sleep cycle, one of three things may happen. 1. They move straight into a new sleep cycle, 2. They wake fully and need your help to start a new cycle, or 3. They rouse slightly, but not fully, and if all is well they start a new cycle independently. Number three is where it is important to consider any constants in the room. If a child goes to sleep with music, that music needs to be present ALL NIGHT. At the end of a sleep cycle, that slightly rousing child needs to hear the same sounds as when they went to sleep, if they don't, then the sharp change in environment may cause them to wake fully and need your help. Some companies try to get around this by designing noise and motion activated music players. These rarely work and I don't recommend them. Because they 'catch' the child too late, when they are already roused and moving/crying. They have already woken properly by the time the music cuts in again. If you sing your child to sleep, consider recording yourself and playing your recording on loop all night, or consider playing a special alpha music for children recording all night. Alpha music for children is recorded to resting pulse rate 60BPM and included elements of white noise, heartbeats and simple repetitive music. This is mine (it's on iTunes too). Pop the music on during the bedtime routine and turn it off the next morning. If you have an older child (2yrs plus), who sleeps through, but the issue is more getting them to sleep independently at the start of the night, then consider a children's meditation recording instead. This is mine (also on iTunes)
This follows on from point five. The smell in the world that relaxes your child the most is the smell of you. If you could bottle your smell and spray it around your child's bedroom it would surely comfort them. Many people pop muslins in their tops to absorb their scent and then leave the muslin with the child, or one of their t-shirts or pyjama tops. This can work well for some, but some - most - need more. To get more, you need to condition a smell. ie. you need to take a scent and make it yours. The easiest and most effective way to do this is to select an aromatherapy oil that you like (and is safe to use around babies and children). Lavender and chamomile are particularly good for sleep, blended together. Pop some of this oil on as scent/perfume each day for a month or so and then diffuse it in an aromatherapy diffuser in the room your child sleeps in for an hour or two before bedtime. You can get some diffusers that double up as humidifiers and red night lights too, which are a good buy. Note, this is only recommended once your baby is at least 12 weeks of age, before this it's best to keep any scent that isn't you away.
A Consistent Bedtime Routine
Scientists unanimously agree. If there is one thing that has the biggest impact on child sleep, it is a consistent bedtime routine. While a similar bedtime each night is important for setting the child's circadian rhythm (body clock), what is more important is doing the same thing in the same order each and every night. For instance a bath, followed by a massage, followed by a story, followed by a breastfeed or bottle. Try to keep the bedtime routine calm and play free (it is preparing for sleep after all!), but before you start the bedtime routine, try to fit in at least 30 minutes of playtime, especially if you work or have more than one child. Taking time to reconnect before bedtime starts has a great positive impact on sleep. Bedtime itself is important, particularly for toddlers and older children. In western culture we seem to have an obsession with a 7pm bedtime, however research suggests that we're probably putting our children to bed too soon. A more biologically appropriate bedtime is around the 7:45-8:15pm zone (the time to aim for the child to be asleep, not to start the bedtime routine). Putting a child to bed before their body is chemically ready to sleep can result in bedtime resistance, more night waking and earlier mornings.
For older babies (well established on solids - ie eating three meals a day for a couple of months or more) and toddlers, introducing a bedtime snack can help sleep. Aim for the snack just before the bedtime routine starts, around an hour before the child goes to sleep. Bedtime snacks can not only fill up tummies that may be hungry, but they can also help from a chemical point of view. Incorporating a snack that contains tryptophan, an amino acid that influences the production of sleep hormones, is a great choice. Child friendly sources of tryptophan include cheese, eggs, nuts, seeds and wholemeal/wholewheat bread. My favourite bedtime snack is almond butter on wholewheat toast, with a few banana slices on top.
Following these eight tips may not magically encourage your child to sleep through the night, but hopefully they should have a positive impact, without the need to sleep train.
If you're interested in more gentle solutions to child sleep issues, check out my Gentle Sleep Book (for 0-5yrs) and Why Your Baby's Sleep Matters (specifically for 0-12mth breastfed babies). You can also learn more on my Facebook Page, where I run monthly sleep Q&A sessions.
Mother of four, parenting author.