DEAR TIRED MAMA:
I’m not writing this to shame you, or make you feel guilty about your parenting choices, as if this fact of life makes you a “bad mom.” But I’m a mom of 7 (going on 8) who spends a lot of my life analyzing problems in my own parenting and coming up with practical solutions.
What I want to do is provide some structured, practical advice to help you think through potential solutions for this challenge. These are the things *I* think through when I hit problems in sleep with our kiddos.
If your kids aren’t sleeping well, here are some things to consider:
- ARE THEY EATING ENOUGH THROUGH THE DAY? This is a huge reason why babies and kids of all ages don’t sleep enough. Now of course if you’re exclusively breastfeeding, you won’t know precisely how much they’re getting (but keeping track of wet/dirty diapers can help!). You might even ask someone else to see their portions and food choices and confirm that these are healthy and normal for a growing child. This is not necessarily about you… I have no idea whether or not it fits your family… but I’m seeing a lot of moms nowadays who don’t have a good sense of how MUCH food kids need to eat… like portion sizes. Very often, it’s either WAYYYYYYYY too big and very unhealthy stuff and the kids are all obese, or else the portion sizes are too small and “all healthy” (veggies/etc/low calories) and their very-very active kids are perpetually under-eating. Problems show up in other areas (not sleeping well, finicky, agitated, easily angry) because they’re simply not eating enough food. So first– I would make sure they are eating hearty, balanced, full, good-portioned meals.
- ARE YOUR BABIES & TODDLERS ON AN ABSOLUTELY PREDICTABLE ROUTINE? Yes, babies shift their routines every few months, but the day-to-day sleep rhythms should be happening with almost-boring consistency. If 10am is baby’s nap time, it should be so every single day. For a 2 year old, here’s a normal schedule in our house: (8pm- to bed, Between 7am-8am- Wake up, 1 or 2pm- lay down for nap, 3:30-5pm- wake up from nap.) Yes this means we are home every afternoon. Every day. Like clockwork. For 14 years, this has been true of our life as a family. We don’t schedule things in the afternoons so that nap time can be consistent.
- ARE BEDTIMES REGULAR AND NON-NEGOTIABLE? The older your kids get, the more this should be an absolute “norm” in your home. Give a consequence for getting out of bed, and stick to it. There should be no getting around you!!
- HAVE YOU TRAINED YOUR BABIES AND LITTLE ONES TO WAKE UP MORE TIMES THAN ARE NECESSARY? We might all approach newborn life differently (I purposefully work to give our whole family full nights of sleep ASAP), but having interacted deeply with hundreds of moms on sleep issues over the last 15 years, I believe healthy babies around a year and up can and should be sleeping most nights, all the way through. Sleep is not just a preference issue; it’s a health issue, and it’s an important skill we can teach. It’s also a lifelong way we can BLESS our children… to give them good sleep habits, and the foundation of healthy mental and physical health that comes from sleeping WELL. If you think you might have trained your children to wake more often than necessary, a few options are — feed full feedings every time they wake (no snacking!), — keep lights off and do not do anything other than necessary items (diaper change + full feeding + back to bed), — and do not go in to them for grizzling/small noises. Choose to be discerning in which sorts of actions get your response.
- ARE YOU BELIEVING THEY “CAN’T” STAY IN THEIR OWN BEDS? Kids 5 and up are plenty old enough to stay in bed and stay put and never have another issue (except for sickness or a rare occasion of fear). 3 and under can easily be put in a crib, and I would do it if it were me (if it meant them and us getting better sleep). This puts the 3/4-year-old season as one of training kids to stay in their beds. All other ages should be in their beds and know to stay in their beds. Don’t second-guess yourself! This is not an unreasonable expectation. Barring medical issues, you are right to expect your kids to get in bed and stay there.
- DO THEY FEEL ENTITLED TO STAY UP? Sometimes older kids can get too big for their britches. See a simple sleep chart HERE with medical recommendations for how many sleeping hours/day various ages need. Help your children rightly understand their body’s signals. Tell them– when they feel like sleeping in late, or feel easily irritated through the day, their body is actually telling them to go to sleep sooner. Help them learn to watch their bodies for signs and participate WITH their bodies to work for health and rest.
12 QUESTIONS FOR PRACTICAL TROUBLESHOOTING:
In addition to these overarching principles, here’s a grid of questions I go through to evaluate possible sleep challenges for a particular child. These are things to think through for nighttime sleep as well as naps. You may have already thought through these but these are practical influences I think through in regard to maximizing sleep.
- Is there any kind of sickness/physical irritant? Fever? Teething? Tummy problems? Itchy skin?
- Is there some sort of white noise? A fan is usually what we use, but something that blocks out noise. I’ve even turned on the stovetop blower and nearby bathroom fans to mask other noise for naps and bedtime.
- Is the room dark enough? If not, Walmart sells room-darkening panels for fairly cheap (I want to say under $10 for a basic set). Clipping a dark flat sheet over the curtains is also a quick solution.
- Is the bedding cozy? soft (not scratchy), and warm enough?
- Is it too cold? Too hot? In their room? In the house in general? In their bedding/pjs? (This might also be an area to ask other people… certain cultures overdress their babies and keep them far too warm… other people are apt to let their kids dress in summer clothes in winter. Invite wisdom from other people!!)
- Is another child talking and waking the rest of them up a lot? (if so, go fierce ninja mama on that child) 🙂
- Are there weird noises in the environment waking them up? A train? Live near the highway? Does the vent bring in every noise from big brother’s room? etc? (which I’d point back to the white-noise solution)
- Are they eating too close to bedtime? (rumbly digestion happening can affect ability to truly rest at bedtime, so if so, move dinner up to between 5 & 6pm, in order to leave enough time before bedtime @8)
- Do they need a cup of water near the bed? (too much is no good– they’ll be waking up to potty non-stop… but some of us function better with a sip or two through the night when we wake up– just remind them to sip, not drink.) NOTE: I DO NOT DO THIS for children who are learning to stay dry at night. During that season, we stop drinking 1-2 hours before bedtime and do not let them drink at night, in order to learn the skill of staying dry. But in our home, toddlers can take a sippy cup to the crib with them, and older kids can keep a half-cup of water near their beds.
- Is a nightlight near the potty (so going to the potty is not a big deal?)
- Have you explicitly told them how to go back to sleep? “When you wake up and it’s still dark outside, don’t come get mommy. When it’s dark out, it’s still time to sleep. Your can just roll over, close your eyes tight, lay still, and go back to sleep.”
- Are you praying with them before bed? Something about mommy praying for a full nights’ sleep can help comfort and quiet their hearts… but also, prayer works! God hears us! Don’t be discouraged!!
If you do all this, and then still are having sleep issues, TALK TO A DOCTOR.
WHY NOT A DOCTOR FIRST?
These are practical, realistic ways to assess what’s going wrong with your child’s sleep patterns, but once you address these very typical reasons for lack of sleep, if there are still problems, talk to your doctor. I do not think medical advice is the first place you should go, because, unfortunately the trampling of motherhood by feminism has stripped us of these basic pieces of mothering wisdom that we used to collectively *know*. Too many modern mothers are riddled with fears of diagnoses and conditions when the answers may be much, much more straightforward.
Yes, there could be medical things going on, but the most likely answer is that there are simple, physical issues at work. Tackle these practical solutions first… THEN, when all common sense approaches have been exhausted, consider the possibility of a diagnosis or medical issue.
Scientists continue to uncover ways that sleep deeply affects us– medically, intellectually, how we deal with stress, how our bodies fight illness, how we perceive life, and more. Healthy, regular sleep cycles are incredibly crucial and giving your children the gift of solid sleep is an incredibly practical and beneficial way to LOVE them.
I hope this comes across as helpful and not judgmental. I know it can be a great challenge when you feel worn out by a child’s lack of sleep.
It is often the case that thinking through practical concerns can facilitate sleep. I genuinely hope you find some doable solutions.
Grace & Peace,
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