In her recurring column, author and sleep research guru Malia Jacobson answers reader questions about that most important of parenting tools: a good night's sleep. In this edition, how to establish one of those famous "baby sleep schedules" and setting a routine for older kids.
All my friends with babies talk about sleep schedules. Should my 5-month-old have one too?
Your baby is probably already working on one. Between 4 and 6 months of age, babies start falling into more predictable sleep patterns. By 6 months, many develop a predictable nap pattern: one nap in the mid-morning, one nap after lunch and another short nap around dinnertime.
While some babies fall into this pattern naturally, others need a little help. This regular nap routine promotes more restful, uninterrupted sleep at night, and gives your child the comfort of a predictable routine whether they're at home, at daycare or with a sitter.
Ready to get started? First, spend a few days noting how much your child sleeps in a 24-hour period. (At 5 months, the total may be somewhere around 14 to 16 hours per day, but it can vary widely.) Next, choose an appropriate wake-up time for your child. When establishing a sleep routine, always start with the wake-up time, as this time programs the body’s schedule for the rest of the day. If your baby’s already chosen a wake-up time — say 6 or 7 a.m. — then go with that.
Then, put your child down for a nap around two hours after they first wake up. A 5-month-old can comfortably stay awake for about two hours at a time, but you may need to adjust this interval to suit your child. If your baby seems alert and happy when the two-hour mark rolls around, they may need a longer period of wakefulness before a nap. But if they're crying, yawning, flailing limbs, rubbing eyes or “burrowing” into your neck, they may be overtired at the two-hour point and need a shorter interval of wakefulness.
After their first nap, enjoy their next awake period of around two hours (again, adjusting the interval to her unique needs). It’s important to wake them from any nap lasting longer than two hours, in order to protect nighttime sleep. Put them down for another nap and repeat the sequence.
The final “dinnertime” nap is a brief siesta of 30 to 45 minutes. Your child will likely be ready for bedtime around 1 to 2 hours after waking from their brief dinnertime nap.
After following these steps for a few days, you’ll find ways to fine-tune the routine to your child’s own needs. But this is a great way to get started.
Our 8-year-old has never had a regular bedtime or bedtime routine. How can we create an age-appropriate routine that helps him wind down?
Older kids absolutely benefit from a regular sleep schedule and a “bedtime” — but you may want to use a different word, like “lights out,” to avoid the “bedtimes are for babies!” battle. For kids 8 and older, think choice and autonomy, not rigidity and rules.
Baths and bedtime stories are nice for babies and tots, but once kids outgrow these rituals, there are other ways to help your son prepare for sleep. Anything your son does regularly before bed that helps him unwind can become a regular bedtime routine.
The keys: Beginning the routine at the same time each evening within 30 minutes, and keeping the routine elements consistent from night to night. You’ll want to choose activities that are calming instead of exciting — so intense television shows or video games are out. Bright lights, computer screens and homework also stimulate his brain just when he should be winding down for sleep.
To set up his routine, start with timing. Talk to him about how much sleep he needs to feel his best; research shows that kids are more likely to comply with rules that they help to create. Then set a “in room” time that allows enough time for reading or another quiet activity before sleep, followed by a “lights out” time that gives enough time for rest.
As for the actual wind-down routine, ask him which activities he thinks might make it easier for him to sleep. Try starting his bedtime routine with a healthy snack of his choosing. Then dim the house lights — darkness helps stimulate the brain’s production of melatonin and cues sleepiness — and tell him that he’s free to choose any quiet activity for 20 to 40 minutes. Even if he doesn’t enjoy being read to, he may enjoy quiet reading on his own, listening to music or playing in his room. A few minutes before the chosen “lights out” time, give a reminder. It may take a few weeks for the new routine to gel, so be patient.