by Lynne Reeves Griffin, RN, MEd
A good night’s sleep is something all parents of young children daydream about. But when can you expect this momentous occasion to occur? The most notable experts on children and sleep offer opposing theories. So for many of us, teaching our child good sleep habits can feel like navigating an unfamiliar landscape with conflicting maps. The two leading experts on sleep are Dr. William Sears, who advocates sleeping with your child as an aspect of what is commonly called “attachment parenting,” and Dr. Richard Ferber, who promotes a gradual and systematic process by which your child sleeps alone and learns to soothe himself back to sleep with less and less intervention from mom and dad. Pretty different approaches, don’t you think? Given such contradictory expert advice, is it any wonder you feel confused? Proactive Parenting advocates an approach that encourages parents to choose one method and then stick with it. While sleep issues in children are developmentally expected from time to time, most families should be able to enjoy a good night’s sleep. The mistake parents often make is to choose the Ferber method one night, and the Sears method the next night, based on their own fatigue levels. This inconsistency is confusing to both parents and children. What matters most is that you choose and/or modify an approach that you believe in, and then stay with it. Consistency around bedtime routines is your strongest asset as a parent.

It should be noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages sleep sharing (a component of the Attachment Parenting approach) because of the potential for infant suffocation.
Part I
A Developmental Guide to Sleep in Young Children
Helping your child develop healthy sleep patterns is all about establishing suitable routines. But what exactly is “suitable” for your child, and at what age can you expect milestones to be reached? While each child achieves these developmental milestones at his or her own pace, there are general rules for what you can expect at each age. Just remember, these are only guidelines. If you are concerned about your child’s developmental progress around sleep or any other milestones, you should talk to your pediatrician or a parenting professional.

From birth to one month, your baby can:
• Sleep for 15 to 17 hours each day.
• Sleep for two to four hours at one time.
• Wake for periods of one to two hours in length.
• Can not distinguish between day and night.
• Appear to be sleeping when overstimulated.
• Have periods of quiet sleep, when her breathing is deep and she’s still.
• Have periods of active sleep, when she is sucking, twitching, and restless.
• May experience a sudden jerk when falling asleep or waking up.
From one to three months, your baby can:
• Sleep for 14 to 16 hours each day.
• Be wakeful during the day and sleep more at night.
• Sleep for longer periods of time. (generally three to five hours at one time)
• Wake to feed.
• Have periods of fussiness and crying, often later in the day.
From four to six months, your baby can:
• Sleep for 13 to 15 hours each day.
• Take two naps and sleep mostly at night.
• Doesn’t require a nighttime feeding, if weight for age is appropriate.
• Have brief wakeful periods at night but can fall back to sleep independently.
• Begin to associate the time of day, your actions, and other sensations with falling asleep.
• Be influenced by a schedule.
From six to nine months, your baby can:
• Sleep about 14 hours each day.
• Take two naps and sleep mostly at night.
• May start to experience separation anxiety, making bedtime issues likely.
• Respond well to a schedule of naps and nighttime sleep.
• Have deepest periods of sleep before midnight and then again near morning.
From nine to twelve months, your baby can:
• Sleep about 14 hours each day.
• Take one nap and sleep through the night.
• Experience sleep patterns similar to adult sleep patterns.
From one to two years your child can:
• Sleep about thirteen hours each day.
• Take one nap and sleep through the night.
• Have nighttime awakenings when off schedule or sick.
• Have difficulty behaving during the day because of changes in sleep routines.
From two to three years your child can:
• Sleep about twelve hours each day.
• Continue or discontinue a nap and sleep through the night.
• Have nighttime awakenings when off schedule or sick.
• Have difficulty behaving during the day because of changes in sleep routines.

Part II
Tips for Developing Good Sleep Habits in Young Children
Understanding what your child is capable of from a developmental perspective helps you to create an individualized plan for maximizing sleep in your family. And every parent knows that maximizing sleep patterns benefits everyone! Being proactive in developing a family plan for sleep will secure good sleep patterns for all. The key to establishing healthy sleep patterns for your child is choosing an approach that suits your child and family, and then practicing the Three Cs of good sleep habits: consistency, consistency, consistency! Of course, once good patterns are established, you can be flexible on occasion. But keep in mind that every time you change the plan, your child must adjust. Your child’s sleep pattern will be altered by vacations and late-night visits with friends, and her behavior the next day will remind you how wonderful a good routine can be. The following are some practical suggestions that you can incorporate into your plan for achieving healthy sleep patterns. Practice them regularly. After all, good sleep habits for your child begin with you.

At every age:
• Use lights to make distinctions between day and night.
• Be more playful during the day, and less so at night.
• Keep your child calm in the evening to avoid overstimulation.
• Watch for signs that your child is tired, and then put her to bed.
• Always place your child in the crib on her back to sleep. (Important for babies under one year of age)
• Keep the bedtime routine simple.
• Avoid a pacifier at bedtime. It is something your child cannot retrieve if she loses it in the crib.
• Don’t put your child to bed with a bottle, as dental problems may result.
• Work with your partner to establish routines that both of you can follow consistently.
• Don’t rush to pick up your child if you hear her wake up. Sometimes she will use her voice to settle back to sleep after a partial awakening.
• Always rush to your child if the crying is unusually sudden, loud, or distressed.
• Sleep when your child sleeps…especially when your baby is a newborn. Sleep patterns will not be predictable, so take your sleep when you can get it!
• Talk to other parents about their experiences.
• Learn what you can expect of your child, based on her age.
After four months:
• Establish a somewhat regular bedtime.
• Check with your pediatrician to see if you can eliminate the nighttime feeding.
• Avoid letting your baby always nap in a baby carrier.
After six months:
• Read a bedtime story to your child…remember to keep it simple.
• Establish a regular schedule of nap and bedtimes.
• Make naptime a rule rather than an exception…you and your child need these refreshers.
After nine months:
• Watch the timing of naps. Late-afternoon naps will result in later bedtimes at night.
• Be sensitive to separation anxiety, but continue with established routines.
• Limit the length of naptime to safeguard against a late or difficult bedtime.
After one year:
• Continue with simple bedtime routines, think through the exceptions you make because behavior will be effected.
• Keep your child in a crib as long as possible. Without the boundaries that a crib establishes, your child will constantly be pushing the limits.
Of course, even the best sleep habits on your part won’t guarantee success. So what do you do if sleep becomes a struggle? Start by keeping a journal of bedtime routines and your child’s sleep patterns. The problem may reveal itself to you if you can observe patterns in behavior. For example, you might notice that your child falls asleep while you rock and sing to her, and you always put her to bed while she’s already sleeping. If you do notice that your child always goes to bed asleep and then wakes crying for you, you may want to change your child’s sleep associations.
Do not forget to muster the support of your pediatrician or parenting professional. Sleep issues in young children are generally easy to correct, and the sleep patterns you establish now set the stage for sleep patterns later in childhood. Regulating sleep issues early can save you many stressful nights.