I have found teething to be one of the biggest scapegoats, when it comes to babies. It gets blamed for just about every ailment imaginable.
Baby’s got a fever? Probably because she’s teething. Baby’s crying more than normal? I bet it’s sore gums from those teeth coming in. Baby’s got runny poop for a couple of days? I’ve heard that diarrhoea can be caused by teething.
Now, all of those things are potentially the result of a tooth coming in, that’s true. But most parents are too quick to blame teething for any and all deviations from the norm as soon as they notice that first tooth appearing below the gumline.
And this is especially true when it comes to sleep.
When baby starts crying more often in the night, naturally you’re gonna look for a reason for this. And if there’s a tooth coming in, that provides a quick and easy answer. You then assume baby is in pain and rush in to soothe them. You nurse, bottlefeed, rock, pat or otherwise soothe your baby until he or she is back to sleep. And you may be doing this several times a night.
This often leads to baby becoming dependent on that soothing to get back to sleep, EVERY NIGHT, every time baby wakes up. Regardless of whether or not any tooth is coming through.
Cut to a year later, and baby is still getting rocked, nursed or otherwise soothed to sleep through the night!
So... just a couple of things to bear in mind before you postpone sleep training (or give it up) due to incoming choppers.
First of all, teething symptoms last for around eight days, so if you’re looking at two weeks of baby crying through the night, it’s either due to some other ailment, or baby has once again learned that crying when he wakes up will bring his favorite person into the room, and she’ll be helping him get back to sleep.
Second, teething symptoms are not nearly as uncomfortable as parents typically imagine they are. We hear about teeth “breaking” or “erupting” through the gums, which conjures up some cringe-worthy images, but nature is not nearly so heartless in this instance. Baby’s gums move out of the way to allow for incoming teeth.
Long story short, according to many experts, teething doesn’t cause a significant amount of pain.
Now, again, I’m not suggesting that you should ignore the teething thing altogether. Just bear in mind that new teeth are not the villain they’re often made out to be.
Teething therefore should not stand in the way of teaching your baby great sleep habits. If you have taught your child to be an independent sleeper, your child is more likely going to have full nights of uninterrupted sleep even when he or she is teething.
And remember, baby’s going to be a lot happier while going through the teething process when getting the solid and uninterrupted sleep he or she needs!
And so are you.
I know this isn’t a sleep-related post, but I get so many parents asking me about this topic, I thought it might be nice to take a little break from writing about sleep and address another parental hot-button issue.
So if you have a toddler in the house, you’re probably already familiar with this scenario. You make a nice, healthy breakfast for your little one, they sit down in front of it and make a face, tell you they’re not hungry, (or at least not hungry for the food you’ve prepared for them,) then some gentle encouragement on your side meets more refusal on theirs, both of you start to get a little frustrated, one of you ends up in tears, and eventually you break down and offer them whatever they’re willing to eat, since it’s better than them not eating at all.
Or maybe you stick to your guns and refuse to offer up their preferred breakfast food in the hopes that they’ll get hungry enough to eventually give in. Twenty minutes later, they’re begging for a glass of milk and some Goldfish crackers, and the battle continues until your toddler’s melting down and you’re at the end of your rope.
This is such a tricky situation because we’re stuck between two bad options, right? You don’t want your child to go hungry but you also don’t want to keep giving in and letting them only eat foods that have no nutritional value. I know Cheerios aren’t exactly unhealthy, but they don’t offer everything a child needs from their diet either. Not by a long shot. We’re desperate to get some variety in their diet, but every time they see anything with some color, they immediately shy away from it.
This is one of those parenting conundrums that sounds amusing if you don’t have kids, but it’s actually a serious issue. Too much pressure on a toddler to eat this and not eat that can actually set up a resentment towards mealtimes and a bad relationship with food in general that can last well past their toddler years.
So what’s the solution here? Well, I’m neither a nutritionist or a child psychologist, but I can tell you what’s worked for me and a whole lot of the families I’ve worked with.
Know Your Role
As parents, we tend to see ourselves as the authority figure in the family, but let’s be real for a minute, because when it comes to eating, our ability to enforce the law is limited. We can’t actually force our kids to eat anything they don’t want to, so in the end, they’re the ones with the power here.
Your role as the parent isn’t to decide how much of what food your child will eat. You are in charge of purchasing food, preparing meals, and scheduling times for them to eat. What they eat and how much of it is something you should leave up to your child.
Schedule Meal and Snack Times
Toddlers are in that strange growth phase where they’re high-output machines with small fuel tanks, by which I mean they have high energy and activity levels, but their tummies are still too small to hold enough food to keep them feeling full for long. So I like to offer a meal or a snack every two hours. When they get up, prepare them some breakfast, then two hours after they’re done, offer them a snack. Two hours later, it’s likely time for lunch, another snack at 2pm one more at 4pm, and dinner around 6pm.
This isn’t a rigid schedule. We’re more concerned with the length of time between meals than we are with what time of the day they’re eating.
Where we are going to be fairly diligent though, is in not offering snacks in between those two hours. Especially not those easy go-to snacks like Goldfish crackers or Cheerios. If your kids know they just need to wait you out until after breakfast to get their favorite treats, they’ll do it. The willpower of a toddler is a powerful force indeed.
For each meal and snack, I suggest you offer no less than three choices. Hold on! Just hear me out. I’m not suggesting you cook three separate meals every two hours. These choices can be small and simple, just as long as they’re reasonably healthy and have some variety to them. At breakfast, you might put out some peanut butter toast, some sliced banana, and some cheese. Let your little one know that those are the options and they can eat as much or as little as they want of whatever’s in front of them.
If you’re making pasta for dinner, put together a quick salad and a side dish of some sort. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Steam some broccoli or green beans, toss them with a bit of butter, and place them on the table. We don’t need to create a culinary masterpiece every night, just as long as you’re presenting your child with some options.
Let Your Child Take it From There
Now that you’ve set up a schedule and provided your little one with some options, the rest is up to them. If they decide to eat all of their rice or pasta and none of the veggies, you’ve going to be cool with it. If they eat all of the veggies and only one bite of anything else, you’re going to be cool with that too. If they want to put their mashed potatoes on top of their broccoli and eat it with chopsticks, that’s their prerogative. Giving them control over what they eat is going to take a huge amount of stress off of everyone at the table, and it creates a much more positive association with mealtimes and food in general.
Toddlers have the uncanny ability to make judgments on foods before they’ve even put them near their mouths. Sometimes, they can tell if they like something just by the sound of the word, right? “Asparagus? You mean that vegetable I’ve never tasted, never smelled, never laid eyes on, and never even heard of prior to this very moment? Don’t like it.”
Toddlers rarely take to a new food until they’ve gotten familiar with it, first through their eyes, then through smell. It’s not until they’ve developed a level of comfort with it being in front of them that they’re likely to give it a taste, so don’t give up on anything until you’ve presented it at the table at least five times or so. Even if your toddler seems repulsed by it at first, it may just take a little acclimatization until they’re willing to take it for a spin.
Set an Example
If you’re not serious about food, chances are your toddler won’t be either. I’m not just talking about nutrition here, but about the whole relationship your family has with the preparation and enjoyment of food. If you take the time and make the effort to cook healthy, delicious meals, and make it a priority to enjoy time together, as a family, at the table, that positive vibe is going to shine all over everything food-related in your home. If you treat food as little more than fuel, stopping to gas up in between the “important” parts of life, they’re going to pick up on that as well.
I’m not saying that a trip to a Mcdonalds drive through shouldn’t ever be in the calendar. There’s absolutely room for quick and easy meals, but they should be a treat, not something you do because preparing family meals is a headache.
Avoid Negative Labels
I think this is something that we as adults need to embrace as well. We tend to look at foods as “good” or “bad” foods, and which category they fall into is determined almost entirely by their current status. But most dietitians will tell you that most foods can be reasonably healthy, or at least not harmful, if eaten in moderation. Likewise, any food can be unhealthy if you don’t eat anything else. These all-kale diets and their ilk may help you lose a few pounds, but they’re not on their own providing anyone with adequate nutrition.
But more than that, if your kids see you refusing to eat certain foods because they “make you fat” or “aren’t good for you,” they’re likely to associate negative feelings towards food as a whole, and shy away from trying anything unfamiliar.
So the important takeaways here, in case you didn’t have time to read the whole thing, are to set and adhere to a schedule, be patient while your little one’s getting accustomed to the unfamiliar, be predictable and repetitive, lead by example, and create positive associations instead of negative ones. All of which is advice I give my clients about their babies’ sleep on pretty much a daily basis, so really, who says we’re drifting out of our lane here?
The same rules apply, whether it’s eating or sleeping. And in both scenarios, it’s our little ones who have the ultimate authority, so it’s easier and more effective to lead them where we want them to go, rather than forcing them.
That right there might be the single most common question new parents ask.
Is it a developmental milestone? A regression? Are they getting too much sleep during the day, or not enough? Maybe they’re just hungry. Maybe they’re too hot, or too cold.
Well, the truth is that it could be any of those things, and it could be a combination of several of them.
What that means, and what you’re probably already aware of, is that baby’s sleep is tremendously complicated. Their bodies and brains are rapidly going through significant changes, and by the time they’ve got one issue under control, a new one pops up to take its place.
There are factors you can control, obviously. If baby’s too hot, you can turn up the air con or put a fan in the room. If they’re teething, a little Children’s Panadol as prescribed can often solve the problem, at least temporarily.
But those are the simple fixes. The reason most people have such a challenging time with their babies’ sleep is because of problems which aren’t so simple, and don’t have obvious solutions.
First a little background on how this whole system of sleep works.
About three hours prior to when we’re naturally prone to waking up, our bodies start secreting a hormone called cortisol, and if you’ve done some reading on your baby’s sleep prior to this, the sight of that word probably causes you to flinch a little.
Cortisol is a stimulating hormone, and is also produced in times of stress in order to elevate the heart rate and stimulate the nervous system, but in the morning, it’s just trying to get us started. Think of it as mother nature’s caffeine.
And if cortisol is our morning cup of coffee, melatonin is our evening glass of wine. Once the sun starts to go down, our bodies recognize the onset of night and begin to produce this lovely sleep-inducing hormone, which helps us get to sleep and stay asleep until morning, when the whole process starts over again. Melatonin production is increased and starts earlier in the evening when we awaken to some nice, bright sunlight.
So what does all of this have to do with the dreaded 3 A.M. wake ups?
Here’s what happens... Assuming your baby’s circadian rhythm is scheduling a 6 A.M. wake up, then
her body starts to secrete cortisol three hours prior to that, and at this point, the melatonin production has ceased for the night. So baby hits the end of a sleep cycle around 3:00. She gets to that “slightly awake” state, and now there’s a little bit of stimulant and no natural sedative. This, combined with a lack of independent sleep skills, means that baby’s probably going to wake up fully, and have a really hard time getting back to sleep.
So now for the big question you’ve probably been hoping I might have an answer for.
How do I fix it?
While there’s no quick fix for adjusting baby’s hormone production schedule, you can definitely help her out by getting her outdoors during the day as much as possible. As I mentioned before, natural light during the day is the big cheerleader for melatonin production at night. Exercise also helps to increase sleep pressure at bedtime which helps baby to sleep better through the night.
It also helps to ensure that baby’s room is as dark as you can get it at night, and start turning down the lights in the house at least an hour before you put her to bed. Simulating the sunset will help to cue that melatonin production so that it’s in full swing when she goes into her crib.
Avoid any TV, iPhone, tablet, or screen time of any kind for that same hour before bedtime. (Preferably even longer) as these devices emit a geyser of blue light, which will stimulate cortisol production right at the time when you’re trying to avoid it.
But above all, the number one way to help your baby sleep through the night is to get her on a predictable, consistent sleep schedule and teach her the skills she needs to fall asleep independently.
Because the truth is that you’re never going to prevent nighttime wake ups. We all wake up in the night, regardless of our age. As adults, we just have the ability to calmly assess the situation when we wake up in the dark, realize where we are, see that it’s still nighttime, and go right back to sleep. Most of the time we don’t even remember it the next morning.
So although we can’t prevent baby from waking up at night, we can safely and effectively help her learn to recognize that she’s safe, in familiar territory, still tired, and capable of getting back to sleep on her own. If you need help with that, that’s what I am here for.
Is your baby a light sleeper? Does she wake up every time you so much as walk past her door? Does she go from fast asleep to wide awake the second you put her into her crib?
This is one of the most common complaints I get from parents. They say that their babies are just so easy to wake, and when they do, they’re exceedingly difficult to get back to sleep.
So first of all, let me dispel a little myth.
All babies are light sleepers, and all babies are heavy sleepers. So, for that matter, are all adults.
We all go from light sleep to heavy sleep and back again several times a night. Some babies spend more time in light sleep stages before slipping into deeper sleep, and some go from light sleep to deep sleep in almost no time at all, but everyone goes through these cycles every time they shut their eyes.
The truly restorative sleep, the stuff that does us the most good, is the NREM or “deep” sleep that we get in the middle of the cycles. That’s why some people can get by on less sleep than others, because they get more NREM sleep than those of us who spend more time in light sleep stages.
So when someone claims that their baby is a light sleeper, what they probably mean is that their baby tends to spend more time in light sleep than deep sleep, because that’s the easiest stage to wake up from. It’s when we dream and are more aware of our surroundings, so external noises tend to wake us up easier.
Babies also have shorter cycles than adults, and are therefore spend nearly twice as much time in light stages of sleep than grown ups. So if you’re finding that your baby is prone to waking up a lot, it’s partly a matter of inconvenient timing.
So what can you do about it? How can you teach a baby to spend more time in deep sleep?
Well, you can’t really. But what you can do is teach them to fall back to sleep on their own when they wake up. It’s a wonderful gift to give them, and it will benefit your entire family for years to come.
There are a lot of elements to teaching a baby to fall asleep independently, but the single most important one is the elimination of sleep props. By that, I mean anything that baby uses to help them fall asleep that they can’t provide on their own.
Pacifiers, rocking motions, and feeding are all good examples of sleep props. If baby needs a car ride to fall asleep, then they’re going to need another car ride when they wake up again at the end of the next sleep cycle. If they get rocked to sleep, they learn to rely on that motion as part of the process, so once they wake up at night, they’re stuck that way until you come in and help them get back to sleep.
This is often accompanied by a bunch of crying and fussing in order to get your attention, which wakes them up even further and requires more soothing to get them settled.
However, the babies that people refer to as “good sleepers” have the same sleep cycles as the ones who wake up crying. They’ve just gotten the hang of falling asleep on their own, so they wake up, squirm around a little, maybe babble to themselves for a bit, then go happily back to sleep.
So although you can’t stop your little one from waking up at night, you can absolutely teach them how to get back to sleep independently, and once you do, you and baby can both look forward to full nights of deep, rejuvenative, uninterrupted sleep.