Bringing a new baby into the house is a glorious, exciting, terrifying occasion, especially when you have one or two already, and it can bring up a whole lot of questions.
How are the older children going to react to their new sibling? Are they going to embrace the role of older brother or sister? Will they turn into jealous little clingers who need constant attention and reassurance? How will their schedule fit in with your newborn’s naps and feeding times? And maybe most concerning for anyone who’s clawed and scraped to get their little one sleeping through the night, how is this going to affect the older child’s bedtime?
Trying to juggle two or three different bedtime routines can be absolutely mind-boggling if you’re not prepared for it. Trying to find 15 minutes to breastfeed your newborn at the same time you’re trying to get your toddler out of the bath can drive you right out of your mind, and toddlers… they know, they just know that you’re in a position where you’re unable to chase them down and enforce the law, so they have a real tendency to exploit that weakness. They are, and I say this with all the love in the world, sociopaths-in-training.
So today, I have some tips for all of you who have two or three balls in the air, kid-wise, and are struggling to find a bedtime groove.
1. Have one bedtime for all the kids in the house.
A lot of parents I work with are surprised when I suggest that their 3 year-olds should be going to bed at 7pm at night, but even at that age, kids still need between 10-12 hours of sleep a night. That’s not including daytime naps. I’m talking strictly nighttime, so if your toddler needs to be up at 7am, a 7:00pm bedtime is not at all unreasonable. If the idea of running through two or three bedtime routines simultaneously seems daunting, just keep reading. I’ve got your back.
2. Team up and switch off if you can
If you’re among the lucky ones who has a partner or someone else who’s home and available to help you get the kids to bed, put together a list of what needs to get done, split the tasks evenly, and then switch off every other night.
That will prevent either of you from feeling like you’ve got the short end of the stick, sure, but it also gets your kids accustomed to either parent putting them to bed, so if one of you isn’t available on a given night, it won’t throw your little ones into a tailspin just because things are a little different.
3. Find opportunities to multitask
We’re all parents here, right? So either through talent or necessity, we’re the undisputed heavyweight champs of multitasking. Trying to run through two or three completely separate bedtime routines is going to leave you exhausted and probably won’t fit the itinerary, so double up wherever you can. Let the kids take a bath together, feed your newborn while you read your toddler a bedtime story, sing songs together while you change baby’s diaper, and so on. Wherever you can overlap, milk that opportunity for all it’s worth.
4. Meticulously craft and adhere to a 15-30 minute bedtime routine.
Bedtime routines are absolutely vital to getting your kids sleeping through the night. It’s not just a great way of keeping them on a clock, although that’s a huge benefit, but it also serves as a signal to their brains and bodies that bedtime is approaching which stimulates melatonin production and dials things down internally to prepare for a long, rejuvenating night’s sleep.
A bath is a great place to start since it’s so noticeably different from everything else kids do during the day. It’s a strong signal that sleep is just around the corner.
5. Save a special activity for bedtime
Typically it will be the older child who’s capable of entertaining themselves for a little while as you’re busy finishing up with your youngest. It’s not always the case, but whichever way it breaks in your house, come up with a non-screen-related activity that will keep your toddler entertained and quiet, and make it exclusive to that fifteen minutes or so that you need one-on-one time to put the baby down. Don’t make it too stimulating or open-ended or you could end up in a skirmish because your child’s bedtime activity is too much fun to put down. A special coloring book is a great option.
6. Exploit child labour
Toddlers love structure and predictability, so giving them a helper position when you’re putting your younger child to bed is a great way to keep them occupied and give them a feeling of accomplishment just before they head to bed. Show them where the diapers and baby creams are stored and have them bring you the goods as you’re getting your baby for bedtime.
7. Stick to your guns
Toddlers test boundaries in a constant, systematic fashion. “I’m not allowed to throw a basketball in the house? OK. Let’s see if I’m allowed to throw the tennis ball in the house!” And now that you’re splitting your attention between them and a new baby, you might feel a little indebted to them. That’s totally natural, but changing or bending the rules is likely to upset them more, not less. As I mentioned previously, kids thrive on predictability and structure. If they suddenly get the feeling like the fences are down, they typically feel a little lost and that’s going to lead to more tantrums, not fewer. So keep the routine and the expectations as close as possible to the way they were before their sibling arrived.
8. No matter how bad it gets, no matter how tempted you might be, don’t let your toddler watch TV
I know how quickly and effectively putting your child in front of the TV or handing them your phone can buy you a few minutes of peace and quiet, but screens are the ultimate swindler. They’re charlatans. Wolves in sheep’s clothing. Because the entire time that they’re holding your child’s attention, they’re flooding their eyes with blue light. That might not seem like a bad trade-off for 15 minutes of time to tend to your baby, but blue light stimulates cortisol production and inhibits melatonin, so those fifteen minutes of peace and quiet could very easily cost you hours of trying to get your overtired child to settle down for the night.
9. Accept the fact that it’s not always going to go smoothly
These are, after all, young children we’re dealing with, so if things start to go off the rails a bit, don’t look at it as a failure on anyone’s part. They’re going to have regressions, tough nights, and the occasional meltdown, but staying calm and level-headed is the best thing you can do to avoid escalating those situations into something more frustrating and upsetting for everyone involved.
10. Embrace the peace and quiet
Once you’ve got everyone in bed, take at least five or ten minutes before you check your email, start a load of laundry, or catch up on whatever responsibilities you’ve got to tend to, and just let yourself unwind. I don’t need to tell you that this parenting thing is a stressful gig, so when you get a moment to pat yourself on the back and find a little zen in your life, you should fall face-first into it, and the moments right after the kids fall asleep are a prime opportunity to do just that. So celebrate the Superhero that is you!
I’m sure you can guess what my answer is to this question, since I am, after all, a paediatric sleep consultant. I tend to put a high priority on sleep and am, in my humble opinion, justifiably passionate about its benefits for children.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a firm believer that feeding our kids a healthy, balanced, varied diet is essential to their well-being.
But sleep is, if not equally as important, a very close contender. And research supports this.
Why is Sleep Important?
Sleep experts agree that consolidated (uninterrupted) sleep is the most restful and healthy kind of sleep for both infants and adults. Sleep that is interrupted by one or more awakenings during the night usually leads to daytime sleepiness, a decrease in mental flexibility and attention and mood impairments.
If you're reading this, you may be a parent whose sleep is interrupted by your child's night wakings, and you would probably know what I mean about not feeling well-rested or at your best in the morning!
Our little ones are no different. They need their SLEEP to function and develop at their personal BEST.
-Learning. Sleep has been shown to be important for maturation of infants’ brains and consolidation of their memories. Several studies have shown that babies and children with more efficient nighttime sleep (greater percentage of time spent asleep during the night) had higher cognitive scores.
- Mood. Children that sleep more at night have been found to have an “easier” temperament, being more approachable, less distractible, and more adaptable.
- Growth. Good quality sleep fuels growth in children; and boosts muscle mass and the repair of cells and tissues. Children with lack of sleep are also more at risk of obesity.
A 2008 study by the National Institute of Health looked at the average number of daily hours of sleep that kids between 6 months and two years old were getting, and then compared those results with their occurences of obesity. The children who got an average of less than 12 hours of sleep a day were over twice as likely to be obese than those who slept for 12 or more. A much larger study done in the UK showed similar results.
With all of the health issues, as well as the general quality of life concerns that come along with obesity, it seems to me that sleep should be a major concern for parents.
However, every day I hear people advising new parents with what I’m sure is meant to be reassuring rhetoric, but I must admit, given the evidence, I find it really upsetting.
“Babies sleep when they want to sleep. Don’t force it.”
“Not sleeping is totally normal for a baby.”
“Just follow your baby’s lead. They know how much sleep they need.”
Can you imagine this same kind of talk if it was concerning baby’s diet?
“Kid’s know what’s healthy to eat. Just follow their lead.”
“Eating chocolate is totally normal for kids.”
“Kids will eat when they’re ready. You shouldn’t schedule mealtimes.”
If you heard those words coming out of anybody’s mouth, you would immediately qualify them as a lunatic, and you certainly wouldn’t listen to their advice on your kids.
As parents, we all obviously want our kids to live healthy, active lives, and we want to give them every advantage to ensure they get a good start. Making sure they get enough sleep, and teaching them solid sleep skills, will go a long way to promoting their overall health down the road.
One of the most common questions I get asked as a child sleep consultant is, “When should we move him into a big kid bed?”
My favorite answer to this is, “Later,” and there are a couple of reasons why I say that.
Number one is because there are so many other priorities when it comes to your baby’s sleep. Establishing a bedtime routine, teaching independent sleep skills, getting your baby accustomed to a schedule, are all things that should take place before you worry about moving him out of his crib.
Believe me, it’s going to be a lot easier to make the transition once you’ve got a good, skilled sleeper on your hands.
The other reason I tell parents to wait as long as they can is because, unless you’ve got a new baby on the way and need to make some space in that crib, there’s just no reason to push it.
Toddlers will inevitably notice that they sleep in a different bed than their parents, or their older siblings, and will ask why.
Once they’ve shown some interest, and feel like they want to make the switch, I’m all for it. But don’t look at it as some kind of developmental stage that your child should reach at a predetermined age.
They’ll get there when they get there, and there’s no harm if it’s later rather than sooner.
I should actually throw in a little disclaimer here. If your little one has started the “escape artist” routine, and is climbing out of their crib in a dangerous way, there’s potentially some harm if they fall on their way out.
However, if they’ve got the skills to get out of the crib safely, (and some kids I know are exceptional at climbing out of their cribs) then, again, I once again recommend sticking with the crib.
One of the biggest reasons I see for parents moving their kids to a big kid bed, is because they’re hoping it will solve some existing sleep issues. Maybe baby’s gotten into a habit of wanting to climb into bed with Mom and Dad, or they’re suddenly waking up and demanding a glass of milk in the middle of the night.
So maybe a big kid bed would help them feel more grown up. Maybe it would give them a feeling of security and comfort.
It will not. Full stop.
In all my time as a consultant, and with all of the other consultants I network with, to my knowledge, none of us have ever seen bad sleep behavior solved by moving baby to a new bed.
Now, I recognize that some of you are numbers people and you want an age, even if it’s just a guideline, so I would say 2½ is probably the earliest you want to implement this change. But again! That’s just a guideline, and later is better.
So, now that I’ve told you to wait as long as possible, how about those of you who have done that already, and are now making the switch?
The first thing you might notice is how quickly and easily your little one makes the transition. Your little one climbs into the new bed, loves the cool print on the new sheets, and sleeps happily straight through the night.
So maybe you’re in the clear! Or maybe you’re not.
There’s typically a honeymoon period with the big kid bed. Kids initially think they’re great, but then, after a couple of weeks, they start to wake up and leave their room in the middle of the night, asking to get into bed with mom and dad.
You may be tempted to comply with this request, but I strongly suggest you put an early and absolute moratorium on bed sharing at this point. If your child starts leaving their room in the night, walk them back, tell them it’s not allowed, and let them know what the consequence will be if they do it again.
Again, regardless of how sweet the request is, or how easy it might be to just flip back your comforter and let your little one climb aboard, don’t give in. You really need to make it clear that it’s not allowed, or you’ll be dealing with nighttime roaming for months.
If you need more guidance on how to get your toddler sleeping and staying in his or her bed all night, I am just a phonecall away.