Sleep Week: How to Help Your Kid Become a Champion Sleeper

Philly experts answer your toughest sleep questions.

It’s Be Well Philly Sleep Week! All week long, we’re celebrating sleep and all the wonderful things good quality shuteye does for your body. We reached out to Philly’s top sleep experts to answer all your sleep questions in one fell swoop. Check back this week for more installments of our ultimate sleep FAQ. And to see them all in one place, pick up a copy of Philadelphia magazine’s May issue, on newsstands now. 

» Also in Sleep Week: “The Scientific Case for Napping at Work”

My three-year-old’s sleeping habits are all over the map. How do I know if he’s getting enough sleep?

“If a child’s daytime functioning is good, then he’s getting the sleep he needs,” says Jennifer Marriner, an advanced-practice nurse who specializes in sleep at Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. Unlike adults, who will sometimes push themselves to the limit with too little sleep, kids won’t fight sleep and will get the rest their bodies need one way or another. If your child is alert, attentive, and able to stay awake during his waking hours, his sleeping habits are just fine, even if they seem inconsistent to you.

My six-year-old can only fall asleep at night if music is on in her room. Bad idea?

Experts say sleep associations, like allowing your child to listen to bedtime music, aren’t going to cause any sort of developmental damage or significant sleep issues down the line, and she’ll eventually grow out of it. But if an association is particularly disruptive—for instance, if a child insists on being driven around in the car in order to fall asleep—it needs to be dealt with. “Parents must remember that they are altering patterns that are fiercely defended by the child,” says Aaron Chidekel, chief of pediatric pulmonology and a sleep expert at Nemours. You can go cold turkey, but a gentler approach might be to ease into the transition by putting a time limit on the association: only 10 minutes of driving the first night, then five minutes the next, etc. You can count on some tears and perhaps a few sleepless nights, but Chidekel says to stick to your guns. And know this: Most associations can be undone in a matter of days.

My 10-month-old still won’t sleep through the night. I’m at my wit’s end. Should I let her cry it out?

This is one of the most hotly debated topics in infant sleep. In one camp are those who argue that allowing a baby to cry herself to sleep causes undue mental and physical stress, leading to elevated blood pressure, erratic breathing, a compromised digestive system, and even changes in brain chemistry. They also point to the potential for long-term emotional, developmental and behavioral damage, and worry that cry-it-out techniques diminish the bond between baby and parent.

“I’ve found no evidence for any of these claims,” says Marsha Weinraub, a developmental psychologist and psychology department chair at Temple University, who’s been studying sleep in young children since 1989. In 2012, she published a study, based on data from more than 1,200 infants, showing that on average, a third of six-month-old babies wake up every night of the week, but that this slowly decreases to one night a week by 24 months. These night- wakers tend to be generally fussy, are more often male, are more likely to be breastfeeding, and have mothers who are very sensitive to their rhythms and needs.

“These mothers hear their babies cry and immediately go pick them up,” Weinraub says. “Their babies aren’t given the chance to learn how to fall asleep on their own, which is likely why sleep problems persist.” She argues that her findings support parenting practices that encourage children to learn to go back to sleep on their own—without nursing or being held.

But make no mistake: Weinraub and others in her camp don’t condone putting your daughter in her crib at bedtime, closing the door, and not returning until morning no matter how hard or long she cries. “A parent needs to make sure the baby isn’t hurt or in danger, so look in on her and then go out,” she says. Her rule of thumb: When you hear your baby start to cry, let her go for about five minutes before checking on her. Then leave and give it another five minutes, and repeat until she goes back to sleep. Gradually lengthen the time between check-ins over a few days. With consistency, your baby should learn to put herself back to sleep after a few nights.

Sometimes I really believe my six-month-old gets bigger overnight. I assume I’m crazy, right?

Maybe not. It’s long been known that human growth hormone is secreted during sleep in babies and adults alike. That’s likely why kids sleep more than adults—they have a lot more growing to do. What’s interesting is that babies don’t grow at an even pace, and that messes with their sleep patterns. A 2011 study found that periods in which babies slept more than usual corresponded with growth spurts and increases in body weight and fat. In fact, for each additional nap they took, the babies in the study were 43 percent more likely to experience a growth spurt.

So if your baby is logging more sleep than usual—the study found that during a growth spurt, the average was three additional naps and 4.5 hours of extra sleep per day over two days—your baby really could be getting bigger before your eyes.

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