We all have sleep associations, those parts of our routine in the evening that signal our body that it’s time for sleep. Whether a bath, a hot drink, or tucking your duvet around you in just the right way, there is typically some sort of ritual that you use to prime you for sleep.
What about our children? For babies, sleep associations are specific sensory experiences that they use to fall asleep and stay asleep. There are two types, those that help prime us for sleep and calm us before sleep such as a warm bath, and those that actually help us fall asleep, like a sleep position. The calming associations for your baby are what you do in their bedtime routine. The association that actually gets your baby to fall asleep is a sleep soother.
A Lovey is a sleep soother. As babies reach the 4 month mark, it’s a good thing for them to have sleep soothers they can use independently so they can fall asleep and re-settle to sleep without your help.
A Lovey is a small stuffed toy that your little one can use for comfort when falling asleep, and for resettling to sleep at night. Your baby’s Lovey is the best sleep soother they can have, and one that most little ones take to quite easily.
Younger babies (newborn to about 3 months of age) don’t need Loveys as you’ll be the one soothing them when they need to get to or return to sleep. You can start to introduce your baby to a Lovey at 4 months of age, but do not put it in the crib with them until they are consistently rolling both ways. Also, try to keep your Lovey baby-safe and smaller than your child’s head.
If your child is heading into the 12-18 month range, it’s not too late to introduce a Lovey. In fact, at this stage it will be quite useful, and they will take to it well.
How to select and introduce a Lovey:
- Choose a Lovey that is small enough to take with you in your diaper bag and that is not a risk for suffocation.
- Keep your eye on a replacement, or buy two and stash one safely away.
- Have mom sleep with the Lovey tucked in her pyjama top for a couple of nights before introducing it to baby.
- Introduce it by giving it to your child every time they fuss whether it be from pain, irritation, or tiredness.
- Give your child a hug, comfort them, and tuck the Lovey into their body, offering a cuddle with the Lovey cuddled in between you and your child
We talk a lot about sleep in the context of a child’s whole day and supporting sleep via many approaches, including ensuring that your child has enough of the right amount of movement and at the right time of day. Active movement woven through the day expends energy. The by-product of this expenditure is a biochemical called adenosine. When adenosine builds up, our body is signaled to rest to restore the balance of adenosine. Therefore, if we are not active enough, our body will not biologically be ready to sleep. This is just one piece of the sleep puzzle, but it’s a very important one.
Here are some ideas to help you maximize the energy expenditure for the most active little people in our lives – toddlers and preschoolers! These are park ideas.
- For your early walker, have him walk on different surfaces – uneven, gravel, sand, grass. All these challenges will engage his large motor muscles more than just walking on a flat, even, predictable surface.
- Blow bubbles and have your child chase them and pop them by clapping. Try to blow them up high so they reach up to pop the bubbles.
- Slide down the slide on his bottom or tummy (feet first).
- Roll down a grassy hill like a sausage.
- Practice hanging on the monkey bars.
- Jump off of low equipment or wooden beams with an adult’s help.
- And of course, lots of time on the swing, respecting the child’s tolerance for how high or fast to push.
Enjoy your park time. And if you want to build up your biological drive to sleep, too, you may want to have a game of chase or tag. You’re IT!
To combine these ideas with other strategies, get to the park in the morning to expose your child and yourself to daylight and set your circadian rhythm. Use activity soon after your child wakes so that you can wind down closer to sleeping time.
Healthy Families BC/Participaction/CSEP recommendations support these ideas by suggesting that parents minimize the amount of time children are restrained or sitting (car seat, stroller, high chair, etc) to no more than one hour at a time. Then it’s time for a movement break. Screen time is not recommended for children less than 2 years old, and for children 2-4 years old screen time should be limited to no more than one hour per day. Less is better.
There are lots of ways to support healthy sleep. Taking a close look at the amount, type and timing of activity can certainly help to promote healthy sleep for all the members of your family, from the youngest to the oldest.
It is common for our littlest clients to have day/night reversals. When babies are born, they have not yet developed an internal clock, known as their circadian rhythm. Waking is driven by hunger and because their stomachs are so tiny, they need to eat often. Think about how much growth a newborn goes through in those first few months, both physically and cognitively. A newborn infant looks vastly different than their four month old counterpart, both in size and their cognitive function. There is an amazing amount of development that happens in those short months.
One of the developments that happens after those first few months, around the third to fourth month of life, is the development of a circadian rhythm, mediated by secretion of hormones from a part of their brain called the pineal gland.
Before this, the sleep wake cycle is a constant repetition of a little bit of awake time (45 minutes at a time for newborns) that will include all care giving, feeding, and socializing and then back to sleep again. Parents often find themselves with a baby that is more alert at night as opposed to daytime and this can be difficult as our circadian rhythms are telling us that it is time for some shut-eye at midnight, not party time!
Here are some things to consider and implement to switch back to a day/night rhythm that works for everyone:
1. Notice if your baby is getting over stimulated during the day and prefers to “wake up” at night during the quieter hours. If so, dial back the visitors and outings during the day to allow them to have a calmer more peaceful daytime environment to take in.
2. At night and during the day, keep your baby’s sleep environment quiet and calm.
3. Encourage regular and frequent feeding during the day, especially in the early evening when it’s common to see “cluster feeding” occur.
4. Do your best to achieve some awake time during the day, working on keeping your baby awake during feeding to both achieve that awake time and also promote active feeding where milk is being efficiently taken.
5. During the night, do your best to keep the feeding very calm and quiet. Keep the lights low and the interactions to a minimum. Even eye contact can signal a baby to alert and wake up promoting more wakefulness at night.
6. Get outside during the day and expose your baby to daylight. While they may not be producing melatonin just yet, it’s a good practice to establish and fresh air is good for everyone (including parents!)
Persist with these changes for a few days to a week to help your baby differentiate day time and night time.
It’s a simple truth. When babies don’t sleep, parents don’t sleep. Not only are babies over tired and have difficulty sleeping; parents can become zombie-like while racking up huge sleep debt.
When we arrive at a family’s home for our home visit (a part of our Occupational Therapy Consultation process) one of the things we talk about is how the child’s sleeping problems are affecting the family as a whole.
Most parents are stoic and re-direct the conversation to their child and the benefits their child will gain from better sleep. All true.
But the real picture here is as follows: If your baby is sleeping better, chances are you are too. If you are sleeping better, the whole world around you is easier to cope with. Your thinking is clearer, your emotions more in check, your immune system is chugging (not limping) along and you actually have energy to get out to baby groups or the park. Take sleep away and parents can get into some serious sleep related danger such as:
Increased risk of post partum depression
Increased propensity to have a motor vehicle accident
For parents that are at work during this phase – their work safety may be compromised. If you are someone who relies on sharp cognition or precise motor control, consider addressing sleep now.
There are normal levels of daytime sleepiness; every parent feels some level of tiredness. But when it starts to affect your ability to perform daily tasks, it’s time to take a look at your sleep. And this often means addressing your baby’s sleep so you have the opportunity to sleep, too.
Sleep well parents. For everyone’s sake, do not minimize the importance of your sleep. Your ability to safely and effectively navigate your day to day activities is important. If you are not well, you can’t do your best to look after your baby.