How to Achieve Healthy Sleep Habits for Children 6 months to 5 years of age: Published in Complete Wellbeing Magazine July 2015

Most parents agree that there is nothing more rewarding than a quiet house when your children are peacefully sleeping. Without a doubt, building a foundation for healthy sleep habits in your household will bring harmony and well-being to all family members. So the question is: How might a parent promote and encourage healthy sleep habits? The first thing to fully understand is that for children 6 months to 5 years of age, sleep is actually a learned skill. The act of learning to sleep includes two important life skills: self-regulation and self-soothing. It is important for parents to acknowledge and feel empowered that there are several ways to gently and safely coach their children on how to develop these skills so that children can independently and peacefully go to sleep and stay asleep without the need of multiple negative sleep associations.

Children 6 months or older can typically become highly dependent on negative sleep associations, also known as “sleep crutches”. A sleep crutch is defined as something that needs to be done to, or for, a child in order for the child to fall asleep or go back to sleep. Sleep crutches work really well … until they stop working. If your “old tricks” no longer have that same “magic,” then this is a signal that your child is showing readiness to learn the all-important life skills of self-regulating and self-soothing to sleep. Hence, it may be time to consider “sleep coaching” your child. However, please take note that in the world of sleep science, the newborn/infant stage is considered 0-6 months, and it is typically not recommended to sleep coach a child under 6 months of age.

Sleep coaching is the methodical process of behavioral modification in which your child develops the skills of self-regulation and self-soothing in order to improve the quality and quantity of sleep. Sleep coaching your child can be considered one of the first big parental decisions, and thus, parents should take time to educate themselves on sleep science and research the methodological options before making any changes. Parents succeed in sleep coaching when they find a methodology that matches their parental values and goals as well as meets the needs of the temperament of their child.

For children 6 months to 5 year of age, there are several sleep coaching methodologies. In each approach, the key goal is to replace sleep crutches by instilling positive sleep associations, along with the new skill set of self-regulation and self-soothing. Parents can educate themselves by reading and following sleep plans in sleep-training books, or they may seek individualized guidance from a trained and certified pediatric sleep consultant/sleep coach. Either way, the first step is to choose a methodology that meets your values, the goals of your family and the temperament of your child. The second step is to create and implement a detailed sleep plan based on your preferred methodology.

The methodologies differ dramatically in approach, particularly regarding the amount of parental involvement as well as the extent of parental verbal assurances and physical contact. Before starting any sleep coaching program, it is paramount to visit your pediatrician to confirm there are no underlying medical conditions causing the sleep disturbances and to receive approval that sleep coaching is appropriate for your child’s age and development. Also, if your child is breastfeeding, there needs to be much care and consideration given in the sleep plan in order to honor and maintain the nursing relationship. Remember, sleep coaching is not recommended in babies under 6 months of age.

The common methodologies are: Extinction (also known as “Cry It Out”); Controlled Crying (also known as Modified Extinction or Timed Checks); and Fading (also known as “The Shuffle”).

Once you have researched, decided on your methodology and created your detailed sleep plan, the next step is implementing the sleep plan with loving patience, consistency and joint parental agreement.

The keys to sleep coaching success are:

  1. Understanding that your child will be learning and mastering two new life skills of self-regulating and self-soothing to sleep. The easiest time for a child to learn this skill is at bedtime, at the appropriate “sleep window” after excellent daytime sleep.  With proper coaching, a child will also learn to self-soothe in the middle of the night after an arousal. Nap training typically takes place after a child is successfully soothing at bedtime and sleeping through the night.
  2. Recognizing that change is a process, not an event. Thus, be patient with the process as nighttime sleep coaching realistically takes 2-6 weeks of consistent effort to achieve your sleep goals. (Older children typically take longer to sleep coach.)
  3. Honoring your child’s age-appropriate sleep requirements both for daytime and nighttime. The quantity of daytime sleep affects the quality and quantity of night-time sleep. Keeping a detailed sleep log will often provide important clues on how to improve your sleep situation. A great resource for age appropriate sleep expectations is the American Academy of Pediatrics. A child’s daily and nightly sleep expectations are dependent on his or her age and stage of development.

In summary, feel confident that there are many safe and gentle ways to improve sleep for your children. But before you make any bold changes to your bedtime and night-time activities, do the research in order to feel truly emotionally and intellectually comfortable with the process of sleep coaching, and take the time to create a detailed sleep plan. Parents who work as a team to implement the sleep plan create an environment of confidence, thus putting the child at ease during the process, which in turn reduces protests from the child. Successful sleep coaching is about employing a loving, methodical and consistent approach to behavioral modification. Done in this manner, sleep coaching truly works and ultimately brings harmony back into your household. It is all about patience, consistency and the right timing for parent and child alike. May you soon enjoy a peaceful house where all family members experience healthy sleep habits.

Genia Rackos

Gold Creative Group, 469 West Huron Street, Chicago, IL, 60654