NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
ADJUSTING A CHILD’S SLEEP SCHEDULE
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
One of our children never succeeded in getting more than eight hours of sleep at night. As a young toddler, she was very cooperative about going to bed, but she woke early and began to rock in her bed.
We knew she was awake by 5 a.m., but we weren’t eager to get up with her. I often went to her to offer a safe toy. When she was 3, we’d call out to her to talk with her teddy bear until we could come in to see her.
Early-morning awakening can be difficult for parents. By 6 a.m., many children have had enough nighttime sleep (10-12 hours between age 6 months and 6 years).
If your child is awakening before 6 a.m., he may in fact need slightly less sleep. But surprising as it may seem, early awakening can occur when a child isn’t getting enough sleep – which can make it hard for a child to sleep normally.
Early awakening may also occur when a child is getting enough sleep, but at the wrong times.
To understand a child’s early awakening, it can help to re-examine the child’s sleep patterns. How many hours of sleep is he getting at night? And during the day?
What time do his naps begin and end? When does he go to bed at night? Does he go to sleep easily? Does he usually seem well-rested when he wakes? Is he fairly good-humored and able to remain alert during most of his waking hours?
The answers to these questions should help you determine what sleep he needs: a little less, a little more, or the same amount but at different times.
For the well-rested child who needs a little less sleep or only a readjustment in his sleep schedule:
- Re-examine his daytime sleep.
- Consider delaying, shortening or eliminating a morning nap if he is also napping in the afternoon.
- Be sure his afternoon nap doesn’t continue after 3 p.m.
- Give him a later supper.
- Put him to bed a bit later in an effort to readjust his clock.
- Wake him before you go to bed to rock him and sing to him, and to interrupt his rhythms. Many children will sleep through from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. if you interrupt their cycle.
For the tired child whose poor sleep leads to more poor sleep, including early awakening, you may need to lengthen naps and set earlier bedtimes. As your child catches up on his sleep, he’ll be better able to sleep normally for the roughly 10-12 hours he needs at night.
All this transition takes time but helps him gradually adjust to your rhythms.
For any child who wakens too early, be sure that his room remains quiet and dark as the sun comes up and the day begins. Some children are easily roused from the light sleep of early morning by any sunlight that gets past the blinds, or by noises in the house or neighborhood. Try dark shades and curtains that fully cover the windows.
He may need his windows shut, or even a white-noise machine – though he may soon become dependent on the machine.
If you go in to play with him when he wakes up in the early morning, he’ll surely wake up at the same time, or earlier, the next day to have more time with you. Children learn early to “set their alarms” for the things they care about.
(This article is adapted from “Sleep: The Brazelton Way,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.)
Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.
Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.