When we work with families we often hear concerns about scheduling.  Many parents fear they will be held hostage by their child’s sleep schedule once it’s established, but in fact, the opposite happens.  Once your child has a consistent sleep schedule you will have some predictability and structure to your days as opposed to the chaos which accompanies an overtired child.  When you attend events or run errands, you will have a child who is happy and well rested because you respected her need to sleep when her body required it.  And, once your child learns the skill of independent sleep your family will become much more portable.  Here are some tips on how to prioritize your baby’s sleep in the first year without making yourself crazy.

How to prioritize sleep in your baby's first year (without going crazy)

  1. Take nap 3 on the go. If you have a 4-6 month old who takes three naps, allow for nap three to happen in the car seat or stroller.  The third nap doesn’t have the same restorative value as naps one and two.  Nap three is a temporary solution used to bridge the gap between nap two and bedtime until naps one and two lengthen.  Taking nap three on the go works well if you have older children to pick up from school, errands to run or need some fresh air exercise.
  2. Teach your baby to nap away from home. We’ve all been invited to a mom’s group that is inconveniently scheduled to meet at 1:30, the time when almost every child from 0-3 feels the biological drive to sleep.  Instead of letting your tired baby struggle through a play with the other little ones, why not have your baby nap at the hostess’ home?  Let the hostess know that you’d like your baby to nap and ask if she has a quiet, dark room in which your baby could sleep.  Bring along your sleep essentials (travel crib, sleep sack and white noise).  Carry out your baby’s sleep routine and say good night.  If needed, use the behavioural method your little one is used to at home.  It’s great to practice sleeping away from home regularly.  You might want to begin your practice in a low key setting at the home of a good friend or family member before heading out to your mom’s group.  The more practice your little on has at sleeping away from home, the quicker she’ll master the skill.
  3. Teach your baby to start bedtime away from home. You don’t need to decline every dinner invitation you receive just because you respect your baby’s sleep needs.  When you’re invited to someone’s home, let them know that your baby will need to start her night time sleep at their house.  Ask if they have a quiet, dark room in which your baby could sleep. Go through her bedtime routine, substituting a warm wipe down with a washcloth for the usual bath.  Don’t forget to bring along all your sleep essentials.  Once the bedtime routine is complete, say good night.  Just as you would with napping away from home, carry out the same behavioural method your child is used to.  When it’s time to go home, collect your little one from the travel crib, and place her in the car seat.  When you arrive home, there is no need to start over with the bedtime routine, just sing her familiar bedtime song, say your key phrase and continue with the behavioural method she’s used to.  With practice, this process with become more and more seamless.
  4. Get back on track with an early bedtime. One of the many benefits of having well rested children is that they can handle a late night every now and then without it derailing their sleep.  If your children are generally well rested and you have an event which will last until later in the evening, go ahead and attend!  If your child’s bedtime is usually 7pm and she’s staying up until 9pm, she’s likely to develop a bit of a sleep debt.  As long as you know how to deal with a sleep debt your child should bounce back quickly from her late evening.  Pay back the sleep debt by putting your little one to bed earlier than usual for up to 5 nights in a row.  The first night you might feel she’s ready for bed 30 minutes earlier than usual and the subsequent nights 15 minutes earlier than usual. Within 3-5 days her sleep tank will be full again and bedtime can sift back to it’s usual time.
Alysa Dobson is a Certified Child Sleep Consultant with SleepWell Baby. She works with families to help them get the sleep they need. Alysa offers support to parents with children ages 4 months- 8 years old through both in home and remote consultations. She can be contacted at alysa@sleepwellbaby.ca.
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