Sweet Dreams and Bedtime Routines

From newborns to toddlers, there are things you can do to promote a better chance of a good night’s sleep for everyone
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As many new parents know, the phrase “sleep like a baby” can be misleading. The National Sleep Foundation recommends between 14 to 17 hours of sleep for newborns and 11 to 14 hours for toddlers, but how and when they get those precious hours of sleep varies from child to child and even between siblings.

“My daughter was born almost two weeks after her due date and the first night home she slept six hours,” says Dave Stewart who lives in the Madison Park neighborhood in Charlotte. “Our fortune did not make it to our second child. Our son was three weeks early and he slept a lot during the day but night time was a different story.”

After several weeks of pulling all nighters, Stewart and his wife went in search of a solution. They found it in a sleepsuit designed to give baby a secure “swaddled” feel when back sleeping. Stewart says it was a game changer and happily reports his son, who is 4 months old, now sleeps five to six hours at a stretch.

“We are still a little bleary eyed in the mornings but feel much more rested,” he says.

Most parents expect the first few months with baby to be challenging, especially in the sleep department, but there are things you can do to help everyone catch some much needed shut-eye.

Preparation and Routine Are Key

Even for the newest addition to the family, there are things parents can do to encourage good sleep habits right away. Dr. Rhonda Patt, a pediatrician at Charlotte Pediatric Clinic and Regional Medical Director of Atrium Health, encourages parents to promote daytime wakefulness and keep light and stimulation low at night.

“Nothing prepares new parents for the sleep deprivation they will experience when their bundle of joy arrives,” Patt says. “When a baby first comes into the world, her body does not know the difference between daytime and nighttime.” More activity during the day and a calmer night routine can help baby untangle days and nights.

Meg Hendery, owner of Queen City Newborn Care suggests stocking up on a few keys, including a white noise machine, blackout curtains and a great swaddle blanket at the ready. Parents may also want to consider sleepsuits like Stewart and his family used for their son.

“Sleep suits are totally fine until baby starts rolling,” Hendery says. “At that point, baby has to go to a sleep sack that typically has a zipper or Velcro.”

Of course, routine is the ultimate weapon in promoting healthy sleep habits, especially as children get older.

“It’s important to have a bedtime routine which subconsciously is a ‘yellow brick road’ to sleep,” says Dr. Lili Poon, a pediatric sleep specialist with Novant Health Pediatric Sleep Specialists. “Avoid letting your child spend lots of non-sleep time in bed. Keeping activities separate from the bed allows them to associate the bed with restful sleep.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a bedtime routine of helping children brush their teeth, reading a favorite book or two, and getting to bed at a regular time each night.

When Sleep Is a Problem

Babies and toddlers go through good and more difficult sleep periods just like adults can. Lack of sleep, however, can lead to serious problems. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, adequate sleep on a regular basis leads to improved attention, behavior, learning, memory, emotional regulation, and mental and physical health, while over-tired children are at increased risk for injuries, obesity and depression.

Sleep and lack thereof should be part of the conversation at routine checkups with your child’s pediatrician.

“Because sleep is developmental, what is normal for a 3-month-old, would be different from that of a 9-month-old. If a toddler is still waking in the night and sleepy during the day these could be signs of a sleep disorder that may warrant further investigation,” Patt says. “The most common sleep disorders seen in toddlers are night terrors, sleepwalking, nightmares, sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome.”

Clues your child may be suffering from a sleeping disorder could include behavioral issues, delays in learning, long breathing pauses, loud snoring and growth issues, Poon says. Some of these disorders could be reversed with more restful sleep.

Whether your baby is a champion sleeper or prefers to howl at the moon, Patt says to keep things in perspective.

“These long nights may seem endless, but that time in your young baby’s life will pass like a blink of an eye. Try to treasure some of those precious moments.”

From Crib to the Big Bed

How did we get here so fast? One moment you were bringing baby home and now it’s time to think about transitioning to a big-boy or big-girl bed. Morgan Griffith, owner of Sleep Pea Consulting suggests these tips on making the milestone move easier.

Start talking with your child about the transition long before it happens and see how they respond. If they seem resistant or upset about the idea, wait a few more weeks before bringing it up again.

Scout out the room before the first night. Get on your toddler’s level and see what the room looks like at bedtime. Is the ceiling fan casting scary shadows on the wall? Is too much light coming in from a window or does a dark corner look frightening?

Set expectations for your toddler before the transition. In all the excitement it can be easy to forget discussing the rules. Talk with your toddler about when he or she can get up and and what they can and can’t do in their room during sleeping hours.

Reward elements of the bedtime routine, but not sleeping. Give your toddler positive reinforcement for brushing teeth, picking out books, selecting pajamas and other tasks. Sleeping and a good bedtime routine should be expected, not treated as a chore that warrants a reward.

For the first few weeks, consider an earlier bedtime. Moving to a big bed is exciting but might also include protest about going to sleep or endless requests for water. Getting started earlier hopefully mean more sleep for everyone.

Use a toddler clock. Tell your child the time he or she can get out of bed and teach them how to read the numbers on the clock. Some clocks come with a nightlight that toddlers may find comforting.


Courtney McLaughlin is a freelance writer who had her now 12-year-old daughter sleeping through the night at 7 weeks old. Her luck ran out when her daughter turned 3.