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September 29, 2014
Cookies and Pi
"Sleeping Like a Baby" isn't Always as Easy as it Sounds
by Sydney Bone

I knew college would be hard, but after my daughter was born, it took on a new level of difficulty. I am so grateful for Emelia, but that doesn’t change the fact that the first year of her life was the most difficult year of my life.

Luckily, my husband was very supportive, and we had some amazing friends. We were also given some great advice from experienced parents. One of the most valuable things we learned was the importance of helping Emy sleep well.

Sleep is a funny thing. For something we spend one third of our lives doing, you’d think scientists would know more about it. I found out more about sleep from my body’s reaction to the late nights I spent studying than I learned in my coursework. We often take it for granted, but to the exhausted parents of an overtired child, sleep is priceless.

Parenting literature is full of all sorts of advice on feeding, diapering and soothing babies, but it is rare to see sleep overtly discussed. I didn’t think much about it until my aunt loaned me a book called Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth, M. D. Since then, I have become a bit of a sleep fanatic.

As I facilitated my daughter’s good sleep habits, she became more happy and well-behaved when she was awake. As an added bonus, when she was well-rested, she slept more, which allowed me to be more productive.

This was particularly helpful when I was trying to finish all of my homework during her naps. Today, I’d like to share a little of what I’ve learned about sleep, in the hope that something I say here will be useful to other moms. Although I’m specifically talking about babies, many of the principles here can be applied to older children as well.


When kids don’t get enough sleep, their bodies produce adrenaline, which actually makes it harder for them to fall asleep. When they finally nod off, overtiredness can result in shorter or less restful periods of sleep. One day, when Emy was two months old, we kept her up a few hours past her bedtime because we were visiting family. Then, we couldn’t get her to sleep until two in the morning. That experience taught us to be more mindful of her needs.

Long-term overtiredness makes children drowsy when they are supposed to be awake. Then, as bedtime nears, they become hyper and/or irritable. On the other hand, Dr. Weissbluth made the observation:

Well-rested children… spend enormous amounts of time in a state of quiet alertness. They take in everything with wide-opened eyes, never missing a thing. They find simple little toys amusing or curious. They never appear bored, although the toy they pick up is one they have played with many times.

So, well rested children are not only healthier and happier, but they are more prepared to learn. Furthermore, when kids get enough sleep, life is easier for their parents.

An Emphasis on Sleep

It is generally not hard to tell (or smell) when a baby is due for a diaper change or a bath. I think most nursing moms will agree that it is painfully easy to know when a baby needs to be fed. On the other hand, the need for sleep can be much more difficult to recognize, both for the kids and their parents. Because of this, it is easy to overlook. It is important for parents to keep an eye on their baby’s biological clock, in order to help them get all the sleep they need.

With newborns, this means soothing them to sleep an hour or two after they wake up. As they get older and develop more regular naps, it’s a good idea to plan errands and outings around their sleep schedules.

Exceptions every so often are fine. When your baby is well-rested, she handles a crazy day or two rather well. However, I’ve noticed that when Emy misses more than just a nap here and there, she gets really cranky. This seems to happen most often on vacations and visits with family.

We’ve had to learn to sacrifice the quantity of time she spends awake with the family in favor of increasing the quality. In some cases, we’ve had to forgo fun activities in order to help her get the sleep she needs. When the vacation is over, we put her to bed early for a few days, in order to help her catch up on sleep she missed.

Drowsy Signs

The most valuable thing I learned from the sleep book was to watch my baby for signs that she is getting tired. The author compared sleep to surfing. It’s all about timing. If you try to ride the wave too early, you won’t ride it for long. If you wait too long, you’ve missed your golden opportunity, and it’s had to catch up.

Babies who are put down for a nap too soon will wake up early. Overtired babies are cranky and have a hard time falling asleep.

The answer is to watch for early signals that the baby is getting ready for naptime or bedtime. As a child gets drowsy, she’ll become quieter, calmer, and disinterested in her surroundings. You might notice her eyelids drooping or her eyes becoming less focused. Yawning is another good (and adorable) sign. If the kid is cranky or fussy, or starts rubbing her eyes, you’ve waited too long.

Babies tend to keep a fairly regular schedule. They will sleep around the same time every day, so you’ll start to figure out when to look and what to watch for. If you consistently put your baby to bed too late, and getting her to sleep is difficult, try to keep an eye on the clock. Tomorrow, start the bedtime routine twenty minutes earlier than usual and bedtime will be much easier.

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to sleep advice. I highly recommend the book I mentioned. It covers everything from the first week of life to adolescence, with plenty of tips for special situations. It was published years ago, so I got my copy for about four bucks. Of course, there are plenty of other great books available as well.

To new moms and dads, good luck. Taking care of a baby isn’t easy. Get help when you need it, and take some time for yourself. I hope you find time to shower more than twice a week and never run out of diapers. Above all, love your baby, and you’ll be fine.

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