"Martin Family Boot Camp"...that's what our friends and family call our approach to getting our kids to sleep. While I wouldn't agree that we put them through some torturous procedure in order to establish a great sleep routine, I will admit that when it comes to that precious commodity known as sleep, we are very disciplined with getting our kids on board.
Ironically, I was thinking about our methods while I was laying in bed, unable to sleep. I had read this post by Melanie yesterday, and was trying to decide if there was even anything that we did that would be worthy of your attention. I don't think we do anything creative or revolutionary, and I also think perhaps we were just blessed with kids who like to sleep. Personally, I love to sleep, so maybe it's genetic?
We are an early-bird type of family, so we get up early (for school and work), we eat our meals early, and we go to bed early. I realize other families have different schedules, and it wouldn't make sense to put your kids to bed at 7 pm only to have them awaken at 6 am. For us, that is the perfect sleep schedule, and what we consider "sleeping through the night". I would also like to mention that some of our children were sleeping through the night at 4 months, and some took up to 19 months. We did find out that the ones who took longer needed ear tubes and possibly took longer because of the pressure and fluid in their ears. Or not. It's not an exact science.
And so, with all these disclaimers, and for what it's worth, here's how we get our kids to go to bed early and sleep through the night. I do realize as soon as I post this, my kids will prove me wrong and become insomniacs. Murphy's Law.
1) Tire Them Out
When you get a puppy, and you want him to get out his energy in order to go to sleep, what do you do? Let him run around outside so that he comes in and collapses. Right? Well, we do the same with our kids. Did I just compare my children to a puppy? Yup! Well, hey, both are cute and cuddly ;)
I think it's super important for our children to be active everyday, and we make sure they have the opportunity to physically tire themselves out. We let them play sports, take them to playgrounds, and put our babies on the floor so they have the chance to roll and crawl around. Just as adults sleep better when they have exercised, children do too. There's few things worse than laying in bed at night when your body is restless from lack of activity.
2) Fill Their Bellies
When they are babies and nursing, my children tend to naturally cluster-feed in the evening. It's like they know they are storing up for their long sleep. Once they can eat and drink real food, we make sure they have enough healthy foods to eat during the day, especially at dinner, and when we feel they haven't got enough calories in (picky eater syndrome) we give them a big glass of whole milk before bed. When our kids don't eat well, they always wake up super early the next morning asking for breakfast. Keeping their bellies satisfied (not stuffed) before bed alleviates this problem.
3) Create a Routine
I don't tend to read any books about parenting, because I think we all do better when we trust our guts, but from any article that has caught my eye about children and sleep, I have learned that creating and maintaining a routine is a standard concept. And I agree with it completely. I think adults need a good winding-down routine before bed as well to let our bodies gently transition.
For our children, the routine is pretty simple: dinner, bath/shower, pajamas, watch a show, brush teeth, say prayers, get tucked in. That's it and it's the same every night. No bedtime stories because we have found that it prolongs the stalling ("just ten more stories...pleeeeease?).
4) Set the Stage
This one is important. Children's bedrooms need to be set up in a way that induces sleep. Every family and house is different, so you must find what works for you individually.
For us, setting the stage means:
~ One child per bed
While I think young children prefer to share bedrooms so they are not alone, we feel they need their own space in that shared bedroom.
~ A dark room
We use room darkening shades in the windows, and a small nightlight hidden behind a piece of furniture.
~ A sound machine that plays white noise
This helps because when you have multiple children in one room, the white noise masks everybody's little noises/snoring/sleep talking, as well as any outside noises. Plus, the soothing sound is associated with sleep, and so when you travel, you can recreate their bedroom just by bringing the white noise along.
~ A "lovie" or blankie or pacifier, etc.
Letting our babies and toddlers have something that is soothing to them helps them get cozy in their bed. And it must stay in their bed. That way they look forward to going to bed in order to get that pacifier or stuffed bear they love.
5) Be Strict
You have to set the rules for what you expect and stick to them. Isn't this true of parenting in general? Our children know that when it's bedtime, that means that playtime is over, and they are not to get out of their beds unless they have to go to the bathroom or there is an emergency.
Once our babies are old enough to stop needing a bottle at night, we try not to take them out of their crib unless they need a diaper change. We have never let our kids cry-it-out in order to get to sleep, but we try not to pick them up once they go down either. We will stand by their crib and pat/rub their back, sing to them, shush them, or whatever it takes for them to be comforted. A lot of times, we have just laid down on the floor and as long as they can see that we are there, they fall asleep quickly, and then we sneak out.
By holding or nursing or taking our babies into bed with us, we are not teaching them that they have the ability to put themselves back to sleep. We make sure to do all of this lovingly and gently. During the day they get plenty of hugs and kisses and cuddles, and we tell them all the time how much we love them. But night time is for sleeping, and honestly, our kids have never given us an issue once the routine is established. They will go through various stages, and we try and reevaluate the routine and just remember that it is a stage, and it will pass!
6) Have Fun and Praise Them
We try to make going to bed somewhat enjoyable, and so we do games like The Tickle Monster (where the last kid up the stairs gets tickled) or we show them a funny way to march to bed, or we count how fast they can get upstairs. Whatever works.
We also praise them for doing a good job going to bed without much stalling or talking. Sometimes when they take a nap on the weekend, we have been know to reward them with a piece of gum or a lollipop. Kids love to be praised, and it's so easy to encourage them to continue the good behavior through praises than to try and correct difficult behavior.
So have fun, praise them, discipline them, and most of all....love them.
Good luck and sweet dreams!