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Caring for the Little Ones - Sleep Issues in Infant and Toddler Programs

By Karen Miller

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In this nation of sleep-deprived people, sleep has become a very emotional issue. Stress, busy schedules, very limited family time, and free time all work together to erode the amount and quality of sleep people get . . . even babies!

Sleep is also a cultural issue - one of the strongest cultural issues we have. What people are used to doing in their families for generations is what feels right. Several people pointed out to me that 95% of the world's cultures have children sleep in the parents' bed, and it is only northern Europeans and Americans who feel babies should be isolated at night.

There seems to be a new culture issue emerging - that of parents having their children sleep in bed with them, even when this has not been a generational family practice in their heritage. In my own informal survey of parents who do this, several reasons emerge. Parents have told me they spend so much time away from their baby during the day that they miss them desperately and want them close at night. One family got into the habit when their newborn was very ill and the parents felt more secure having her right with them from that time on.

Often, however, the habit develops, more or less unplanned, in families with two working parents, where they have to get their sleep, and the child is breastfed. It seems easier to them and less disruptive of their sleep to have the baby right there. As soon as the baby stirs she is fed and everyone drifts off to sleep again. Several parents reported that the baby got used to snacking and woke up every two hours or so, rather than having a big feeding. This can develop into a more or less permanent pattern lasting for several years. That's a lot of interrupted sleep! Also, the child who is not used to sleeping alone or in a crib is difficult to put down for a nap during the day, unless someone can lie down with him.

In teaching a child to sleep in a crib, some parents reported success with letting the child cry for several nights in his own crib. Other parents said they just couldn't stand it and that the baby screamed for six hours straight. While many parents manage to graduate the baby to his own bed when the child is about two and wants more independence anyway, several families have children older than that, even a six year old, still in bed with them. By that time it is usually not seen as sodesirable by the parents, but they are trapped by habit. It is not our business, of course, how parents choose to sleep with their children at home. However, it can pose challenges when a child cannot sleep in a crib or alone on a cot or mat.


Sleep issues are different for infants and toddlers. Everyone stresses the importance of having infants on the demand schedule. To have this system work correctly, caregivers must be very good at reading children's signals about when they are tired. Some babies show it simply by flopping over into a deep sleep. Others suck their thumb, twirl their hair or stroke the edge of a blanket. Many children become overly active and irritable when they are tired. Some babies are very regular in their sleep patterns and fall asleep at certain times like clockwork. Others are totally erratic. Some babies sleep four hours in a stretch. Others take a series of 20 minute power naps.

More often than not, I fear, people really look at the clock and say, "It's about time I put Jennifer down," rather than really reading the baby's cues. One person reported that she and her staff had gotten so good at reading children's cues and only putting them to bed when they were truly tired that the babies learned to trust them and realize they would only be in their cribs when they wanted to sleep. Babies in this room would crawl over to the nap area and indicate they wanted to go to bed when they were tired.

Some infants settle down easily by themselves, others need some help. Many people report holding or rocking babies
to sleep. (This has to be very time consuming and difficult to accommodate in most group care situations. It points out a need for a good staff/child ratio.) Singing a soft lullabye also helps to calm the child down and reduce background noise. Many children use a pacifier to help them sleep.

While everyone agreed that it is not okay to let children fall asleep while drinking a bottle, one supervisor said that she often catches staff sneaking a bottle to babies in a crib, and then protesting that it was only a once in a while thing. Sometimes babies are used to falling asleep while nursing at home. What one caregiver reports doing in such a case is to feed the child a bottle when the child is tired, and when he is deeply settled, almost asleep, she transfers him to his crib.

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