In a recent survey, I asked parents of high need babies about sleep. Based on what I’ve heard from parents over the past 9 years of running The Fussy Baby Site, I felt quite confident in being able to predict what they were going to say: that their high need baby had troubles falling asleep, staying asleep and overall, got less sleep than what is typically recommended.
Turns out, my hypothesis was correct. According to the survey, the average high need baby/toddler wakes between 3 and 5 times per night, and gets less overall sleep than is recommended for their age.
In fact, 68% of parents surveyed said their high need child gets less sleep than the current recommendations – of that, 27% said their child gets “significantly” less sleep.
Results from a survey of over 1,400 parents of high need babies
This probably doesn’t surprise you…because if you’re reading this post, your child probably struggles with sleep too.
This post will look at three research-backed ways you can set the stage for the best possible sleep for your high need baby. Are these magic cures? Maybe not. But the pool of research on infant sleep seems to point to these as some of the most promising strategies for improving infant sleep.
#1: Routines have been proven to significantly reduce sleep problems AND improve maternal mental health
We hear a lot about routines. Sometimes they’re touted as the magic cure to all sleep-related problems. And while I wouldn’t quite go that far, they’re certainly one of the most important strategies you can use for helping your high need baby sleep.
Sometimes parents tell me that routines don’t work for their high need child. I understand why they say this: high need kids are notorious for resisting routines and schedules, and don’t fall into routines easily!
But does that mean they can’t benefit from routines? Absolutely not. In fact, I believe routines are absolutely imperative for high needs babies.
In a 2009 study, A Nightly Bedtime Routine: Impact on Sleep in Young Children and Maternal Mood, researchers found that a 30-minute bedtime routine of a bath, massage (for infants) or lotion (for toddlers), and quiet activities (singing, cuddling, etc.) resulted in “significant reductions in problematic sleep behaviors for infants and toddlers.”
According to the study, having a predictable sleep routine isn’t just important for babies; it can do wonders for moms too: “It is noteworthy that maternal mood improved concurrent with positive changes in the children’s sleep…It may be that as the children in this study slept better, mothers obtained more sleep, leading to improved mood. Another possibility is that with a designated bedtime routine, mothers of children with sleep issues felt more in control at bedtime, which resulted in improvements in mood…”
While the routines outlined in the study are great, you can also create your own routine based on your child’s preferences. Reading, singing, hanging out in a ‘cuddle corner’, or walking around the nursery can all be part of your routine. The key is simply to be consistent so your child knows it’s time to sleep.
Want to include a bath in your routine, but find your child gets too riled up? Read Diana’s free eBook, A Parent’s Guide to Better Nights, to find out why every bedtime routine should include a bath. You might be surprised! (I was).
#2: Expose your high need baby to natural light…especially in the early afternoon
You’ve probably heard of (or experienced) a newborn who had his or her days and nights mixed up. In these instances, parents will often be advised to make sure their infant is exposed to lots of natural light during the day to help reset their sleep/wake patterns.
However, exposure to natural light isn’t just beneficial for these newborns. Babies are born without a recognizable circadian rhythm – the biological process that helps them know when to sleep and when to be awake. Research tells us that at birth, “there is no circadian rhythm of sleep, body temperature, melatonin production and cortisol secretion.”
One of the best ways to help this rhythm develop in babies is exposure to natural light during the day: “Babies who slept well at night were exposed to significantly more light in the early afternoon period. These data suggest that light in the normal domestic setting influences the development of the circadian system.”
So what does this mean, practically speaking? Here are a few suggestions:
- Make a point of regularly going outside (if possible) in the early afternoon.
- Keep blinds open and lights on during non-sleep hours
- Keep the nursery or bedroom dark at night and during naps. I highly recommend using blackout curtains to keep as much light out as possible
- Expose your child to regular family/household activities during the day (during wake times) to help get his rhythms in tune with those of your family.
#3: Responding instantly to nighttime wakings can actually increase the frequency of wakings
A literature review on the factors related to infant night waking cites research that suggests that responding too quickly to nighttime fussing may actually increase the frequency of wakings. Speaking specifically of preterm infants, the authors write, “[Research] suggested that parents of premature infants may be particularly vigilant to signs of distress in their infants, and may encourage night waking by responding even when the infant would otherwise be able to self-soothe following a brief period of fussing.”
Does this mean we shouldn’t respond to our child’s cries in the night? Not at all. However, I firmly believe that sometimes we don’t give our high need kiddos enough credit. In my opinion, there is no harm in giving your high need baby a small amount of time when he wakes to see if he can indeed fall back to sleep on his own.
Given how intensely high need babies react to, well, pretty much everything (!), some middle-of-the-night fussing may indeed quickly turn into full-out wailing. However, you’d be surprised at how many parents have told me that they, whether intentionally or not, discovered their passionate, intense little baby actually could settle themselves back to sleep….when given a few minutes to try.
You may have noticed that the 3 strategies mentioned above aren’t specifically geared towards high need babies. This wasn’t an accident, and there’s a very good reason for it: high need babies aren’t biologically different from other babies.
It shouldn’t surprise us that high need babies are more likely to struggle with sleep. These “difficult infants” don’t naturally tend to fall into routines on their own, are more intense in their reactions, and may generally have a more negative mood. They may also struggle with transitions – and what greater transition is there than falling asleep?
However, in my experience, high need babies can and do fall into more regular sleep patterns when we provide a warm, consistent environment in which to learn. The 3 strategies above are some of the best ways we currently have to do this.
What would you add to this list? Have you figured out any surefire strategies for helping your high need child sleep?
Holly Klaassen is the founder of The Fussy Baby Site, a support site for parents of fussy, colicky and high need babies and toddlers. She has survived two high need babies and wants parents to know they’re not alone, and that it really does get better!