As a speech-language pathologist, I encourage establishing routines for children whether they be for summer schedules, clothing, and sleep . They add a bit of predictability in knowing what to expect and increase a child’s independence.
Since sleep or lack of sleep is something families of babies and toddlers seem to battle constantly, I had the opportunity to visit with Erin Meinel, infant and child sleep consultant, and owner of Lake Country Sleep. Erin uses a holistic approach to help tired parents teach their newborns through preschoolers the skill of sleep. She’s the mother of two little boys and resides in, you guessed it, Lake Country. As a parent, she’s experienced many sleepless nights and the struggles that go along with it, and she knows how to help tired parents out.
SpeechWorks: What is a sleep consultant?
Erin Meinel: A sleep consultant is an expert in the field of sleep, helping people to overcome their sleep challenges. There are adult sleep consultants as well as pediatric sleep consultants, like myself. If what you’re trying to do to improve your or your child’s sleep isn’t quite working, a consultant can help! Just like you might want a personal trainer for at the gym, or a lactation consultant to assist with breastfeeding, a sleep consultant can give a personalized recommendation, based on your specific needs. Some consultants offer online courses and downloadable guides, while others focus more on working with clients personally, in a one-on-one or small group coaching situation.
SW: What is a common age that parents reach out to you? How young can a baby/toddler be when starting a sleep routine?
EM: It is such a range – mostly when they feel READY to make a change concerning their little one’s sleep. I have parents reach out to me prenatally to begin educating themselves in preparation for the newborn phase – we work to lay a healthy sleep foundation right from the start. I also have many parents reach out when their little one is around 4-5 months old because they thought “it would be better by now!” and some babies experience a regression at that age when their sleep cycles mature and begin to mimic that of adults. They go from having only two cycles to four, causing more night wakings. Many parents also reach out after a year of not sleeping. The other common time is during the transition from a crib to a toddler bed. I get most of my inquiries from tired mamas, usually between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m.!
Many parents aren’t aware that it is perfectly fine (and what I strive to teach soon-to-be parents) to start developing healthy sleep habits right from the start when they welcome their little one to the world. A routine is a great place to start (read more about newborn sleep teaching and routines here). While you can’t yet “sleep train” a newborn, if you are able to focus on healthy sleep hygiene early on, there is often no need for more formal sleep training down the road. However, because many new parents aren’t aware of this – myself included when I had my first son – it often gets overlooked and they end up calling me a few months down the road. This is perfectly fine, too, as most children have the ability to learn the skill of sleep, regardless of their age. There is a very small percentage that are not able to learn the skill, due to a health concern or sleep disorder.
SW: Why are bedtime routines important?
EM: Bedtime routines are incredibly important for cueing the body that sleep is coming! A solid routine helps your little one wind down at the end of the day and prepare for that loooooong stretch of night time sleep. When we do the same routine over and over we know what to expect next. This is extremely comforting for a small child or infant.
SW:: Does the child get attached to the routine, the adult, and/or the environment?
EM: Following a routine specifically for your child allows you FREEDOM when it comes to sleep, and it teaches your little one the lifelong skill of FLEXIBILITY. As long as the same bedtime routine is followed every time, that is what the child becomes attached to – let me paint the picture for you: My oldest son (now 22 months), who we holistically sleep trained around 5 months old, has the same bedtime routine each night. It does not matter who does the routine with him – he knows and his body is prompted as we go through the routine that the end result is the same each time – sleep! He will sleep for almost anyone almost anywhere as long as they follow his routine. The best part is, other people get to experience this special time of day with him. He is regularly put to bed by mommy, daddy, grandmas, aunts, uncles, or our babysitter, and he has no issues. We also travel regularly. I utilize white noise, so he has that in the background regardless of a change in environment. He also has a blankie as a comfort item. As long as his routine is the same and he has those two constants, he will usually sleep wherever we are. I have photos of him napping on the boat each day during our summer vacation last year when he was ten months old! I sometimes think he is an anomaly sleeper, but my youngest son (5 months) is turning out to be the same way. Routines are an incredibly powerful tool when it comes to sleep.
SW: Are there different aspects of a routine that should be considered such as language/stories, food/bottle, environment, and physical movement like rocking?
EM: I have a blog post all about the importance of bedtime routines here (with some free downloadable bedtime routine samples) as well as a post about creating the perfect bedtime routine for your child here. There are different things to consider including, or not including, in your child’s routine based on their age and developmental needs.
Books are a must at any age. They are great for language development, and have just the right amount of color and text to stimulate a young, growing brain. Tactile books are great for young babies, then lift-the-flap books and regular board books as they get a bit older. Once they’ve learned how to carefully turn pages, books with paper pages can be incorporated. Reading together is also a fun way to wind down after a busy day, all snuggled up with your little one. Some of my best memories are of my three siblings and I all fighting to sit on my mom’s lap during story time each night growing up!
For babies 0-4 months, I recommend having a feed built into the routine towards the end, so you can ensure that your baby falls asleep with a full tummy. As their tummies grow and they can tolerate more time between feedings, you’ll want to move the feed towards the beginning of the routine. By a year, I recommend removing it from the routine altogether, as we want to teach that food is for nourishment, not for sleep! However, if it’s not an issue and you have a great sleeper, don’t worry about it. As you get to potty training age, though, you’ll likely want to reconsider. Once your baby is on solids, and if dinner is early in the evening, offering a quality bedtime snack that promotes sleep is an option too – I recommend having all meals/snacks completed 30 minutes before bedtime to ensure there is not an association between food and sleep.
Environment should not be too big of a factor when it comes to routine – different families will have different needs, especially if you’re doing bedtime with multiple children. For example, we used to do my son’s routine solely in his bedroom, but when we found out we were expecting his little brother and would need more of a shared space during that time of night, we started to do more of the routine in the living room. I do recommend not feeding your baby in the nursery during the day time after 4 months of age, and only for nighttime feedings until your baby is no longer doing those.
Basically, whatever your baby or child is doing when they fall asleep, we would consider their “sleep prop” – and we all have them! For example, you might fall asleep listening to music after rolling onto your left side. Your baby may fall asleep during a bottle, or while you are rocking them. Ideally, we want our children to go into their beds awake, so that they can find their own “prop” and put themselves to sleep. This takes practice and consistency.
SW: If a child wakes up because of a nightmare or storms, do you incorporate an abbreviated same sleep routine?
EM: If they wake up and are frightened during the night, I recommend going in and calming them down and easing their fears. Remind them that it’s “just a bad dream” or “just thunder from the storm” and that they are safe. You can then do the last little portion of their routine (maybe a prayer or song) then say “I love you and I’ll see you in the morning” as you lay them back down. There is no need to stimulate them more than that or make a big deal out of the situation. If you can provide some snuggles, safety, and comfort, and return them to their bed, they will learn it’s not a big deal and may even be able to handle it on their own the next time they wake.
SW: What to do if the at home routine can’t be kept due to travel or a babysitter/grandparent is watching your child?
I recommend using the same routine with your little one, even if you are traveling. As stated earlier, the routine (not the environment nor the caregiver) is most important to help your little one fall and stay asleep. However, if it’s just not feasible, always use the same last step of your routine by saying the same thing to your child as you lay them down in their crib or bed – a key phrase can be super helpful and is something that you or anyone else can say to your little one as a cue that it’s now time to sleep. For our key phrase, I say, “Goodnight, Bram. I love you. I’ll see you when you wake up.” If you end the routine with those words every time, they know the next step is to go to sleep!