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Dr. Marc Weissbluth: The “Healthy Sleep Habits” author takes on parent misinformation

Chances are, someone during those early exhausting days of parenthood promised you’d find the path to healthy sleep habits and a happy child thanks to Dr. Marc Weissbluth.

His introduction to the annals of sleep touched on crying it out, no-cry and preventing it all, and more than one million copies have been sold since its first printing in 1999. Now Dr. Weissbluth, founder of the Sleep Disorders Center at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital and a professor of clinical pediatrics at Northwestern University School of Medicine, is tackling twins in a new version of his old bestseller, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Twins.

With hundreds of sleep books on the market, the father of four and grandfather of six spoke with Babble about parents’ need to have a greater appreciation for sleep as a health benefit to their kids. He says there is no one-size-fits-all bedtime, naptime or way our kids should sleep, so find out how he says you can expect to find the answer to sleep inside the pages of a book. – Jeanne Sager

There are a lot of sleep books out there on the market; how do you stand out from the crowd?

The book is data based, and you can see from the citations that we have a strong biologic basis for understanding sleep. The material presented is not an opinion, unlike a lot of other books that are just opinion because they have no references, no citations.

I read the book several years ago, when my daughter wasn’t sleeping. Could you explain your philosophy for parents who haven’t had a chance to pick it up?

Sleep is a biologic necessity, not a luxury. The book explains how to prevent sleeping problems, how to treat sleeping problems, and why it’s crucial for parents to understand the importance of sleep for the child’s benefit.

Do you think parents have bought too much into trying to find the quick fix into everything?

I know that parents sometimes get paralyzed by the information overload. There are so many books, websites, blogs on every imaginable parenting subject and they’re offering conflicting opinions. I know it’s harder to be a parent today due to this information overload.

One of the biggies I always heard when I was pregnant was “never wake a sleeping baby,” which I even read in your first book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Baby. But when I got to the hospital and gave birth, the nurses told me I had to wake my daughter every two to three hours to feed her – even during the night. What gives?

Don’t ever wake a sleeping baby does not apply to twins, because parents of twins initially have to attempt a strict synchronized sleep schedule – it may or may not be successful. But with singletons, you should not wake them for your own social conveniences. You may have to wake them to keep them on a schedule or when there’s been some kind of disruption, three-day weekend, holiday, whatever. For the first day or two in a hospital, the newborn needs to be fed every two to three hours to prevent low blood sugar, but once you get home from the hospital with a full term baby, then there’s no need unless there’s some other medical problem to wake them to feed them.

Mind breaking down some other sleep myths for us? Some folks say you need absolute quiet while the baby sleeps, true or false?

Children do not need absolute quiet when the baby sleeps, but if there is too much street noise – like in a city – there may be interruptions of sleep, especially naps. Then a white noise machine or a humidifier or a fan might help drown out the intensity of intermittent noises.

What about lighting issues – some people say lighting in the baby’s room is a big no no?

Lighting is something that can interfere with sleep, especially in the early morning sleep, early morning light, or naps. Some children are more light sensitive than others. You have to experiment with your own child to see if they need a room pitch black in order to sleep. They may or may not.

I remember reading in Healthy Sleep that kids who don’t nap don’t make up the sleep at bedtime. So what about the kids who just give up napping on their own, when naptime becomes a fight – is it okay to throw in the towel?

You can teach older children how to nap, how to behave at bedtime, to avoid fights at night, bedtime battles or nap refusal. “Sleep rules” [in Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child] is a nice technique to encourage sleep in older children.

Your new book puts the focus on multiples – do you find parents have a lot of trouble keeping more than one child on one schedule?

“There is not a rigid, one-size-fits-all sleep pattern or sleep strategy that fits all children.” For multiples, identical twins tend to have the same sleep schedules. Fraternal twins may or may not have the same sleep schedules because there’s individual variations that’s under genetic control, so you’re trying to maintain the sanity of the mother, get them on a similar sleep schedule. It’s easier to do that if you have identical twins.

Do activity levels that vary by child affect sleep needs?

Activity doesn’t have any real affect on sleep needs. The brighter children need more sleep. That’s another reason you should never compare bedtimes or naptimes with your friends, because there’s individual variation.

So how can parents read a book for help if kids are so different?

There are patterns, and the patterns are predictable. So that books help, like mine, to see what the general pattern is for age-appropriate children. There is not a rigid, one-size-fits-all sleep pattern or sleep strategy that fits all children.

It sounds like a lot of parents are trying to mold their kids into a one-size-fits-all kind of sleep pattern and get frustrated.

Yes, the tendency is to want to adapt a child’s sleeping to fit the parents’ social needs. The most important thing to remember is you can’t fight Circadian rhythms. If you fight Circadian rhythms, the quality of sleep is impaired. In the beginning, many parents focus on getting their kids to sleep so they, themselves, can get sleep. They overlook the fact that the child directly benefits . . . or is harmed by not sleeping well.

The parents are more concerned about their own sleep?

In the beginning, yes. General appreciation is not popular knowledge out there. Like healthy food is a real benefit for children? Healthy sleep is not as well appreciated. Most parents focus on sleep duration, not sleep quality.

That ties in with some questions I had from a reader. Say a sitter keeps putting your child down for a nap at 4 p.m., saying the kids fight it anytime earlier, but now the parent can’t get the child to bed at night. Should the nap be moved or the bedtime?

Yes, if you don’t nap in phase of your biologic rhythms, it’s not as restorative. It can mess up schedules. If a child needs a nap between 12 and 2 p.m. and doesn’t get it, it makes more sense to put that child down earlier than to try to sneak in a nap.

What are the some of the other big “offenses” well-meaning parents are making in the sleep wars?

“The most important thing is to get Dads on board.” Failing to distinguish between prevention of sleeping problems and treatment. You can prevent all sleeping problems, if you start early, get Dads involved, put them down drowsy . . . Treatment may or may not involve some crying, but prevention doesn’t involve crying except in a rare post-colicky fit. A lot of parents, the focus is on “when do I just let my child cry?”, but the real issue is, “how do I get my child to sleep better without crying?”

So do you think for parents to really get a handle on sleep issues, they should buy one of these books, before they have the baby?

A mother who is postpartum should not attempt to read a book. She’s recovering, she’s been through labor and delivery. Maybe there are issues of prematurity, breastfeeding, C-section that could linger on postpartum. The most important thing is to get Dads on board; reading, heavy lifting, make sure mother and child are getting good sleep. You can read maybe a chapter or two to maybe understand why good sleep is important . . . in the first week or two or month. That’s enough. Once your baby’s born, it will all gel together, and you’ll know why it’s so important. I don’t think they should read a lot before the baby’s born, but reading some makes it so much easier.

What are the best reasons to get kids in a good routine and develop those healthy sleep habits?

If you can remember that sleep helps the brain to develop then that is the best reason to get kids in a good sleeping routine. If you protect sleeping habits, in the same way you protect other health habits – you encourage handwashing, you encourage teeth brushing, you encourage wearing a helmet when a child is on a bike, you buckle up their seatbelts – you’re teaching them health habits that span their whole life. It’s not a one-time deal.

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