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What’s the “Right” Way to Sleep?

Image source: thinkstock
Image source: thinkstock

When I teach classes on baby and toddler sleep, parents often run their nighttime practices by me and ask if they’re “okay.” For example,

My toddler still nurses at night

My preschooler climbs into bed with us

My baby will only nap when I’m holding her

The question of whether a sleep routine is okay is fascinating to me. Is there a right way to sleep?

When you consider sleep across time and culture, it seems unlikely. For example, roughly 95 percent of Thai children sleep in the same room as their parents (in the U.S. it’s less than one quarter) and in Asian families overall, 65 percent of babies and toddlers share a bed with their parents.

In the U.S., the concept of a bedtime routine is so engrained it seems universal. But in some cultures — like the Guatemalan Mayan — there is no bedtime routine. No loveys and pajamas, or ceremony around going to bed; children fall asleep when they fall asleep.

So if sleep is culturally dependent and can’t be measured as right or wrong, the better question is how do you know if a sleep practice is right for you?

To answer this, I always ask parents two questions:

1. Is everyone actually sleeping?

This may seem like an obvious one, but you’d be surprised how often it doesn’t occur to moms and dads. Babies and little kids up to school age need about 11 hours of sleep at night, and adults 7-8. As parents, we need good sleep to be productive, emotionally balanced, and available for their children. Our sleep is important.

So, if your 4-year-old sneaks into your room at 3 AM and sleeps with you for the rest of the night without interrupting your sleep or his too much, that’s great. It sounds dreamy, actually. If your 4-year-old calls out at 3 AM and you have to make repeated trips to his bedroom, it’s likely to be cutting into your sleep needs, and his too.

2. Is it working for everyone in the family?

Often parents don’t take their own (or each other’s) feelings into consideration. If the family is sharing a room, do the parents have alone time in the evening? If one parent has to sleep in another room temporarily, is that okay with both parties? I’ve met lots of families in which one parent likes the baby in bed and other does not, one person likes a routine and other feels left out, and so forth. Have open conversations about how sleeping arrangements affect each family member. Make compromises and plans that value everyone’s experience.

The good news is that kids are built to adapt, and they are capable of sleeping well in most arrangements (again, consider culture and history) if parents are consistent. It’s a myth that changing a sleep pattern is impossible or that sleep always has to be a struggle.

Value your health and wellbeing, talk to each other and proactively decide how you’re going to arrange the night (instead of reacting to a problem in the moment), and in the end, let yourself be the judge of how you sleep.

Heather Turgeon is a psychotherapist and co-author of The Happy Sleeper: The Science-Backed Guide to Helping Your Baby Get a Good Night’s Sleep — Newborn to School Age (Penguin Random House).

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