When you're a new parent, sleep issues are just part of the deal -- an initiation ritual of sorts. Before baby arrives, everyone warns you about the mind-numbing fatigue you're in for, and after the birth they ask if you're getting any sleep over and over and over again.
Eventually, however, the dust settles and your baby starts to sleep through the night, or at least longer than an hour at a time, and some semblance of normalcy returns to your world and psyche.
But then -- bam! -- things change again.
"[When you your baby sleeps through the night] you think 'Oh my god! I made it!'" Rebecca Michi, a Seattle-based children's sleep consultant, told The Huffington Post. "But sleep is a constantly evolving thing."
Here's how to broach some of the big transitions sleep experts are asked about most often in slightly older children, so you can all return to a state of blissful, regular ZZZs... or something.
Moving from the crib to bed can happen anytime from about 18 months on, Michi said, which is tricky because it means a major change is happening smack-dab in the middle of toddlerhood, when children tend to be very physical, very opinionated and not especially receptive to reason, she warned. If your toddler is forcing the issue earlier than you'd like, you can try a sleep sack, Michi said, which might buy you a bit more time, as it makes climbing (or, let's be honest, hurling oneself) out of the crib much more difficult.
When you've decided it's time to make the move, the key is to really talk the whole idea up to your child, said Kim West -- the "Sleep Lady." In other words, sell them on it. "Talk about their room and how exciting it is that they're going to have this big bed," she told HuffPost (West generally recommends making the switch when kids are at least 2.5 years old, so they can really grasp the concept). Let them pick out their sheets, and then go over what she likes to call "sleep manners" -- "tell them they're going to stay in their comfy, snuggly bed all night long."
If your toddler is just too excited to fall asleep on his or her own the first few nights, West says it's okay for you to stay in the room while they wind down, but she cautions against laying down with them -- "because it's a slippery slope." If your child gets up to come see you, which is very likely, both West and Michi recommend being clear and consistent: Walk them back to their bed, tuck them in, tell them it's still time to sleep and leave. Repeat. In a few nights, they should get the idea that it's not okay to pop-up for regular middle-of-the-night gab sessions.
Between birth and six months, babies take up to five naps a day, according to West, then that number slowly decreases until most children drop naps altogether when they're 3 or 4.
Michi echoed that timeline -- and emphasized how difficult it can be for parents and caregivers to swallow. "The really tough one is when they drop that one nap, which can happen anytime between 3 and 5, although there are certainly still some kindergartners who nap," she said. "For parents, [it] isn't something we ever want to get rid of -- we savor and love that nap time." But older kids simply don't need as much sleep as their younger counterparts, and too much napping can really wreak havoc on nighttime sleep.
Rather than going cold turkey, Michi recommends slowly cutting the duration of your child's one remaining nap until it's about 30 minutes, then eliminating it altogether. "Then, I would insist on 'quiet time' every day," she said. "It's a time out -- a break." Quiet time might take place in the child's room, while he or she quietly colors, for example, or even sits in bed flipping through books. Start small, with just a few minutes, then work your way up, emphasizing that this is a time be calm and quiet and for everyone in the home to re-set.
"I think 30 minutes is a good amount of time," Michi said. "It's never going to be what it was when [he or she] took a really good nap, but 30 minutes is a good amount of time that they can manage."
While it's very likely that babies do dream, they generally don't develop fears until their toddler years -- at which point, many kiddos transition from nights that are generally pretty peaceful to nights regularly punctuated by scary dreams. At age 2 or 3, nightmares generally have to do with separating the imaginary world from the real world, West said, "so it's about understanding there are not monsters in the closet, or no, there's not going to be a lion that comes out of your closet." At older ages, like 6, 7 and 8, nightmares tend to be more focused on the outside world coming in (i.e., the presence of bad people or kidnappers, for instance) she explained. "Then of course there are pressures coming from school, or friends or sports -- especially if you have a child who is already anxious or sensitive," she added.
West recommends creating a worry box, where kids can write down and stash their fears, as well as working with them on thought replacement. "I tell kids, 'You don't want to fall back into your bad dream, so what I want you to do is throw it out, then you have to replace it with something else that makes you really happy -- maybe you need to think about your favorite beach, or your puppy,'" she said.
Michi added that it's important to explain to children what dreams are and that they are fleeting -- and to let them know that you have them as well.
"Talk to them about dreams you've had, and not just bad dreams, but sweet dreams," she said. "You're just letting them know that everyone has dreams, because if they're waking up scared in the middle of the night, they might think they're the only person going through that."
Of course, if it's something more serious, you should seek out a counselor, both experts urged. But generally, with a little bit of persistence and foresight, you and your kiddos really, truly will sleep again.
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