Because I spend so much time with sleep deprived parents (and because I used to be one myself), I’m all too familiar with the guilt, defensiveness and sometimes even shame that can go along with having a child that doesn’t sleep. It’s no wonder! Parents are bombarded daily with information about what to do and what not to do when it comes to their child’s sleep. For some parents, the pressure from pediatricians, family and friends to “fix” things becomes so intense that they end up lying about their child’s sleep just to avoid having to listen to everyone tell them what they’re doing wrong and what they should be doing instead.
Here are 10 things that friends and family of sleep deprived parents should know.
1. Children’s sleep problems aren’t the result of bad parenting. It may be easy to assume that if a child isn’t sleeping well, their parents are somehow to blame. Not true. Sleep problems in babies and toddlers aren’t anybody’s “fault.” Some of the best parents I know, even those that have done everything “right,” have children that don’t sleep well.
2. Baby and child sleep problems are common. In fact, they’re probably much more common than you might think. Studies suggest that one of every three children will experience a sleep problem at some point during the first 10 years of life. Your daughter, sister, friend or co-worker isn’t the only one with a sleepless child. They may just be the only one talking about it.
3. Sleep deprived parents need empathy, not judgment. They are in survival mode and would give anything for 4 or 5 hours of uninterrupted sleep. Don’t judge. Listen, be supportive and understand that this problem is impacting their lives in ways you may not even be able to imagine. Parenting a poor sleeper is debilitating and can wear down even the most stoic mothers and fathers.
4. Don’t talk about your great sleeper in front of sleep deprived parents. Being reminded that other people’s children are sleeping for 12 hours straight doesn’t help and will probably make things worse. The next time the topic of sleep comes up at a family dinner or your weekly baby group, silently thank your lucky stars and resist the urge to talk about your picture perfect sleeper. Your sensitivity will be appreciated, I promise.
5. Just because something “worked” for your child doesn’t mean it will work for theirs. Every child and every circumstance is different. If every sleep problem had a “cookie cutter” solution, most families wouldn’t be struggling. Don’t offer your opinion unless they ask, and if they do, choose your words carefully. Advice can feel an awful lot like criticism, especially to someone who’s been been up half the night for months on end.
6. Don’t expect exhausted parents to read the books you give them about sleep. Most tired parents can barely drum up the energy to read their e-mails, let alone a 500 page book on the how to get their child to sleep through the night.
7. Don’t tell sleep deprived parents to tire their children out. Skipping naps and keeping children up extra late in the hopes that they’ll fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer will make sleep worse, not better. Overtired children have more difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Trust me on this one – it’s TRUE.
8. Don’t tell sleep deprived parents to put rice cereal in their baby’s bottle. Solid food isn’t the key to a good night’s sleep, and putting cereal in a bottle can be a choking hazard. If their pediatrician hasn’t recommended it, you shouldn’t either.
9. Don’t tell sleep deprived parents to switch from breast milk to formula. Breastfed babies are just as capable of sleeping well as formula fed babies.
10. Respect sleep deprived parent’s decision to sleep train – or NOT sleep train. Making the decision to sleep train or not to sleep train isn’t an easy one. Whatever your friend or loved one decides to do, be supportive. Understand that no matter what you think about their decision, it’s the right one for their child and their family at this time.