What Parents Should Know About Newborns and Sleep

April 25, 2018

There’s a lot to learn for parents when it comes to newborns and sleep. Learning about sleep and its importance for kids of all ages is important for proper growth and development phyiscally and mentally.

A cute one year old baby girl is yelling and crying in her bedroom crib, trying to climb out at nap time.

Newborns and Sleep

At this point in my career, I could not even estimate the number of lectures that I have done on sleep. Amazingly though, I cannot recall a single lecture when I wasn’t asked what to do about parent’s sleep with newborn babies to toddlers. My answer never gets a standing ovation because; “it depends” is a pretty weak answer for any “expert”. When I put on my doctor hat, I say: parental rotation is paramount. This is often true whether you crib train or co-sleep with your child. There are pros and cons for any plan, but there are so many variables, that I often answer the question off-line (after the lecture).

Some couples sleep very well with their newborn in their bed. But, often I find that fathers can’t—out of fear of crushing their baby during the night (I was one of those fathers). Sometimes the mother sleeps better, and hardly notices suckling, and sometimes she’s more exhausted because of the frequency of waking. Obviously, the bigger the parents, the smaller the bed, the greater the number of children . . .  and so on complicate the issue further. However, ancestrally humans obviously lived this way for millennia. But, our ancestors didn’t have the same limitations about how long they could lay around as we do. So, if your lifestyle supports it, and you feel passionate about it, it may be the perfect solution.

The alternative is crib-training—which was first popularized in the 70’s and is simply some sort of extinction training (google search: Dr. Spock), to teach your young baby how to self sooth, so that mom and dad get to sleep through the night. Often times this is thought of as too harsh, and causes great cognitive dissonance in the parent’s psyche. I have 3 teenagers, and my wife and I experimented with both methods, with all 3 children, and no 2 children ended up with the same routine.

Figure out what is best for you and feel free to blend any variables that improve everybody’s sleep. My only caution is to not go more than 3 consecutive nights with poor sleep. If this happens, your ability to be the loving, compassionate, vibrant parent that you want to be will very likely be compromised. Making a schedule where at least one parent is getting great sleep each night is the best—in my opinion. For those that may struggle with some emotionality about not being the one to sooth your child, using our sleep supplement on your “great sleep nights” may be a helpful adjunct.


School-Aged Children and Sleep

There is a good reason why we had rug time in kindergarten, and there is ample evidence that continuing school naps would likely improve our children’s cognitive, emotional, physical, and social development. But, I believe that horse is so far out of the barn that we will never see it again.

However, if your grade-schooler is getting 10-12 hours of sleep per night, you likely have little to worry about the lack of naps—even though naps would be better. The problems really begin at adolescents, which isn’t actually a very well-defined term. A rough working definition of it is: beginning in pre-pubescents (just as circadian rhythms are beginning to shift—due to hormones) and extending until the pre-frontal cortex is fully formed (to read more about that look at my blog. Unfortunately, due to our modern environment pre-pubescents are beginning earlier and earlier—about 4 years earlier in the past 30 years.

Adolescent Sleep

So, that leads us to our biggest dilemma; what to do about adolescents? There are dozens of organizations trying to push back school start times for middle and high schools. The research is overwhelming, that we are putting our children in an un-winnable situation by having them start school so early. A study by Dr. Kyla Wahlstrom demonstrated significant improvements in academic performance, attendance, alertness, and decreased depression by pushing back 7 high school start times 1.5 hours. This is primarily due to the circadian shift that happens during adolescents. They are not being rebellious (at least not exclusively). Their biological clocks have actually shifted organically. It would be no different if we expected adults to wake up at 3 AM and start working at 4 AM. We would NEVER get used to that. Very few—if an—adolescents are ready to learn before 8:30-9:00 AM. Yet, a poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 87% of high school students wake up before 8 AM for school.

Teenage Coping

Our smart and ambitious children have found ways to cope with this. But, I’ll let you be the judge if it seems like a good idea. Amy Wolf, Ph.D. published a paper that documented the following; 20-45% of 8-12th graders drink “energy drinks”, 25% smoke cigarettes, and 75% use caffeine daily (which is a 70% increase from 30 years ago). Compare this to the problems that most parents are worried most about: 20% smoke marijuana and 42% report having had alcohol. While I do not think caffeine is evil per se, I know my generation usually didn’t need to resort to such measures until college or grad school. What will be left for our children at these milestones? Data already suggest that approximately 75% of college kids are using Adderall.

Can Parents Make a Difference?

First, I suggest that nobody else is positioned to make a difference, and my first encouragement would be to join one of the many organizations that are trying to change school start times (www.startschoollater.net is a good place to start). Secondly, it’s time to be “that” parent, the unpopular one, the strict one. Charles Cziezler reports that having no enforced bedtime will result in approximately 90 minutes less sleep for your teenager, and most teenagers are getting about 2.5 hours less than they need. Having a TV in their room results in an extra 3 hours per day of recreational media, and late-night texting correlates well with worse grades. Thirdly, when having to be “that” parent remind yourself of Dr. Jason Ellis’ research, where he submits that chronic sleep deprivation is the best predictor of having a major depressive episode, and another National Sleep Foundation poll showed that 73% of adolescents that reported depressive symptoms also reported chronic sleep deprivation. Maybe not cause and effect, but hard to imagine there isn’t a significant co-morbid effect there.

Adolescent Sleep Solutions

In hindsight, this should have been about 3 blogs, and perhaps we will revisit this topic again, but here are some hard and fast solutions to mitigating your child’s suffering from unrealistic school schedules.

  1. Set a hard bedtime. This cannot be too early, because they simply will not be able to fall asleep at 10 PM. Depending on your child’s schedule 11 or 12 is more realistic.
  2. Encourage your child to take a nap after school (approximately 90 minutes)
  3. Turn off your internet at your child’s bedtime
  4. Put all charging devices (phones, tablets, notebooks, etc.) in a central charging station (we use the kitchen counter).
  5. Talk to your child about their sleep, and the importance of good sleep
  6. Talk to your child about depressive symptoms
  7. Talk to your child about stimulant use, and stop using their afternoon.
  8. Ideally, get all electronics out of their rooms, and have a totally dark, cool home from their bedtime until their wake-time
  9. Mom and Dad get GREAT sleep to improve your ability to handle the additional stress of managing all of this. Again: consider our supplement HERE
  10. Be patient and understanding. Realize that they are still kids, and they do not understand the world in adult ways yet.


***One final note: I am often asked if our sleep supplement is okay for teenagers. Officially, my lawyers say: no research has been done to answer this question. My unofficial answer is: my kids use it from time to time, and I feel fine about it, but you are the parent, and the choice is yours***

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