Teaching Babies to Self-Regulate Themselves to Sleep

When you're this little, even a toy cubby makes a good space to curl up for a nap.

When you're this little, even a toy cubby makes a good space to curl up for a nap.

;By Shari Karmen, TLC Therapeutic Services Manager & Occupational Therapist

Sleep is so important to our everyday wellbeing. Babies, children, and adults all need sleep, along with food, to be self-regulated. Self-regulation is the ability to manage emotions and control body functions as well as maintain focus and attention. Self-regulation happens differently over the many stages of our lifespan. Self-regulation in an infant encompasses how an infant deals with a disruption (for example, a loud television) and regains control of their behavior so they can focus on what they're doing (nursing, eating, playing, etc.). In a preschooler self-regulation looks at how a child plays with others, learns to share and take turns.

If a child doesn’t have a healthy sleep and waking pattern, it makes it hard for them to learn. In babies we tend to see two issues with sleep that can cause problems with self-regulation:

1.    Fragmented sleep – many short periods of sleep, but not good long sleep cycles and

2.    Too much sleep, especially during the day. This frequently suggests a developmental issue. Daytime is when sensory stimulation occurs and the sleeping baby is not stimulated.

Parents and caregivers play a vital role in how babies learn to sleep. The amount of support given in the beginning impacts how much caregiver involvement is needed later on. This means if we teach babies early how to fall asleep in a healthy, self-regulating manner, the better off they are for sleep learning. It’s important for the caregiver to recognize:

–   Their decreased role in helping a baby to sleep;

–   Recognizing sleep cues and conditioning;

–   The infant's ability to self-regulate.

Having a consistent place to sleep is another important key to sleeping. Young infants have few self-regulatory behaviors, but as we teach them self-soothing techniques – pacifier, lovey – they become more competent self-soothers. Crying it out doesn’t work because babies don’t have the skills to self-regulate, calm, and then fall asleep on their own.

In the first few months of life babies show clear signs of sleepiness:

–   Yawning

–   Glazed eyes

–   Rubbing eyes

–   Heavy eyelids

–   Decreased sucking during feeding

–   No, or less, interest in interacting

–   Turning away from stimulation in the environment

–   Body movements become less organized

–   Fussy behavior

It’s important to recognize these cues and respond to them while the “sleep gate” is open. If you don’t catch the sleep cues within 15 minutes, “tired is wired.”

Place a drowsy baby in the crib and stay close by without touching the baby. A self-regulating baby will suck fingers, look around and then fall asleep. If the baby cries, wait for a time and then approach with a comforting voice.

If your baby continues to cry, approach and pat, but don’t pick up. Provide reassurance with your voice. If crying persists, re-enter the sleeping area with a “boring” visit. Stand close by, but don’t interact with the baby.

Encourage naps when babies are full. It’s easier to fall asleep with a full belly rather than after a baby has been stimulated with play. Between 6-8 months separation anxiety is heightened so parents are encouraged to move baby out of their room before this period if they are sharing a room.

Routines create predictable patterns. Babies with bedtime routines develop into toddlers and preschoolers with predictable bedtime routines. Sleep in the same location every night. Start to power down an hour before bedtime. Read books, play soft music, have a small snack, and other calming activities are pieces you can add to a bedtime routine.  Developing a consistent bedtime routine is key!

Happy sleeping!

Read more about cultivating healthy sleep habits in children:

Zzz! The Active “Sleeping” Brain 

By Brenda Lord, TLC Preschool Teacher

Sometimes you're too tired to even make it onto your nap mat before Zzz

Sometimes you're too tired to even make it onto your nap mat before Zzz

Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are busy people. Parents and teachers alike know that young children can be constantly in motion as they learn to move through and explore the world around them. As children are engaging with their surroundings, their brains are flooded with new information. We all know that sleep is important, and many assume that sleep is critical for resting our bodies, especially for active toddlers. However, research indicates that this is not the case. 

Building Brains

Surprisingly, the brain is more active when one is sleeping than awake! When young children and adults are sleeping, their brains are busy building and strengthening connections within the brain. Words, movements, and ideas that are introduced to children while they are awake get built into more permanent knowledge while they are asleep. If children or adults are deprived of sleep, research indicates that learning simply can’t happen. Also, when you are tired, your brain is not as good at filtering out distractions and focusing on tasks. Loss of sleep in both children and adults hurts attention, working memory, mood, quantitative skills, logical reasoning, and physical movement. 

Naps improve the brain’s day to day performance. These short bursts of sleep are critical for developing bodies and brains. The information from children’s rich and social learning environments in the mornings can be solidified into lasting memories during their afternoon naps. 

Creating Good Sleepers at Home

Many children thrive on routines and structure. Recognizing this, the TLC classrooms have well-established routines around quiet time. Children are used to having quiet time at the same time each day in a darkened environment with cozy blankets and relaxing music. Their bodies become accustomed to slowing down at this designated time. Establishing nighttime routines at home might make evenings more relaxed and getting children to sleep more successful. Taking baths, reading books, and snuggling together might be part of your bedtime routines. In addition, deep pressure exercises and calming yoga poses can be effective at quieting young bodies. Doctors also recommend that children should not have any screen time—computers, TV, video games, cell phones—at least an hour before bedtime. These video screens produce blue light which affects melatonin production, a hormone that signals your body that it is time to sleep. Creating and sticking to structured bedtime routines is important for helping children establish positive, lifelong sleeping habits. 

Napping is for Everyone!

Lastly, some great news for adults! Those naps that we envy our wobblers and toddlers taking are just as productive and valuable for adults. In one study, a 26-minute nap improved NASA pilots’ performance by 34 percent. Unlike our children, adults, unfortunately, are rarely able to have an afternoon snooze. Even though biologically our brains are programmed to slow down between 2-4 pm, work schedules and the realities of life usually make naps prohibitive. When you get the afternoon slump, recognize that this is normal. Nap if you are able; otherwise, try not to schedule important meetings at 3 p.m. Your body will thank you. 

Encouraging Self-Directed Learning in Kids

by Amanda Boldenow, TLC Development Manager & Parent

Cultivating curiosity and independence in children are the first steps to helping children become self-directed learners. Self-directed learners know how to use resources to find answers to questions or to learn skills to solve problems. Self-directed learners do not need micro-managing from an adult to help them complete tasks or projects, (but it's important to recognize the difference between asking for assistance from an adult to complete a task and relying on an adult  to make sure the task is completed).

Self-directed learning is not a trait that some children are born with and others aren't; it is a skill that can be taught and nurtured in all children from a young age. So how can you help a child become a self-directed learner? Below are a few steps you can take to help a child gain independence and drive: 

Have Patience and Remember Kids are Capable

When a child is struggling to complete a task, whether the task is tying their shoes or a math problem, it can be tempting to step in and complete it for them, thinking we are "helping" by showing them how the task is done properly. To help kids discover their own capabilities, have patience as they struggle through something new and difficult. Let them make a wrong turn in pursuit of figuring out a problem, and be there to encourage and advise as they wrestle with the difficulty. Ask questions, such as: "What do you think would happen if we tried it another way?" "Where could you look to find help figuring this out?" "Where could you go to learn more about that?"

Encourage Effort Over Success

Studies have shown that children who are praised for their effort at completing a task, rather than completing the task itself, are more likely to put effort into future difficult situations. Praising success in children can teach children that success, rather than the process of learning something new, is what is valued, and thereby make them afraid of failing at future endeavors. Children who are afraid of failing are less likely to try something new, whereas children who are praised for effort are encouraged to continue putting forth effort into new and increasingly difficult challenges.

Connect Play Time to Learning Experiences

Nurture a child's interest by connecting what they enjoy to the wider world. If a child likes building, help them expand on their interest by introducing engineering and architectural concepts. If a child likes sculpting with clay, help them explore structures that animals sculpt in nature, like swallow's nests or bee hives. 

Allow for Free Play

It's also important to remember that children inherently learn while playing, so allow time for uninterrupted, unstructured play, where children can fully use and explore their imaginations and creativity.

Create Opportunities for Exploration

Creating opportunities for children to learn can be as easy as leaving paper and colored pencils in easy reach for children to use when inspiration strikes. It can entail making sure that utensils for making a bowl of cereal are in easy reach so children can learn to take care of themselves, and take pride in their independent skill. 

Nurturing self-directed learning is a combination of allowing for free and loosely-guided play and activities. Children thrive in routines, but making sure that their routines include open-ended exploration fueled by their own curiosity can help lead to independent kids with a life-long love of learning.

Teaching Handwriting in the Digital Age: Is it Worth it?

by Christy Griffith, TLC Occupational Therapist

In the age of technology with kids texting, clicking, and typing on a computer from a young age, do we really need to continue focusing on teaching good handwriting?  Many schools have decreased their focus on teaching this skill, and many no longer teach cursive letters at all. However, current research shows that handwriting is still a crucial skill and offers great advantages to those children who do practice and master both printing and cursive writing.

Here are some of the top reasons to make sure your child learns to write properly by hand:

It improves their brains. Research has shown that children  who have formal handwriting training learn their letters faster,  have improved language fluency, and  their acquired knowledge becomes more stable. Handwriting training also helps coordinate the right and left sides of the brain, stimulates intelligence, and builds pathways in the brain that improve mental effectiveness. Handwriting engages different brain circuits than keyboarding does. Children who received structured handwriting instruction and practice regularly had brain scans that looked more similar to an adult’s than their peers who did not participate in handwriting instruction.

  • Cursive handwriting is faster. Studies show that cursive handwriting is faster than printing or keyboarding, so allows children to write better. Research has shown that elementary students tend to write more complete sentences, give longer answers, and complete their work more quickly when they use cursive writing. High school and college students can take notes during class lectures faster as well.

  • It improves the memory and understanding of content. Just the physical act of writing something down, whether it is a list, a sticky note to ourselves, or notes in class, improves our ability to remember what we wrote down. And when our handwriting is efficient and effortless, we can focus more on the content of what we are writing rather than the physical act of forming the letters. This comes with lots of practice, which is not always provided in school to the necessary levels.

  • Some things still require handwriting, like taking notes in some classes, exams such as SAT still have essay portions that are completed by hand, some college professors and teachers still require handwritten assignments, tasks such as writing checks, medical prescriptions, quick lists or reminder notes, etc. are usually still completed by hand. Legibility is very important for these types of tasks. Students score higher grades and test scores when teachers can easily read their handwriting.

At TLC, our preschool classrooms offer age appropriate pre-writing activities in fun, multisensory ways to introduce letters, drawing and writing to children. Our teachers utilize the Handwriting Without Tears curriculum as well.  On-site occupational therapists help children learn to write both print and cursive, and improve handwriting delays in children ages 5-12.