Celebrity Sleep Expert Dr Harvey Karp Answers Your Questions

Madonna and Kate Middleton are rumoured to be amongst the sleep expert's fans...

Dr Harvey Karp sleep questions

by Rhiannon Evans |
Updated on

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Dr Harvey Karp is a best-selling author of multiple baby books and a world-renowned expert in infant sleep.

Hollywood A Listers like Madonnaare amongst those who are believed to be his clients - and Kate Middleton is said to be a fan of his books.

So, this World Sleep Day, we asked Dr Karp to solve some of your infant sleep dilemmas...

My nearly two-year-old wakes at 5am every day and won’t go back to sleep – help!

The most common reasons early birds pop awake too soon:

They’re going to bed too early

They’re napping too much. If your little one is taking an afternoon nap that lasts more than two hours, begin shortening the nap by gently waking them 15 minutes early. Also, waking too early may be a sign that your tot is ready to drop a nap (go from two naps to one or from one to none).

They’re waking up with the morning lights and sounds. (See tips in my answer below about helping children sleep later.)

They naturally don’t need very much sleep. If this is the case, establish some clear, consistent limits for the mornings—for example, they can get out of their bed and play quietly, but they can’t leave the room until their ready-to-rise light turns green. Or your rule could be that they must stay in bed/their room until Mommy or Daddy comes to get them. You can even have a star chart that keeps track of that cooperation (and other special little behaviours you want to encourage).

How do I move my baby into my toddler’s room? They need to share asap.

For your baby, the transition is pretty easy — the key is to spend more time in Baby’s new room leading up to the transition and continuing to use their beloved sleep cues.

Your toddler, on the other hand, may need a little more help with this big adjustment though! From your tot’s perspective, you’re giving up some of their precious property to a new space-invader. To make the transition go smoothly, prepare your toddler in advance. You could role play what it looks like using dolls or stuffed animals (you can read about how to teach side-door lessons with role-play here). Help your toddler feel like they’re involved by letting them have some say. Maybe they get to pick out new big brother or big sister bedding. Or maybe you give them a “big-kid” job at bedtime, like getting the baby’s diapers, singing a special lullaby, or sharing a special story with their tiny sibling.

Establish clear, consistent boundaries around bedroom behaviour—for example, “only Mommy or Daddy get to lift Baby out of the crib” or “once the lights are off, we all need to be super-duper quiet like a mouse!” When your toddler succeeds, “gossip” about it to your partner or a teddy bear (“Wow, Sarah was so nice to Baby Brother. She was so quiet in the morning and so careful not to wake him up! That made Mommy so happy!”)

My four year old who never wanted to sleep with us, wakes every night saying she’s scared and wants to sleep in our bed. If we take her back, she wakes again. Will she grow out of this and why now all of a sudden?

To many little kids, a dark bedroom can seem like a scary cave. Parents are often surprised to learn that bed-sharing increases with age! At 3 years, 22% of kids are doing it; and at 4 years, 38% bed-share at least once a week. Even 10–15% of preschoolers still routinely bed-share.

Your tot will handle her new independence better if you can show her that it’s a cozy nest instead. Ease the transition to bedtime by dimming the lights and playing soft white noise (like rain on the roof) an hour before it’s time to snooze, so the switch from bright light to darkness is not so abrupt. For the first three or four nights, sleep next to her bed all night. Once she’s sleeping well in her bed, move your sleeping bag or mattress two feet away from the bed. When she’s okay with that, move halfway to the door for a few days…then next to the door…then just outside the door. Check in on her every 10 to 15 minutes after lights-out to reassure her that you’re still thinking of her. Once she’s ready to stay in her room on her own, keep the door open.

Be flexible. You may make progress, but then have a couple of rough nights when things slide back again. That’s okay. Being alone for even five minutes can be hard for a fearful child, and your most important goal is to lower your sweetie’s anxiety level and help her feel safe enough to start enjoying bedtime again. And, don’t make a big deal about her success! This can backfire by making your child feel more pressured because it is obviously so important to you. It may also make her feel like a failure if she backslides a bit. So be positive, but understated.

My four year old can’t fall asleep and still comes into our bed every night. Help!

For help weaning from bed-sharing, take a look at the response above.

Another tried-and-true method to help toddlers fall asleep is Twinkle Interruptus. For a week, use white noise from 7 p.m. to morning, dim the lights a hour before bedtime, and offer your child a teddy bear or carry around a blankie, and practice Patience-Stretching during the day.

Then after you have cuddled up and read a couple of stories or sung some lullabies, suddenly say “Wait! Wait! Just one second! I need to check daddy! I’ll be right back!”. Leave the room for a few seconds and come back. Come back and praise your child for waiting. Then after a bit, leave again (“Mommy has to go to the bathroom really, really fast!”). You’ll repeat this, gradually increasing the waiting intervals.

Where/in what should second baby sleep in downstairs for naps when my toddler is around?

Your baby should sleep on a firm, flat surface—not in a swing, car seat, or on a pillow (I’m partial to SNOO, a safe-for-sleep and smart bassinet that automatically responds to fussing with soothing white noise and rocking…it’s great for naps and nighttime sleep). With a toddler around, you should make sure it’s something sturdy, so it doesn’t topple easily when a curious tyke wants to peek in on Baby Bro or Sis (lots of parents tell us that SNOO’s sturdiness has given them great peace of mind!). You’ll also want to pick a sleeping space where you can block out daylight (even a little bit of light can disturb your lovebug’s naps) and use white noise.

My seven-month old will not be soothed in her cot, send help!

In a baby’s first 3 months of life (the 4th trimester), womb-like sensations trigger their calming reflex and can be used to soothe them back to sleep…and I’ve found the best way to imitate the womb is with the 5 S’s (swing, swaddle, shush, hold in the stomach/side position, and suck). By 7 months, your baby will have outgrown the calming reflex, yet sleep cues are still hugely helpful for boosting sleep. White noise can be especially helpful! As the months pass, your infant is getting more and more interested in the world. And that nosiness means that she’s much more likely to pop awake from any little distraction (outside sounds, bright light from the hallway, teething discomfort, a little gas, etc.). And if her room is totally quiet, she’ll fill that silence with a yell for you to come cuddle her or to play. These middle-of- the-night wakings are especially common after you take away the comforting snuggle of the swaddling blanket. However, if you’re playing familiar white noise sounds, your little princess may not even notice the disturbance. And even if she is awakened, she’s much more likely to dive right back into sleep if she is surrounded by the reassuring rumble of white noise.

What’s the best way to get a child to sleep later in the morning?

Use blackout curtains to shut out the sun’s first rays. The early morning light can filter through closed eyes, turning off their melatonin (our body’s natural sleep hormone) and turning on their circadian rhythm alarm clock. Also, white noise helps obscure the early morning sounds of chirping birds, barking dogs, traffic, and the neighbours. And sometimes the sound even helps a baby successfully ignore the early morning light.

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