Top 10 Books on Children and Sleep

Top 10 Books on Children and Sleep

By Hilary Levey Friedman

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I’ve always been jealous of people who seem to be able to exist on five or six hours of sleep each night. I regularly need at least eight and while I know how important sleep is for my brain and my body—two authors on this list refer to it as nutrition for your brain—I can’t help but wonder what I could do with those extra hours of wakefulness. While pregnant, and petrified of what sleep deprivation might do to me, I actually avoided books about infant sleep. Plus, as we know, the advice is often contradictory! The one thing I did do was watch the DVD of The Happiest Baby on the Block (during which my husband fell asleep). Dr. Harvey Karp’s advice made intuitive sense to me so I decided to stop there.

Thankfully I was able to help my children become good sleepers rather quickly, so after the fact I became fascinated by sleep for children, reading books for newborns and beyond. While newborn sleep is a source of desperation and debate for many, and advice is often contradictory, most books agree on several points, like cautioning against co-sleeping in bed at the newborn stage and the importance of consistency and routine. On other points they routinely disagree, like about white noise (super important they say, but then disagree on what type), dream/slumber feeding, etc. While most books on children’s sleep focus on infants, it’s important to remember that while it is the foundation, sleep remains enormously important through childhood and adolescence as the brain continues to develop. The brain and sleep are intimately linked, as the best of the books below explain. I recommend you take a look at these after a good night’s rest…

Snooze… Or Lose! 10 “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen’s Sleep Habits by Helene Emsellem

Choosing to start a list like this with the issue of adolescent sleep might surprise you. Most parents usually worry most about infant sleep. But it’s for just this reason that I lead with Snooze… Or Lose! Learning good sleep habits is very important for all of childhood, but once puberty hits bodies change, along with the brain. Emsellem clearly explains that teens don’t stay up late just to defy you or exert their independence; instead, due to the delayed daily release of melatonin it is actually difficult for them to fall asleep before midnight. Combine that with earlier than ever high school start times, 24/7 connectedness, and competitive academic and extracurricular environments, and you have the recipe for tired, grouchy teens. Emsellem’s advice concerns children aged 11-22 and she describes how to determine if your child has a severe sleep issue, what treatments are available (light therapy and melatonin pills), and how you can take action to get school start times later. She describes the work of a group of parents in Wilton, Connecticut to get school start times later (fun fact, this town is the home base for Brain, Child!)

The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Newborn Baby Sleep Longer by Harvey Karp

When people ask me to recommend one book to new and expectant parents, this is my go-to title. The Happiest Baby on the Block specifically addresses the first three months of your child’s life, what Dr. Karp terms the “fourth trimester.” He entertainingly explains why humans have children at nine months rather than at twelve, grounding his argument about brain size in evolutionary and anthropological research. The sentiment and tone of the book is captured here: “The hard work of imitating the uterus was the price our Stone Age relatives accepted in exchange for having safer early deliveries. However, in recent centuries, many parents have tried to wriggle out of this commitment to their babies.” In order to imitate the uterus until an infant becomes less like a fetus and more like a baby, Karp lays out a plan based on the 5 S’s: swaddle, side/stomach, shhh, swing, and suck. You need to get the calming reflex just so for it to work, but when you do it’s like your crying baby has flipped a switch.

Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child by Marc Weissbluth

Dr. Weissbluth of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine is a grandfatherly figure when it comes to infant sleep. Nearly every book on this list recommends his book, originally published in 1987 and most recently updated in 2009. Weissbluth popularized the term “sleep training,” though of course not everyone agrees on when that training should begin (though most exhausted parents agree that at some point it must happen). Healthy Sleep Habits, Healthy Child is the longest book on this list, with nearly 500 pages of advice, so you will want to keep it handy as a reference and not as bedtime reading. The 2009 edition discusses sleep issues past infancy and toddlerhood, but with only 30 pages covering the ages of 3-18 you will want to turn to others for additional advice. [Note that the dearth of good advice on sleep for those aged 6-13 is noticeable across the board.] If you have twins, Dr. Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Twins, also published in 2009, is a must read.

Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Richard Ferber

In some circles the real “F” word is “Ferberize.” Despite critics, Dr. Ferber’s 1985 book has become the all-time best-selling book on infant sleep. The most recent 2006 edition continues to focus on newborns and the practice of gradual “extinction” to help children sleep through the night. While the Ferber method has often been boiled down to a few paragraphs, or even three letters if you read many Internet sites (“CIO,” or “Cry It Out”) this hundreds-of-pages book is obviously far more nuanced. My children’s pediatrician, Jeffrey Zaref, astutely says of Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, “Dr. Ferber’s book is often misquoted or misunderstood, but when read in its entirety with parent buy-in, I think it is useful and smart.” A good reminder that no matter what you have heard, it is best to read a book yourself and come to your own conclusions while deciding what is right for your child and family.

The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night by Elizabeth Pantley

Published in 2002 and seen as a response to the Ferber/Weissbluth methods, Pantley’s book is a direct descendant of William Sears’ work on attachment parenting (in fact, he writes the Preface). The title of this book sounds inviting, right?! Of course it’s not so simple, but many swear by Pantley’s suggestions. The main premise is that a baby should not cry alone in a crib; this is easier said than done, as Pantley admits when one of the chapters talks about a ten day plan, or longer. The method requires persistency, which can be difficult in an exhausted phase, so best to read this one before baby arrives.

On Becoming Baby Wise: Giving Your Infant the Gift of Nighttime Sleep by Gary Ezzo and Robert Bucknam

This is a perennial favorite, especially among many Brain, Child readers. As the authors write, the book isn’t about giving a lists of dos and don’ts, but about preparing our minds for the task of raising a child (the authors even know that our minds change after a child arrives, so in the appendix when they provide a checklist two boxes are listed—one for when you read it before a baby arrives and one for after when you are actually trying to implement the suggestions). Baby Wise’s middle of the road approach which they link to eating and routines, and call Parent-Directed Feeding, is based on a sample of 520 families who have tried their method. Their perspective is captured in this observation, “All babies will experience the same merges, but they do not experience them at the same time.” Their analysis of previous parenting techniques, like behaviorism, will interest parents interested in social science.

The Good Sleeper: The Essential Guide to Sleep for Your Baby (and You) by Janet Krone Kennedy

Several new baby sleep books are forthcoming in 2015. Of the lot I suggest The Good Sleeper for three reasons: 1) It draws on many other books on this list, 2) The science of what we know about baby brain development and scientific sleep is clearly explained, and 3) The author’s writing is clear and concise (though her matter-of-fact tone may not appeal to all readers). Kennedy’s focus on translating science into practical parenting tips is indicative of the way parenting books are moving on a variety of topics. The best summary of the philosophy of this book is captured here, “The point is that there are constant transient stressors in childhood. I consider sleep training to be one of those, but it is a stressor that has a huge positive side. The chronic stress of sleep deprivation—on the child and on the parents—creates a far more disruptive developmental environment both physically and emotionally.”

The Happy Sleeper: The Science-Baked Guide to Helping Your Baby Ge a Good Night’s Sleep—Newborn to School Age by Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright

In many ways, in terms of the topics it covers—napping, nighttime sleep, typical routines, etc.—The Happy Sleeper is like many other baby sleep books. What sets it apart is that it is an up-to-date sleek version without too many words on the page, good illustrations and helpful highlighted boxes, and strategies for integrating technology; it also has a chapter on kids 2-6 making the book useful for longer. Turgeon and Wright try to stay away from controversial terms like “attachment” and “cry it out,” instead using terms like “attunement,” “soothing ladder,” and “sleep wave.” Like Book #9, The Happy Sleeper encourages parents not to interfere with babies too much because they are built to sleep and we should enable that rather than stand in the way. Helpful chapters in this book include chapters on parents’ sleep (trust me, there’s nothing worse than your 6-month-old sleeping through the night when you can’t!) the science of sleep, and tips on daylight savings time and time zone adjustments.

Welcome to Your Child’s Brain: How the Mind Grows from Conception to College by Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang

This book isn’t just about sleep—in fact, only Chapter 7, “Beautiful Dreamer, Ages Birth to Nine Years,” is. But this a very smart book, based in science research and writing, that will help you think about other developmental stages as well (I especially like the chapters on music and sports). Moreover, the authors are one of the few to address sleep during elementary school-aged children as well. As such the focus is on the scientific link between sleep and learning, like this sentence exploring why infants sleep so much, “The intense need for sleep early in life may be related to its importance in facilitating learning.” Although, as with the rest of Welcome to Your Child’s Brain, the message is not to stress too much as your child’s brain will almost always raise itself. You will find words like “suprachiasmatic nucleus” and “corticotropin-releasing hormone” here, but also familiar ones like naps and dreams.

Good Night Books for Kids

Even if none of the above work for you, or you decide to never read a sleep book, you and your family will almost certainly come to have a favorite goodnight book or two. We have consistently loved The Going to Bed Book by Sandra Boynton (I can recite it on command, trust me) and Time for Bed by Mem Fox. Good Night Moon also remains a perennial favorite. Bedtime is a wonderful time to establish family reading habits and rituals—ones that most likely will be passed on to future generations. And if all else fails you can always seek out Adam Mansbach’s new classic, Go the F**k to Sleep…

Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture. You may also like her review of Where Children Sleep.