When raising children, structure is everything. A routine gives your little ones a sense of security and allows you to better organize and manage your time. At the same time, you also need room for flexibility to respond to your little one’s changing needs and life’s naturally evolving demands.

Harbor recently spoke with Dr. Judith Owens, a pediatric sleep specialist and pediatrician with nearly 40 years of experience, including raising kids of her own! Dr. Owens clarified three common misconceptions about what “good” sleep looks like in children and offered guidance for navigating sleep regressions. 

The secret to it all is balancing structure with flexibility, all centered around your child’s unique needs. As a parent, you can anticipate that your child will experience changes in sleep habits. The best way to get through it all? Stay resilient and stick to your existing routine.



Read on for Dr. Owens’ insights.

3 Pediatric Sleep Myths

Myth #1: “Sleeping through the night” means a child doesn’t wake up at all during the night

Dr. Owens says that a primary misconception she encounters is that “sleeping through the night” means sleeping with no wakings whatsoever. 

“I think parents are very surprised to hear that it’s normal for infants, toddlers, and beyond to wake up periodically during the night,” she says, clarifying that it’s actually quite common. “Younger children wake more frequently because their sleep cycle is shorter. They’ll wake up at the end of a sleep cycle and it might be five or six times a night. That’s not poor quality sleep, that’s normal.”

Myth #2: All night wakings require a caregiver’s support

While your instinct might be to rush to your little one’s side each time they wake up, intervening every time can actually work against independent sleep, says Dr. Owens. The conditions your child needs to fall back to sleep following a normal night waking will likely be the same ones that they needed to fall asleep at bedtime.. “If they fall asleep with the parent rocking or holding or patting them, then they’re going to need those same conditions [to fall back asleep] when they wake up,” she explains. 

Myth #3: Bursts of energy mean your child is overtired

Recognizing when your little one is ready for bed is more complicated than it seems. “There’s something called the forbidden zone or the second wind phenomenon,” Dr. Owens says. “That’s the period of time an hour or so before our brains are ready to fall asleep when we have a surge of energy.”

The reason for this second wind is rooted in the circadian system. Our sleep drive builds throughout the day and becomes stronger the longer we’re awake.. “In order for us to be able to stay awake a bit longer close to bedtime, our circadian alertness drive kicks in,” she says. Parents will often interpret this second wind as their child being overtired. Rather than adjusting your routine to put your little one to sleep before they hit their second wind, “the answer is usually to wait until after that burst of energy subsides to  put them to bed,” Dr. Owens explains.

4 sleep training recommendations for parents

Having addressed common misconceptions about childrens’ sleep needs, Dr. Owens shared strategies for nurturing healthy sleep habits in little ones, regardless of their developmental stage:

1. Tune into your child’s unique patterns

“I’ve seen many families who are very concerned because their infant or toddler isn’t sleeping exactly the amount of sleep that some recommendation says they should,” Dr. Owens says. “You need to put that information into context.”

Every person is different, and that includes children. There will always be a range in the amount of sleep someone needs in order to function at their best.The guidelines per age are very helpful but not exact!

Dr. Owens encourages families who may be concerned that their little ones aren't getting enough sleep to look for signs of insufficient sleep. That can look like difficulty waking up in the morning or sleeping longer when given the opportunity (like on weekends). She also notes that sleepiness can manifest as mood and behavioral dysregulation in kids. “children can  react to an internal feeling of sleepiness by acting out, or being irritable and whiney” she explains.

2. Stick to a sleep schedule

Resist the temptation to let your little one sleep in on weekends. Keeping the same sleep schedule seven days a week can help your little one get better and more consistent sleep. 

At the same time, your sleep schedule should be built around your child’s natural patterns. Dr. Owens says that while most children are morning larks, going to bed earlier and waking earlier, there are some who are on the night owl end of the spectrum, having a natural tendency to fall asleep later and wake up later.

“Understanding a bit more about your child’s natural sleep and wake times can be very helpful,” she says, “especially if you have some flexibility in terms of setting their sleep schedule.”

3. Have a consistent bedtime routine

A bedtime routine signals to your child that it’s time to start getting ready for sleep. It doesn’t need to be complicated, either. A simple routine can start as early as a few months old. Dr. Owens says.

Your child’s bedtime routine should consist of the same series of activities every night leading up to bedtime, and it should be enjoyable for both the child and the caregiver. A consistent and enjoyable routine supports independent sleep as well as caregiver bonding.

4. Encourage independent sleep

Recognizing your child’s signs of sleepiness and putting them to sleep when they’re drowsy but still awake supports independent sleep. 

“It helps them fall asleep more rapidly and it also allows the caregiver to leave the room, so the last thing the child associates with falling asleep is being in their own bed or crib on their own,” says Dr. Owens.

3 Sleep Tips for Toddlers

As your child gets older, their sleep needs evolve. Developmental milestones are typically accompanied by sleep regressions, making sleep training feel like a game of whack-a-mole. Dr. Owens shared three strategies for encouraging better sleep in your toddler:

1. Anticipate and ride out the developmental hurdles

A regression in sleep habits relates to a need to master developmental skills, explains Dr. Owens. You’ll almost certainly see a regression around nine months, when children are learning gross motor skills like standing and they’ll be driven to practice.

“This is what we call anticipatory guidance in the pediatric world,” Dr. Owens says. “It’s [explaining] the things you might expect to see with the idea that you should just try to ride it out and get back to your usual practices as soon as you can.”

2. Find a rewarding routine 

Transitional objects like stuffed animals and blankets can be helpful for toddlers, as they can provide comfort if and when a child wakes during the night. Please note: the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends you wait until at least 12 months old before adding any blankets or loose items in children’s sleep areas. This advice is for children over 1 year old, at a minimum.

As your child enters preschool, Dr. Owens suggests introducing rewards for good sleep habits. It doesn’t need to be a physical object, she says. It can look like eating their favorite breakfast cereal in the morning or playing a game with a parent.

3. Adjust your routine far in advance if a sibling is on the way 

While it’s not uncommon for 2–5 year olds to struggle with sleep, introducing a new sibling into the mix can further disrupt their routine. It’s important for parents to both be sensitive to this shift and patient during the period of adjustment.

Dr. Owens encourages parents to make changes to their routine before a new baby arrives, especially transitioning a toddler from a crib to a bed. The reason being “so that they don’t associate these changes in their sleep routines with the arrival of a new baby.”

Put simply, the arrival of a new baby will disrupt your household’s routine. The more you can anticipate these changes and help your toddler adjust in advance, the better.

Closing Reminders

As with anything else in life, says Dr. Owens, parenting is a journey. “Try to have confidence,” she encourages. “It’s a very daunting task, especially if you're a first-time parent, and you're going to get a lot of advice from a lot of different directions.” 

“If you have a partner or family members who are helping out, make it a dialogue and use your support system, because this is a tough job,” she adds. And if you’re in need of additional support or expert guidance, Harbor’s infant care experts are available when you need them to work with you to find solutions for your child’s challenges. 

About the Expert

Dr. Judith Owens, MD, MPH

Senior Faculty, Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders, Department of Neurology, Children's Hospital Boston and Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School.

Judith A. Owens, MD, MPH, is an internationally recognized authority on pediatric sleep and the author of numerous original research and review articles in peer-review journals, chapters and books on the topic. Her particular research interest is in the neurobehavioral and health consequences of sleep problems in children. 

She received her undergraduate and medical degrees from Brown and a Master's in Maternal and Child Health from the University of Minnesota. She completed pediatric residency training at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and fellowships in Behavioral Pediatrics at Minneapolis Children's Medical Center and in Child Psychiatry at Brown University. She is the co-author of the Clinical Guide to Pediatric Sleep, with Jodi Mindell, PhD. 

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