‘Every Child Can Learn to Sleep Well if We Know How to Teach’

China’s first International Maternity and Parenting Institute certified infant and child sleep consultant shares the tools parents need.

Photograph by By Andrés Nieto Porras from Palma de Mallorca, España, distributed under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons

China has witnessed the largest annual number of newborns since 2000, thanks to its shift to a universal two-child policy in the beginning of 2016. An annual increase of nearly 18 million babies has brought an emerging industry into the public eye: professional child sleep consultants.

A white paper on Chinese babies’ sleep released in December 2016 showed that more than 75 percent of parents surveyed believed their young children didn’t sleep well. Infants between the ages of 6 to 12 months had the worst sleep problems, including frequent night wakings. Only 6 percent of the parents knew why their babies did not sleep well, and nearly a quarter of the adults had no clue.

Yuwen Chen (who goes by the name Xiaotu Dachengzi online) worked in a FORTUNE 500 company as a project manager and consistently lost sleep after her first child was born four years ago. “I didn’t realize that so many people were in the same boat until I posted questions online about baby sleeping and shared my own experience,” she said.

This sparked her interest in studying the subject holistically, and in the summer of 2014, Xiaotu became China’s first International Maternity and Parenting Institute certified infant and child sleep consultant.

Xiaotu has been helping Chinese parents regulate their babies’ sleep via free workshops, social media posts, and online courses.

She is well known on China’s social networks as Xiaotu Dachengzi — a direct translation of the nickname is “little soil, big orange.” The small amount of soil has grown into 480,000 followers on Sina Weibo, China’s popular microblogging website, where she answers questions about sleep issues in children and shares tips and personal experiences. She has helped tens of thousands of Chinese parents regulate their babies’ sleeping problems via public workshops, free webinars, social media posts, and online courses. Her motto is “every child can learn to sleep well if we know how to teach.” Her first book, A Complete Sleep Guide for Infants And Young Children, published in March, gives practical suggestions for developing a family’s own routine and sleep solutions.

Build the routine

Routine is one of the best gifts that parents can give their children. A daily routine can be introduced as young as 6 weeks of age and can be solidly established at 3 to 4 months old. Building a daily schedule and bedtime routine doesn’t mean kowtowing to non-negotiable timetables, Xiaotu explains. The idea is for parents and caregivers to better understand children’s needs. Little ones will feel safe and gradually develop self-regulating skills. “If parents and caregivers can access timely and useful guidance, they are able to teach children good sleep habits at a young age. Lots of sleep problems won’t exacerbate,” Xiaotu says.

Grandparents are heavily involved in childcare in China as well.

“Day care centers for under age 3 are rare in China,” Xiaotu says. “When grandparents are part of the child-rearing, it can be more challenging to build the routine. One reason is that grandparents have low tolerance for crying. They pay little attention in nurturing good sleep habits.”

When the parents stick to one routine or method to put the child to sleep at night, and grandparents use another, the drill goes out of the window.

“If adults are not on the same page, that certainly hinders the development of child sleep habits,” Xiaotu says.

“Patience and perseverance”

Navigating the sleep-deprived world of parenthood is nothing new. What’s interesting, Xiaotu notes, is that more and more mothers in China nowadays are influenced by attachment parenting. They also don’t want to lag behind when it comes to using technology that lulls their children to sleep: white noise machines, swings, smart mobiles and pacifiers.

But there is no shortcut for frazzled parents. “Patience and perseverance are the most effective ways to help children,” Xiaotu says. “These products lend parents a hand and make them less stressed, but only temporarily. Don’t lean on them too much.”

The key to a child’s sleep is about healthy environment, routine, and habits. Look for these signs to help and soothe your child to sleep:

1. Environment. Is it too noisy or bright? Is bedding comfortable and safe? Does the child wear too many clothes or need more? Is there any change to the sleep surrounding?

2. Health. Is there any condition at or before birth? Is the baby sick, hungry, or too full? Does the child have nutritional deficiencies?

3. Psychology. Does the child have separation anxiety when parents are away at work? Does the child have a new caregiver? Does the child refuse to sleep because of trauma such as reflex?

4. Routine. Is there too much stimulation before bedtime? Is the child overtired? Does the child have an irregular schedule? Does the child get enough exercises during the day?

Every baby is unique. There is no one solution for every child’s sleep issues. When you try to figure out the best solutions, do consider a baby’s temperament, your preferences, and your family’s habits. Case in point, while putting babies in cribs or in a separate room is prevalent in America and some Western European countries, parents and infants sharing a bed (or co-sleeping) is common in China, Xiaotu says. Two Harvard scholars have seen the same practice in Japan and a few other countries, and they can be beneficial for some families.

In her book, Xiaotu quoted one follower’s message: “Thirty years ago, there were no breastfeeding campaigns in hospitals. Now pregnancy and childbirth are promoted with scientific support. Sleep issues of infants and young children are even more complicated….But our dealing with them is a gamble. There can be different ways to solve problems, but we need to be educated on the basics, and everyone should be on the same wavelength.”

In China’s nascent market for baby sleep coaching, people have taken to methods, practices, and training courses eagerly. “Rapid development may not be beneficial,” Xiaotu comments. “I hope child sleep practitioners and consultants will get involved at a steady pace.”

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