Over the years I have been in the privileged position to help many many families with multiples. It is hard not to be in awe of this particular group of parents, as they seem to manage with relative ease their family unit that involves a set or more of infants born at the same time and that will need the exact amount of parenting that we singleton families bestow on our children. That means at least 2 times the feed times, nappy changes, spoon feeds, sicknesses, teething episodes, and of course nap and bedtimes. In my experience of helping families with multiples, I have developed a number of strategies to help their children achieve and maintain better sleep. As well as improving sleep duration, typically my ultimate aim is that one parent can do bedtime with 2 + children and does not need to rely on the other parent to help them. Here are some ideas that may help:
Generally, I find that if you are struggling with your multiples sleep then god is good and one will always present a little bit better than the other. Some families find that although both children are on the same day time layout, same feeding practice-amount and times, one sleeps well and the other doesn’t. Or they may say that they swap the bad nights between them-almost as if they agree in advance: that Billy will wake tonight and Johnny will sleep and tomorrow night is Johnny’s turn! Or of course you may be entirely fortunate and everyone may sleep. Let’s concentrate on the ones that don’t though.
Here are my suggestions;
Day time structure
I try to keep multiples on the same sort of time feeding and sleeping balance throughout the day, from as early as 6-8 weeks when feeding is established. If your children are older, don’t worry you can start at any age. I always recommend that you wake them within 15-30 minutes of each other in the morning on first wake up and on the first nap too. I generally allow the 2nd nap to differ between them if necessary but I do try to finish the day in the same way and at the same time too, so for example based on 9-15 months, I would want all naps to finish by 3.30pm.
If you find that waking them within 30 minutes means that the child that slept longer or later is not ready to sleep again, when the leaner sleeper is, then I would shorten that gap further. The majority of multiple families, although together with me, acknowledge that they are different people, it is normally quite important to keep them more or less on the same sort of day time structure-otherwise you would be up and down the stairs all day!
Where should they sleep?
Decide on where you want them to sleep. At first it may be quite usual for your multiples to share a sleep space, but as soon as they are rolling (normally around 4months) then a separate cot for each is generally a good idea, provided that you would like them to sleep in a cot versus a bed that is. Also, you may be conflicted as to whether they should be in the same or separate rooms. You will know that the health agenda recommends that you room share for at least the first 6 months. In my practice I meet many families who have resorted to taking a child each. Or they start the children off together but panic when one wakes and hook them out and change the sleep space overnight.
Once your children are over 6 months of age, I try to encourage parents to make a clear decision. I do normally keep twins together in the same room for bedtime and overnight, unless that is a specific request from the parent to do otherwise. Multiples seem to have an unbelievable capacity to sleep through each other’s noise, although an under rested child will be more inclined to be woken; helping them both become super rested is key. Overtiredness causes a large amount of sleep issues with multiples -with one child generally not able to cope on the time table that is implemented. Observing early bedtime can make an enormous difference. So keep them together and then, be patient and confident as you help them improve their sleep.
The Bedtime Process
I really hope that with a multiple family unit, one parent can do the bedtime routine alone. Keep the bedtime routine to the bedroom where the children will sleep. Don’t stagger the bed timing-take them up at the same time and get them ready in the room where they both will sleep. If they are not room-sharing then I suggest that you provide the bedtime routine in the room of the less adjustable multiple and you will know what I mean by that. That way nothing changes for this child the adjustable twin is removed at the end of bedtime.
From 6 months onwards, consider providing the final milk feed completely separate to sleep, this keeps food out of the bedroom and out of the context of sleep and prevents a partial milk dependency and of course any dental issues too. Offer the last milk feed downstairs lights on, day clothes nothing to do with sleep and then establish a bedtime routine.
Get one child ready while the other (s) wait in the room maybe looking at books on their own or playing a low impact game. Do this is the dim environment, with some background music or white noise, chat and sing with your children and use familiar and predictable words or phrases.
Dummy or Not?
Think through dummies with multiples because even the best sleepers may always need dummy re-plugs overnight, anywhere from 0-3 times and if this is for more than one child that can really keep you from getting consolidated sleep yourself.
Try to avoid hooking out a poor sleeper; allow each child to learn to sleep within their typical noises. You may find though that you need to consider separating them for naps. As with bedtime, initially I do keep multiples together, if that is where they are overnight, but if one is really struggling then I may remove the better sleeper temporarily in a travel cot to the parents room for example in order to establish the nap. Once in place then you can reintroduce them or leave separate as you wish.
Whilst I do help multiples learn to sleep better together at the same time, I would never generally do this with siblings; I normally work with them on their own and individually improve their sleep. Once improved then as with multiples, I love that if you have a number of children under 6 then they can all have the same sort of bed time and one routine , so that you can get them all down together at the same sort of time.
Lucy Wolfe, CGSC, MAPSC, is a paediatric sleep consultant, Author of The Baby Sleep Solution and mum of four young children. She runs a private sleep consulting practice with her 98%-effective approach for sleep she provides knowledge, expertise and valuable support to families across the country. See www.sleepmatters.ie t: 087 2683584 or e: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Baby Sleep Solution is available online and in all good bookstores