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My Child Won’t Sleep: Helping Your Baby Go to and Stay Asleep

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Dr. Meg Meeker

About one half of the kids I see experience difficulty with sleep at some point in their childhood. Most of these sleep issues occur during infancy, some around first or second grade, others in middle school, and finally after the teen years are underway. The reasons for sleep disturbances vary according to the age of the child. Today, I’ll focus on infants and the tackle older kids in another blog.

The majority of babies are born with erratic sleep cycles. Very few babies come home from the hospital and sleep soundly through the night. So it’s very important to prepare new parents to expect that for the first month of their baby’s life, they’re going to be tired. I encourage them to find a parent, friend, aunt, or other family member who is willing to help them out during that first month so that they catch a few hours of sleep during the day.  A short nap during the day makes a huge difference in a mother’s mood.

Contrary to what most parents believe, most babies need to be trained to sleep. Their natural body rhythms cause them to cat nap, wake up, make noise, and then fall back to sleep for an hour or two and repeat the cycle. This is tough for parents, particularly if they both work outside the home or have other children. Since a parent can’t force a child to sleep, there are a few tricks that we can use to encourage babies to stay in their cribs even when they are awake to give us parents a few extra hours of shut eye.

Here are some of the things I tell my patients:

1. Anything goes for the first month. 

Expect to be tired during the first month or two of your baby’s life and prepare for it. When babies leave the warmth of their mother’s womb, they suddenly learn to breath air, experience cold, see light, hear voices, and feel clothes and hands touching their tiny bodies. This completely disrupts the rhythm they have come to enjoy over the ten months they were in utero.

After birth, most babies sleep a few hours, wake up for an hour or two, and then fall asleep again. Their napping patterns are random. It’s important that mothers (or fathers) recruit help during the day. And when the help comes, moms shouldn’t catch up on chores; they should lie down. Naps can make the difference between a parent keeping her cool when tired or losing it.

2. Put your baby to bed before he is completely asleep.

This is very hard for parents to do, but it is extremely important. Here’s why. Most children don’t “sleep” completely through eight hours until they are closer to two years old. They awaken frequently during the night, look around, and then fall back to sleep. It is very important that when they awaken, they recognize their surroundings and feel safe. If a baby is put in his crib asleep and wakes up, he feels tricked. The last thing he remembers is being in his mother’s arms and then wonders, where did she go? This will make him upset. If he is laid in his crib before he is fully asleep, he remembers that his mother put him there and then he feels safe.

3. Set a bedtime routine when he is two months old.

Good sleep for children is about helping them establish good rhythms. When your baby is two months old (you can start earlier), establish a routine that lasts at least ten minutes. Rock him, feed him, sing to him or talk to him, and then lay him in bed. Have a windup toy or mobile that makes music and start the music. When he hears the music, he will learn that this is his cue to go to sleep. Tell him it’s time to sleep and walk away from his crib.

4. Help him learn to like his crib.

It is important for babies to learn that they are safe and feel comfortable in their sleep space. The best thing to do is place him in his crib whenever he sleeps. Letting him sleep in a car seat, swing, or bouncy seat during the day and then putting him in his crib at night can throw him off. So put him in his crib as often as you can during the day.  Give him a blanket that is washed in your detergent so that it smells like you. As he gets older, put one or two toys in his crib that he can wind up or play with. This will help him occupy himself when he wakes up.

What If The Baby Cries? 

After three months, most kids are physiologically ready to sleep eight hours. They may wake up during those eight hours, but they don’t need to eat or awaken you.  That’s why teaching him to feel comfortable in his crib before this time is critical.

Most babies cry around sleep time for a few reasons:

  • If they don’t sleep much during the day, they get overtired. You will know that your baby is overtired if he screams frantically and thrashes about. Being exhausted and not being able to go to sleep is tough for kids. Unfortunately, since you can’t make him fall asleep, you have to let him expend his energy and tire himself out so that he will sleep.  Babies will do this when they go to bed, in the middle of the night, or at  anytime. In 25 years, I have never had a baby cry himself to sleep longer than seven days in a row because once he realizes that his crib means sleep, he learns to relax enough to fall asleep.
  • Babies cry because they are conditioned to eat in the night. Many parents make the mistake of feeding babies over three months in the middle of the night. Eating actually stimulates babies and makes falling asleep harder. And, if their stomachs are used to a 3:00 am feeding, guess what happens every night at 3 am? Their stomach wakes them up. (If your spouse brought you your favorite food at 3 am for a few nights, wouldn’t you start waking up?) This is simply a habit you need to break. You can offer water or a pat on the back, but don’t offer food.
  • Babies may wake up if they are frightened or ill. You will know the difference between a scared cry and a frustrated one. If he is sick, you will know it. If he usually sleeps through the night and suddenly wakes you up, chances are he’s frightened or sick, so you may want to consult your pediatrician.

Sleep training babies isn’t for wimps. Most parents think that other parents’ babies sleep well and that something is wrong with their baby. What you need to remember is that the vast majority of babies need to be trained to stay in their beds at night and to not awaken you.

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