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The Ultimate Guide to Sleep Training

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Dr. Meg Meeker

Hi Meg!

I have a 1-year-old daughter who is perfect in every way except the way she sleeps. Her bad sleeping habits, I’ll admit, are my fault. When I went back to work I got lazy and after her midnight feedings, I’d put her in my bed to sleep with me and her daddy. Now, every time she wakes up in her room in the middle of the night she expects me to get her and put her in our bed. I’ve tried to reassure her and let her cry it out, but she gets hysterical, to the point that she’s having difficulty breathing and standing up in her crib. It just seems dangerous, so then I cave and put her back in our bed. How can I break this terrible habit that is all my fault in the first place? Please help!

One sleepy Mommy

Dear Sleepless,

You do have a problem on your hands. But the good news is, it can be fixed and you are not alone. Sometimes we do what we must to survive.

Here’s what’s happened. Your daughter is in the habit of waking you up at night. I say “you” because most 1-year-old children awaken in the night, look around, chatter, play and then go back to sleep. Your daughter, on the other hand, isn’t content with these – she wants you awake too! So she stands up, grabs the bars on her crib and has a major temper tantrum. If she could speak, you would hear, “Mom or Dad – you get in here right now! This isn’t fair, I’m awake and you should be too!”

Honestly, she doesn’t have anything psychologically wrong. I know it feels like she is being hurt when she screams, but she isn’t. She’s having a temper tantrum. And – she has forgotten how to self-soothe. But you can retrain her.

Here’s what you need to do:

Begin helping her learn self-soothing techniques during her naps in the daytime. If she is at daycare, ask them to do this (but I’ll bet she sleeps just fine there!) Put her in her crib and make the light as close to nighttime light as possible.

Put two or three new toys in her crib and find ones that either make noise or that she can have fun with on her own. Always have those toys in her daytime and nighttime crib. Also – you can put a blanket in her crib that smells like you. Wash it with your detergent. This may calm her.

When you (or the daycare folks) put her down for a nap, take her to her room, feed her, sing or read a short story and then put her in her crib. This should all be 15 minutes or less. The routine for the daytime should be exactly like the nighttime routine.

When you put her in her crib, show her the new toys. Then, show her how to use them. Wind up something that plays a song (you can use a sound machine or stuffed toy that plays a song.) This is her auditory cue that it is sleep time.

Kiss her and leave the room. Close her door part way so that she knows you (or they) are on the other side of the door and leave.

At first, she may scream but don’t get her out. She may cry for 45 minutes and then lie down for a few minutes but not sleep. Once she is quiet, get her up and go back to your day. Only pick her up after she has stopped crying.

Do this for a week or two until she goes to bed easily.

This is how to work her daytime naps to get her ready for nighttime sleep training. Only proceed when she successfully sleeps well during the day.

Then, pick a 5-day stretch when you decide to sleep train her at night. You have taught her that her crib is a safe place and how to self-soothe. Now you need to reinforce that during the nighttime. You will need your husband’s cooperation because you will both get very tired. I suggest starting on a Thursday or Friday night. Don’t start this until you are really ready!

The first night, put her to bed exactly the same way as you do for naps. Same lighting, same routine. If you want to add a bath beforehand, go ahead.

The first time she awakens at night, try going to her room and whispering to her that it’s nighttime. Wind her sleeping song up (the one you use during naptime) or turn the sound machine on and then leave the room.

If she cries harder because you came into the room, don’t go back. Let her cry. I know she will scream, hold her breath and would probably swear at you if she could, but do not go back in. You will feel cruel, but remember, she’s having a temper tantrum. Can you talk a child out of one? No. Let her be. She may scream for 1 ½ hours and fall asleep exhausted. You will feel horrible.

Whatever you do, do not get her out of bed. You won’t sleep, so go downstairs and watch television or listen to some music. Put earplugs in. You will feel guilty but remember – you are trying to break temper tantrums here.

Go back to bed and when she awakens in the morning, immediately get her. She will be exhausted (you both will) but when naptime comes, do the same thing. Show her the toys she is to use for soothing again.

The next night, do the same thing. Same light, same bedtime routine, same song when she sleeps. When she awakens in the night – this time, do not go into her room at all. She may scream the same amount of time. Most kids cry a little less.

By night 4-5, you will be amazed. She probably won’t cry at all! Honestly, she’s smart and she’ll figure this all out. She will awaken, look around, play with her soothing toys and go back to sleep. In the morning you will think “why didn’t I do this sooner?”

In my 30 years of having parents do this, I have never seen a baby take longer than 7 days to quit awakening parents in the night. Most do it in 3-4 days but the really stubborn kids take a little longer.

Some parents who can’t listen to their babies scream add one more step and you can try this: (In my experience, babies who are strong-willed don’t do well with this, so you can use your judgment.)

When your baby cries that first night, take a chair and sit next to her crib. Don’t touch her (this is hard) and just sit. You can sing softly, but it is best if you are quiet.

When she goes back to sleep, leave the room. The next night, when she cries, go into her room and place the chair a little farther from her crib. The next night, farther, etc. Finally, you will be close to the door and put the chair outside the door where she can’t see you. Then you are home free.

Other parents have had success going into their baby’s room and turning on a recording of themselves singing or reading. Then they leave the room. This can help calm babies, but it can also make other babies mad because they know that you aren’t really there.

The best success parents in my practice have had breaking bad sleep habits is the first outline. But remember, it only works if you stick to the rules. You can’t cave and give her food, rock her, play with her or put her in your bed because then you have to start all over. She realizes that now she needs to cry even longer to get what she wants.

Don’t be afraid to do this – just go for it. The only person this is really hard on is you.

P.S Write to me in a month and let me know how it went!

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