Experts like Richard Ferber say that babies can be conditioned to sleep through the night. So, put your feet up, grab a glass of warm milk, and let’s get to it!
Many infants function like little alarm clocks when it comes to feeding time. Every two hours their alarms will sound – loud cries – even in the wee hours of the morning. The problem for sleep-deprived parents is they can’t simply press a snooze button on a baby! When infants are young, they need to eat every two hours. But sometimes older babies – those 5 or 6 months old – will continue to wake in the night to demand a feeding … or just some attention.
Sleep issues with babies are a continual hot topic between pediatricians and parents since no one answer to any single problem works for all infants. What if your baby is used to being held and prefers sleeping in your arms? What if the only way to get the baby to sleep is nursing or offering a bottle? And, what if the baby’s constant waking in the middle of the night is depriving the rest of the family of a good night’s sleep?
There’s good news
If your 6-month-old is demanding one thing or another from you in the middle of the night, you can effect almost any change if you do so gradually, experts say. The key is to make changes incrementally and to begin by sticking to a comforting bedtime ritual. But any changes to what may have developed as a habit in your baby will cause tears.
Stewart Altman, M.D., author of The Kidfixer Baby Book: An Easy-to-Use Guide to Your Baby’s First Year (Ballantine; $13.95) says that babies need to develop patience.
“A child who has every cry answered immediately will eventuallly expect all of life’s little problems to disappear just as quickly,” he says. “The baby who has never waited a few seconds to be picked up may well become the impatient child who whines when a toy or cookie is not presented quickly enough.”
Altman says it’s OK to let the baby cry a little when you put him down to sleep.
“If it’s bedtime, you’ve fed and changed him, the cat is not nibbling his toes, and he’s not burning up with fever – in other words, if he’s not in trouble – it’s fine to let him cry briefly when you put him to bed. The sooner he learns to sleep alone, the sooner your life will get back to some semblance of normality.”
A Comforting Ritual
Nothing prepares a baby or young child for sleep as well as a bedtime ritual. In the first several weeks of a baby’s life, there will be no reliable pattern of sleep for the infant, but by 3 months of age, parents can recognize when their baby is ready for bed. Then it’s time for a soothing ritual: a last bottle or nursing. A gentle rubbing on the gums with a clean washcloth.
A diaper change. Perhaps a brief, soothing massage. Rocking slowly in a chair while reading a short bedtime story or humming a gentle lullaby. As the child gets older, he will become more accustomed to his routine, and will, according to Altman, come to depend upon it. If you begin to run into sleep problems with your older baby, reconditioning may be in order.
Conditioning Baby to Sleep
Richard Ferber, M.D., director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital in Boston and author of Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems (Simon & Schuster; $14), says that by establishing a good bedtime ritual in infancy, almost all babies can sleep well at night. Ferber also says that infants who have been made poor sleepers by poor bedtime rituals can be retrained to become good sleepers.
When “Ferberizing,” parents follow a progressive approach to help their older baby or child fall asleep while becoming accustomed to their child’s cries. After the pre-bedtime routine, the baby is put to bed while still awake. This teaches him to fall asleep on his own. Once the child is in bed, the parents must leave the room and turn off the lights to let the child sleep. Unfortunately, upon being left alone, the baby may naturally cry and scream continuously until comforted.
The goal of the Ferber method is to make the child learn to view himself as an independent being when he is away from his parents. That is why when the child cries for attention, Ferber says, parents should ignore the cries and “wait for a certain amount of time before checking on the child.” And, when parents do go to check on the child, they should only comfort him with their voices and a gentle touch. This means no hugging, rocking or feeding. After comforting – briefly – parents should leave again, only to return after an increased amount of time between visits. Ferber says that after about a week of this, but usually less, the child learns that crying earns nothing more than a brief visit, and that it isn’t worth the effort. Eventually, the child learns to self soothe, fall asleep and sleep through the night on his own.
Although the method involves several nights of conditioning, many parents have found success with Ferberizing.
A good night’s sleep is crucial for healthy growth and immune function – and that counts for all members of your family. No matter what kind of sleep difficulties your baby may be having, with any method you use to help him sleep through the night, take your time. Eventually, and typically, sleep problems will work themselves out. The best way to make sleep a priority for your family is to establish a solid bedtime ritual from an early age. Everyone will sleep better because of it!
Susan Day is editor-in-chief of this publication and the mother of four children, ages 12, 10, 7 and 3.
1. Night Waking Causes in Older Babies/Toddlers
- The baby is used to being fed before sleeping or used to being held in order to sleep.
- Either too late a bedtime and/or lack of sleep during the day.
- For babies who are still napping and are well rested throughout the day, you might consider making the bedtime earlier. Or, the bedtime might be too late.
- Depending on your child’s age, if he still needs a nap but naps are inconsistent and/or not long enough, making bedtime earlier will promote healthier sleeping during the day and stop unnecessary night waking.
- If your child has outgrown naps, you may need to implement some incentive plan like a star chart to help the child want to sleep through the night.
- Put your drowsy (not sleeping) baby on his back in the crib in a dimly lit room and leave. Know that he’ll cry since he’s not used to this.
- Look at a clock and allow the baby to cry for five minutes. If he’s still crying after five minutes, go in to him and attempt to calm him down without picking him up, rocking or offering a bottle. Leave after a minute or two.
- After leaving, allow him to cry for 10 minutes before returning for a reassuring pat. Next time, wait 15 minutes before your brief, comforting appearance. For the rest of the first night’s conditioning, wait 15 minutes between every trip in.
- On the second night, start at 10 minutes, then wait 15 minutes and then 20 each time he cries.
- On the third night, start off with a 15-minute crying period, then 20, then 25 each time.
- The next night, start with 20, then 25, then 30 each time.
- Even with the toughest of sleep problems, Ferber says it will rarely take more than three or four nights of conditioning to succeed.
3. Developing a Good Sleeper
- Caffeine: If you are nursing, limit caffeine from coffee, tea and sodas. Caffeine is not only great at keeping us awake, it passes into breastmilk and does the same for babies.
- A dark room: Put your baby to sleep in his crib in a relatively dark room (night lights are OK). It’s important, too, that the baby is familiar with his environment.
- Establish a bedtime ritual: Children who have the same bedtime ritual each night actually begin to feel sleepy during the last, brief bedtime story or lullaby.
- The American Academy of Pediatrics says to always put babies to sleep on their backs to reduce the chance of Sudden Infant Death Syndrom (SIDS).