Our ultimate goal is that our child not only falls asleep, but stays asleep, and since young children will awaken several times in the night, we want them to eventually be able to comfort themselves back to sleep independently.
A child’s ability to return to sleep after waking is essential to a night of restorative sleep for all. Waking at night is a pervasive concern among parents for the obvious reason that parents need sleep to be able to expend the enormous energy it takes to care for a child. It is sometimes difficult for the parent who may feel selfish for wanting a decent night’s rest, to realize that waking in the night is not serving the child well either. When parents commit to helping a child have uninterrupted sleep, the child will come to my parent/infant class a new person with energy and confidence. The child, who has spent weeks sitting with her parent and watching, will suddenly separate from mom or dad and play. Everything can overwhelm us when we are deprived of a good night’s sleep!
When we are ready to help ourselves and our child by breaking a night-waking habit, there are a few ideas to keep in mind.
First, make parental interventions in the night a dull time for the infant: no overhead lights, no talking, no changing the diaper unless absolutely necessary, and a gradual reduction of the amount of the amount of time at the breast (or bottle).
Then, when we are advised that our infant is old enough to no longer need night nourishment, we might wish to make a unified plan. Complete conviction by both parents will make the changes easier for parents and child. A child senses when a parent is wavering, and thus a parent’s sense of uncertainty is transmitted directly to the child. This incertitude can have the effect of prolonging the transition and create more tears.
Next, tell the child a few days beforehand that you will soon not be feeding him in the night, but that you will always check on him if needed. Remind the child each day about the new, imminent night-time plan and then on the day you will make the change, tell him once again as you put him to bed. By including the baby in the plan and allowing him to anticipate the changes in his routine, the parents are respecting the child and also fortifying their own resolve for the challenge they face.
Finally, if a child wakes up and cries more than a few minutes and the parent needs to check on the baby, then it is usually best to keep activity to the minimum possible. Instead of rushing in to scoop up a crying infant, the first step should be observation. Then, if necessary, a parent might speak to the baby in a calming but confident voice: “I hear you and I want you to go back to sleep.” A child’s complaints in the night do not always mean he is asking for intervention.
A couple from my Parent/Infant Class shared an instructive experience. Having grown weary of their eight-month-old daughter’s night-time cries, they decided to purchase a video monitor to observe their daughter in bed. That night the parents awoke to their daughter’s crying. But when they looked on the monitor they saw that while Emma cried she was also diligently working to find a comfortable sleep position. After a few minutes of tossing and turning, she found comfort and went back to sleep. If the parents had returned to Emma’s room they would have further disrupted her sleep and made it more difficult for their daughter to settle down for the night.
Ultimately, good sleepers are made, not born. Because infants quickly adapt to the patterns we set for them, parents should create healthy sleep habits as early as possible and cultivate a peaceful, fresh-air atmosphere for the whole day. If habits like sleep waking need to be shifted, then parents need to find an inclusive and respectful way to help the baby adjust. Finally, parents must remember that a cry is not always a cry for help, but rather a young infant’s only manner of verbal expression. For more perspectives on crying, please read my post: 7 Reasons to Calm Down About Babies Crying.
(Photo by Hebe Aguilera on Flickr)