You can’t blame exhausted parents for trying – they want their 8 hours of sleep back! So they read every book on the market and scour the online resources. “Rock your baby, don’t nurse her,” “Walk your baby till she falls asleep and then gently lay her in her crib,” “Sing to your baby while patting his back until he drifts off,” “Don’t pick her up again, just talk to her,” “let her cry 10 minutes before you come to her and then don’t pick her up,” and so on and so on. Many people offer advice about how to get a baby to sleep through the night because somewhere, for some baby, this advice actually worked at least once. However many, if not most, babies will defy your get-him-to-sleep strategies and continue waking up several times a night for—brace yourself—several years.
Why aren’t people aware of this fact? Because the popular culture suggests that if parents just do it right, their babies will be sleeping through the night by 4 – 6 months of age. Feeling embarrassed and inadequate, most parents with wakeful 8 month-olds or 2 year-olds simply don’t tell the truth to anyone. “Is your baby sleeping through the night?” the mom at the Moms & Babes group asks. “Oh, yes. He sleeps quite nicely,” lies the other mom for fear of admitting what a failure she is at this tender stage of the game. Her lie only goes into the large pile in the sky that makes other normal parents feel guilty and ashamed. She should have answered, “Gosh no! Babies aren’t supposed to sleep through the night! Yours doesn’t, does he?”
Why Do Babies Wake Up?
Infants need things in the night. Their little bellies empty every couple of hours and for the first year or so, they actually get hungry in the night. In addition, when babies cycle into light sleep, they “realize” that they are alone; they crave warm body contact and cry out for it. In the second year of life, nursing babies suckle for the same reason—no longer just out of hunger (because their tummies have grown and can hold more food), but now out of longing for physical contact. Some babies are sensitive to the sensations of their own bodies and will wake with discomfort from a wet or dirty diaper.
All of this waking has been programmed into babies for their survival. If you were a paraplegic without a wheelchair or other equipment, unable to speak the local language and unable to get yourself from point A to point B,would you want to be left alone for 8 hours at a time? Probably not. You would want to know there was someone near by who could meet your needs. Have you ever been stuck in a dentist’s chair or other restraining medical device for 15 minutes without someone in the room? Did you feel a twinge of the panic of helplessness in that situation? What if you needed something? What if you wanted to tell someone something?
Babies are in that position until they become toddlers. They are helpless. To top it all off, they are like foreigners—unable to speak the local language. They open their mouths but they cannot put their needs and wishes into words; they can just make noise. For all these reasons, babies are programmed to be distressed about finding themselves alone. It just isn’t safe for them to be alone. There are serious survival issues going on. They wake up for contact to in order to assure that they will be looked after. This is not something that we want to program babies out of any more than we would want to program adults out of their scream response when faced with life-threatening danger.
Training Babies to Sleep Through the Night
Nonetheless, removing survival instincts can be accomplished, if we only persevere long enough. By ignoring a baby’s cries consistently, the baby will learn that no one will come and there is no point in crying anymore. If this experience only occurs at night, the baby learns that there is no point waking up at night. For parents, this translates into a baby who sleeps through the night. If it happens both day AND night, the baby goes into a hopeless depression (as seen in “failure to thrive” syndromes), since he “realizes” that he has been abandoned and there is no further hope of getting his needs met (and therefore no further reason to keep trying to bring help through crying). Fortunately, for most babies, the “abandonment” experience is happening only at night. However, the newly subdued baby has still learned that there is no point in crying. This will not lead to hopeless depression. In fact, in babies who are now enjoying a better night’s sleep, we may even see improved daytime mood.
Here is the problem however: if a baby quickly catches on to the idea that crying at night is a waste of time, there is minimal suffering on the baby’s part. However, if the baby has the “not-so-good sleep genes” that cause him to put up a royal battle, screaming for weeks or months before he finally submits to the new regime, then it could be that the child is truly suffering. What this does to his long term development is simply not known. Some say it does nothing. Others say that it causes trauma. More research is required before we will know the truth.
Even if parents do not want their babies to feel abandoned, it is not clear that responding to their every cry at night is the action of choice. After all, tired parents also pose a risk for babies. Tired parents have less patience with their children and are therefore more likely to engage in poor parenting techniques like snapping at the kids (including the baby), yelling or speaking in a harmful way. Fatigue causes more daytime errors including driving more dangerously, forgetting to turn off electric elements and putting the baby down in unsafe locations “just for a moment.” Exhausted parents can even dose off during the day when they need to be alert. Therefore, it is essential that parents find a way to balance their own needs for sleep with their babies’ needs for night-time wakings. This is especially important because night-time waking happens, as stated earlier, in the majority of homes—not the minority. And, it continues for the early years of childhood in many homes. Therefore a coping strategy is badly needed!
Here are some strategies that parents have found to be helpful. Not all will be practical for your own situation, therefore simply choose any that might fit into your own lifestyle:
- Keep the baby in bed with you and DON’T get out of bed the entire night (see Dr. Sears’ books on attachment parenting for details of co-sleeping techniques and strategies). Although you’ll still be waking in the night to tend to the baby’s needs, you’ll need to expend less energy doing so.
- Keep toddlers on a small crib-size mattress on the floor near your bed. At first, they can start in your bed and when they fall asleep, you can gently place them on the floor mattress beside you.
- Have the baby or toddler sleep on a large mattress on the floor in her own room. When you wake up, go to the child’s bed and sleep there the rest of the night.
- Tend to the baby in his crib when he cries at night. In the daytime, hire a daily baby-sitter and take a nap for a couple of hours. If the baby is in play group or daycare and you are at home, take your nap during those hours.
- Alternate “baby duty” with your spouse. Whoever tends to the baby at night, gets a one or two hour evening nap the next day while the sleeping spouse takes responsibility for house & childcare.
- Alternate night-time shifts with your spouse so that neither of you gets completely exhausted. For example, one answers cries until 2 a.m. and one answers cries after 2 a.m.
- Use weekends to catch up on sleep. One spouse sleeps in late on Saturday; the other sleeps in late on Sunday.
As you can see, all of these strategies address the problem of night-time waking by assuming it is going to happen, parents are going to be tired and they will need to make up the sleep somehow. This approach is more in line with reality than trying to get babies and young children to stay asleep all night long. But here’s the good news: once kids are around 4 years old, there are effective strategies that can be used to really keep them in their beds throughout the night. By the time a child is this age, he can speak and walk; he is no longer totally helpless. He is familiar with his world and is achieving a level of competence. No harm will be done now by insisting that he stay in his own bed. So just hang in there. Sleep is coming. That is, until your child turns 15. Then you’ll be up at night again—waiting for him to come home. Sigh.