“MY CHILD WAKES UP EVERY TWO HOURS AT NIGHT and then cries and cries. Shall I go in and try to get her to go back to sleep each time or let her ‘cry-it-out.’”
“Shall we take her into bed and let her sleep with us if she doesn’t go back to sleep or keep her in her own bed.”
“I can’t get a decent night’s sleep anymore. I have to stand there at her crib; patting her to try to get her to fall asleep while I’m exhausted in the morning.”
These and other similar comments have been coming from new parents for as long as we know and they continue to register one of the most vexing problems they face – how can we get infants and toddlers to sleep for longer periods at night and at what age should they be expected to sleep through the night?
We all know the basic routine of putting the child to bed at night. Gently rocking and soothing an infant, or reading to him in a soft voice, or singing a lullaby. And with a toddler, reading a bedtime story from one of his favorite books (Goodnight Moon is usually one of their favorites), hugging him, sitting with him for a while and making him feel warm and safe in his bed – these are things most parents know instinctively.
What Should I Do When He Awakes And Cries At Night?
The problem for many parents arises when the child awakes in the middle of the night, often crying and demanding attention. What should a parent do?
First, in the case of infants, it is important to understand that they each have cycles of deep sleep and light sleep. The noted pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton describes these cycles in his landmark book, Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development, as typically lasting three or four hours. In the middle of the cycle is a period of “an hour to an hour and a half of deep sleep in which the baby moves very little and is difficult to rouse with any stimulation. For an hour on each side of the cycle, there is a lighter, dreaming state in which activity comes and goes. At the end of each four-hour cycle, the baby comes up to a semialert state in which she is very close to consciousness and awakens easily.” These are the times when the baby can do a number of things like soothe herself, fuss around in bed, or cry out for her parent.
Prolonging these cycles conditions the infant. If the parent responds with a feeding or other response the cycle will remain and the child will not feel the need to propel herself back to sleep. If the parent does not respond, the child will eventually find her own way to go back to sleep. If parents rush in immediately to comfort a child, they are probably prolonging the waking periods at night. But, and here is the big but, there is a time limit to how long the parent can allow the infant to cry without causing undue stress in the child. And taking the child into the parents’ bed may be OK for a night or two but after a while it can create other problems like prolonging the time when a child can lull herself to sleep in her own crib, not to mention the interference with the marital intimacy of the parents.
Brazelton reports that about 70 percent of American children are able to sleep each night for eight hours by the age of three months and 83 percent by six months. By the time the child is a year old, only 10 percent don’t sleep through the night.
Some Guidelines For The Problem
Among the guidelines Brazelton recommends for the problem are:
- Make sure that both parents agree on the program that is adopted. The child will sense any ambivalence and react accordingly.
- Does the child sleep too long or too late in the afternoon. After one year, nap times should not be started after 1 pm and, with many children, after two years of age the afternoon nap can be ended. After 3 pm any nap time will increase the likelihood that the child will not sleep through the night.
- Put the child to bed with a nice story or book but definitely not television.
- Put the child down to sleep in her crib, not in your arms, Soothe her in her crib.
- Make sure she has her favorite toy in bed with her – something soft and lovey. The classic one is a small, soft teddy bear or similar toy.
- If you go in to her, try soothing her and stroking her with your hand without taking her out of bed. After a period of going to her for some time, try staying out of her room and just calling to her, telling her that you are there and that you love her. She often will get to accept your voice without you being present.
- And after a while, time the intervals between your responses. Wait several minutes before you go in and then respond perfunctorily, all the while assuring her that you love her and are there for her.
In the case of toddlers., Alicia Lieberman, Ph.D., in her book, The Emotional Life of the Toddler, recommends a predictable daily routine that enables the child to experience “a sense of comforting self-control from being able to experience what will happen next.” Meals, naps, and other daily routines, she writes, should “take place a about the same time and in the same place.”
She also recommends that the parent wait if a child is crying for intervals that is tolerable for the parent – say for several minutes, soothing her but not taking her out of her bed. If the child wants to sleep with the parent, try alternating, first in the parent’s bed one night and then in the child’s bed the second night.
Brazelton concludes with the observation that while it may be difficult for the parents, it becomes a rewarding experience for the child to be able to manage alone at night, helping to develop a positive image in herself.