I don’t see myself as a nightwaking problem solver. Hardly, as my personal track record with our three children would clearly show) I’m more into detecting and debunking bad research and bad advice. But I wanted to respond to this one reader question, because it brings up an issue that is relevant to all parents. Here’s the question:
“My six month old slept through the night from week 7 on without any “training.” yes, i am blessed. however, in the past month or so, she wakes up about 1 or 2 every morning. i offer her a breast (for comfort since there is nothing left in there) and she easily falls asleep. however, when i put her back in her crib she starts moving around like crazy, and hits her head on the crib, rubs her eyes and can’t settle down. i have been taking her into my bed, where she can settle down, so i could get some sleep, but i do not want her in our bed. the pediatrician yesterday told me not to even offer her a breast, but to try patting her for a bit so she continues sleeping on her own. this was a huge fail last night. any ideas? is this maybe a phase?”
Dear Reader: The first thing you need to know is that you’re talking to someone whose three kids didn’t start “sleeping through through the night” consistently until age 3 1/2. In other words, I’m not the guy with easy as pie nightwaking solutions. Now, if you’re still interested…
The first thing I would say is that it is totally normal for babies’ sleep and waking patterns to change fairly suddenly. I’ve heard tales similar to yours numerous times. I know someone whose baby was a legendary sleeper: slept more than most babies and never woke in the middle of the night — at least not in a way that disturbed his parents, and then suddenly started waking and crying out.
I was involved in an academic study where we surveyed close to 1000 parents on their nightwaking experiences. In that study 41% of the parents who reported nightwaking said there had been a time when their baby did sleep through the night. So what you’re experiencing is normal (if frustrating).
This is another one of the realities that many baby sleep experts won’t tell you (although some are getting better about this). Babies who sleep through the night, including those who have been “taught” to do so, often start waking again at some point.
There are lots or reasons why this might happen: illness (even just a little cold) teething (although experts continue to deny this) and probably a whole bunch of reasons we can only guess at.
Usually there is nothing wrong, except that the baby is awake and upset. And upset babies want to be comforted. And parents usually want to comfort them. (This is the way things work with babies and parents.) Sometimes the need for comfort at night might be a one-off or temporary thing that resolves on it’s own. But sometimes it can become habitual. It’s completely logical to me that babies would prefer to fall asleep in Mom or Dad’s arms, or nursing rather than falling asleep on their own. And they can come to expect it or at least get use to it as the normal course of events, in which case, falling asleep on their own won’t be easy for them. As I once read in a Penelope Leach book, falling sleep is partly about habits. So kids whose falling asleep habit includes physical contact with Mom or Dad are going to tend like that and want it to want to stay that way. And if parents feel OK about doing that, I see no problem. The parents might be doing it for a long time (believe me, I know), but although many experts have extolled the virtues on independent sleep for babies and toddlers, I haven’t seen a shred of evidence that non-independent sleep in the early years has any sort of negative affect on kids. In fact, I’ve seen a little evidence to the contrary.
But what “studies show” does not translate into what you ought to do. And I can’t tell you either. Regardless of what anyone says, you have to make a judgment call about a) what you think is best for your baby b) what you think is best for you as a parent, which includes what you think you are able to manage or cope with.
I’m not going to get into what’s best for your baby. I couldn’t possibly say. All I will say is that there is nothing necessarily wrong with a baby who wakes up and cries. Well, there could be something wrong, but if there is, you’ll see other sign – symptoms of illness, behaviour or emotional problems (which, actually, may or may not have anything to do with the sleeping pattern). But, I repeat, most nightwaking babies are just fine, start sleeping through eventually no matter what their parents do or don’t do.
One of the mistakes I think experts make is that they position nightwaking as the baby’s problem, specifically a baby “sleep behaviour” problem.
Me, I think it’s the parents who have the problem. I don’t mean that their parenting is a problem. I mean that their nights are disturbed, they are going short of sleep, they are stressed about going short of sleep, they are stressed because so many people give them the message that they should be able to control their baby’s sleep. How parents feel about nightwaking matters and sometimes that in itself is the biggest source of stress, and is the “problem” that needs to be addressed.
I don’t mean to say, just control your own attitude and you’ll be fine. But, what I am saying is that how you feel should, in large part, guide how you decide to handle this at least as much, if not more, than the simple fact that your wonderful sleeper suddenly started waking.
If this situation becomes the new normal and you find a way to cope with it (many do this by having the baby in the parents bed) and you feel OK about that, that’s a perfectly OK way to handle it.
If you feel you can’t cope (and whether or not other people think you should be able to cope is irrelevant!), there are things you can try that are more gentle that the thing today’s parents refer to as cry-it-out. Google no-cry sleep solutions or gentle sleep solutions and see what you can find.
I don’t endorse any particular method. I think different parents need different options.
Just keep in mind that two of the biggest sources of distress for parents of nightwakers is the feeling that their baby is deficient in some way (because he doesn’t “self-soothe”, like some experts say he should be able to) and that the parent feels deficient because she/he is unable to control their baby’s sleep in the way experts seem to think they should.
If you can slay those two demons, you’ll have a much better chance of coping with the situation and figuring out what’s best for your family.
I wish you luck. And you, and all other parents of nightwakers, have my sympathy. I know what it’s like.
And keep one more thing in mind. As my family doc used to say, “Remember, I could be wrong.”
Does anyone else have any ideas for this mom?