A newborn's first few months can be exhausting for her parents. Adults aren't meant to be awakened every few hours, but new babies aren't capable of sleeping through the night. They need fluids and nourishment every few hours to stay healthy and support their rapid growth. However, by about six months of age, there is usually no physical reason for a healthy baby to need so much attention during the night. Sleep deprived parents are certainly ready to resume normal sleep patterns, but what if the baby still cries for attention at night?
It is normal for babies and children to occasionally awaken during the night. What happens next is usually learned behaviour. During a baby's first few months of life, crying brings a caring adult to ease the discomfort of an empty stomach and to soothe the infant back to sleep. This is as it should be. When the child is old enough, generally about six months old, nighttime nourishment is no longer necessary. However, a baby will still awaken occasionally and has only experienced the habit of being helped back to sleep.
Quiet nights will once again be routine when babies have learned to return to sleep without help. Not only is this necessary for the parents, but better for the child as well. Sleep deprivation can adversely affect a child's development.
Providing an environment conducive to sleep is the first step in helping a child sleep through the night. We all sleep better in a cool room, so keep the heat turned down a little at night. As with adults, darkness signals to a baby's brain that it is time to sleep, so cover windows as necessary. Limit distractions like toys in the crib. She needs to associate the crib with sleep, not play. It's alright for her to take a comfort item, like a favourite toy, doll, or stuffed animal to bed, but all other toys should be stored elsewhere.
Adding a white noise machine to the nursery will cancel out household sounds that can cause a baby to startle awake. The sound of the white noise will eventually be associated with sleep, so leave it running all night, if possible. When the child awakens at night, this soft sound will become a sleep cue.
Establish a bedtime routine. This routine should include quiet, calm activities such as a warm bath, reading a story, or listening to soft music. The evening routine will become another indication that it is time to transition toward sleep. Babies should be placed in the crib while drowsy but still awake, and parents should leave the room. This allows him to become accustomed to falling asleep alone. Maintaining regular naptimes and bedtime helps as well.
Now for the really hard part: not responding when he fusses. When the crying begins, wait a few minutes to allow him to fall back asleep without help. If the tears continue, check on him, but don't turn on the light, or pick him up. Determine whether or not there is a physical reason for the baby's distress, like hunger or the need for a diaper change, and take care of this. If the child feels feverish or generally seems to feel ill, respond appropriately. Otherwise, leave the room and give him a little time to settle down on his own.
Teaching babies this new skill of falling asleep unassisted requires patience, understanding and time. It is one of the first skills a child will learn toward independence. Helping a baby learn to sleep through the night will result in restful slumber for the entire family.
By Cindy Tabacchi