Question: My 11-month-old daughter has been waking up at various times in the night for the past month. She has not been able to put herself back to sleep, without me picking her up and rocking her back to sleep, only to do this 2/3 more times in the night. She will wake up crying and will not settle down unless she is picked up. I have also started a bad habit of rocking her to sleep to begin with, because she started not being able to put herself to sleep, which by the way, she use to do. How do I break this cycle and allow her to go to sleep on her own and get back to sleep after waking, without having her “cry it out”? Lori
Answer: Picking up a baby and rocking her to sleep is such a natural thing to do. It’s hard to believe anyone would recommend not doing it. The reason for putting babies to bed before they are completely asleep is because, at certain developmental stages, babies begin to form mental patterns for events and then expect that same sequence every time. When the routine stops working, that is, when babies are waking up more frequently, parents need to change the routine.
I wish I could tell you how to do this without your baby crying but crying is the only way your baby can communicate with you. Your baby will be saying: “Hey mom, where did you go?” “Mom, show me how to go to sleep!” “Mom, I’m exhausted. I have a really big day tomorrow!” As long as you answer these questions for your baby, everything will be fine.
Start by preparing your daughter to go in her crib while she is still awake. Continue with a quieting bedtime routine. You may even rock her for a short while but do not let her fall asleep in your arms. This will require diligence on your part. You will not be able to get lost in the loving moments of rocking. If she becomes agitated when she realizes you are putting her down awake, pat her back and reassure her that it’s time to sleep. (You may pick her up again but will still need to lay her back down awake.) She will only learn a new way of going to sleep through repetition and persistence. You must be emotionally confident to guide her through the changes.
I think that learning to go to sleep without adult assistance is easier for children if they have a “lovey.” A “lovey” is a comfort object that takes the place of mom and dad when they can’t be there. Psychologists believe that these “transitional objects” are not emotional crutches but rather they are positive vehicles for moving from dependence to independence. Pick one special, washable object for your daughter to love: a cuddly bear, a blanket square, or any of the commercial products available. (You may even buy 2 and use them interchangeably in case one gets lost.) Introduce the “lovey” at naptimes as well as any daytime snuggle times. Give your daughter the “lovey” to hold when you tuck her in at night and every time you go to her. Reassure her with soothing words, “Time to sleep, here’s your blanket.” In a short time (two weeks if you are consistent), she will develop her own rituals that ease her to sleep.
Now is a wonderful time to start new sleep routines and it will be well worth it for all of you to be happy and rested. Repeat these strategies whenever the routine is disrupted by incidents of illness or teething. With a good foundation, it will get easier and easier to have restful nights.
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.