Teething and sleep

Question: My 11-month-old used to go to bed no problem and sleep through the night. The last month, teething has disrupted his sleeping and it is now taking 2 hours to get him back down. I don’t know because he is in pain that I should just let him cry. He has a comfort object. I feed him that doesn’t work. He becomes wide awake. All the articles I have read don’t state what to do if teething is an issue. Do you let them suffer or console them. If I let him cry, he screams for an hour. I give him tylenol and hurricane gel but this just wakes him up more to be held. PLEASE PLEASE HELP EXHAUSTED WORKING MOM!

Answer: I really feel for you – this is the working mom’s nightmare! There are no easy answers because, yes, you must comfort a child in pain but then you must “unteach” those very behaviors when the teething ends.

Our first priority is to find ways to comfort a teething 11-month-old. He needs pain relief, especially at night when the quiet intensifies the discomfort. If Tylenol and the gels aren’t working, try the health food store for a homeopathic remedy called Humphries. Second, he needs the comfort of someone being there with him during his discomfort. Here you must choose from a whole spectrum of choices – giving him his lovie to hold, letting him lay in the crib while you rub his back, picking him up, rocking in a chair together, taking him to your bed. The choice depends on what is realistic for you to do now and how extreme the change will be later. The more you do now, the harder the transition will be later. Sadly, there are no easy answers for you. If you give him his lovie without picking him up now, you will be dozing in the chair next to his crib because he may be unsettled for an hour. If you pick him up now and rock with him, he will be crying later. Some could say that it’s better for him to cry when he’s not in pain from teething. Either way, you lose sleep. Just keep in mind your goals – to comfort and reassure him while in pain (or in a developmental transition) and to set a nighttime environment where everyone will get some rest most nights.

Second, allow for a transition period to undo what you just did. He now needs to learn that what was available to him when he was teething or sick is no longer an option. Start the program again whether it’s the Ferber method, back patting, or giving him the comfort object. I did receive feedback that in one of my other columns I did not present the family bed as an equal option. It certainly is. But you as a parent must stay true to the Sears philosophy and allow your child to stay in your bed until he is ready to give up the arrangement. I have seen it work in many households but I think it’s unfair to the child to bring him to the parent’s bed only when the parents are in the mood (or, as the case may be, not in the mood to deal with a fussy child).

The big unknown is how to distinguish teething issues from developmental sleep issues. Your son really can’t tell you and probably would rather not do anything that changes your middle-of-the-night comfort. Watch for signs of teething during the day. Is he drooling excessively? Is he in pain or just “not himself”? If one of the teething remedies is working during the day, it probably brings some relief at night too. While your priority at the moment is to ease his discomfort, teething won’t last forever. You will eventually face the challenge of pulling yourself away. The sleep issues are pervasive at this age because of the newly acquired concept of “object permanence” and developmental separation issues. I recommend parents see these as new cognitive developments rather than as emotional neediness. As children learn about an entire world that exists beyond their immediate senses, they also learn that a parent’s love is never-ending. Until then, consider this your parenting “residency” schedule of sleepless nights!

Good Luck,
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.

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