As a pediatrician, one of the most frequently asked questions I hear is, “How can I get my baby to sleep through the night?” Let me give you my best advice by first sharing my own experiences as a mother.
My oldest child, Jack, was a truly terrible sleeper. Awful. For months, he woke every hour or two to nurse. Finally, when he was four months old, and when I’d reached the end of my sleep-deprived rope, I made a deal with my husband, Paul, to let Jack cry it out.
The first night, our son cried for six hours (while I also cried the entire time). The next night was worse. By the third night of endless screaming, I had a Momma Bear moment, threw up the white flag and headed for the nursery to comfort my hysterical baby, but my husband convinced me to wait it out. Finally, Jack stopped crying. When I peeked in on him, he was blissfully asleep. Jack never cried himself to sleep again. Seventeen years later, he can still sleep through anything without waking up.
Our second baby, Liesl, was another terrible sleeper. But the process of sleep-training Jack was so painful for me, I couldn’t bear to sleep-train my daughter. So, we let her call the shots, taking her own sweet time feeding and keeping us awake until she ultimately decided to sleep for longer stretches—which took years. She is now 15 and still a terrible sleeper. I often wonder if she would have been a better sleeper if only we had tried sleep-training her like we did Jack. Life as a parent is full of second-guessing.
So, what is my advice for sleep deprived parents? I believe that, developmentally, babies younger than 4 months old should be attended to when they cry for more than a few minutes, in order to feed and reassure them. Once a baby passes the 4-month mark, they are medically able to go 10 or more hours without feeding. This is an appropriate age to do some form of sleep-training IF parents wish to do so.
When you sleep-train, my overarching principle is to remove as many rewards for your baby waking up as your parental heart can tolerate. In other words, think about what you do that encourages a baby to wake up. Common examples include:
- Going to your baby’s side
- Picking her up
- Feeding her
- Rocking her back to sleep
- Bringing her back to your bed
Decide which of those rewards you can remove. What we did with my son, Jack, what I call “Dr. B’s Sleep Boot Camp,” was to take all of those away at once. It’s the fastest, but hardest way to sleep-train. More moderate approaches are to remove some of the rewards in a more gradual fashion, determined by what the parents can tolerate emotionally.
There have been a large number of books written on the subject of getting your baby to sleep. That proves:
- Sleep problems are common in babies.
- There is no one right answer.
- Nobody is really THE expert.
Take my advice, think about it and make it work for you. And talk with us at Eugene Pediatric Associates if you need help managing your baby’s sleep patterns.