Sleep is one of the most common subjects that I discuss with parents over the first year of life. When an infant isn’t sleeping well, it is a significant challenge because you can be guaranteed that one or both parents (and potentially siblings) aren’t sleeping well also. Unfortunately, there isn’t a single “fix” that works for all babies and families. If there was, you can be sure that there wouldn’t be as many books and websites that are available to give parents advice specifically with this issue!
It’s normal for newborns and young infants to wake to feed throughout the night, but by about four to five months of age, most infants should be able sleep for longer stretches without needing to feed. If your baby is still waking to feed frequently by that age, there are a few reasons this could occur. I would certainly recommend discussing this at your baby’s well child check and have your child’s doctor ensure that she is growing well and doesn’t have any medical issues going on. The doctor would also ask about your regular routine for getting your child to go sleep. Often times, this is the key to figuring out how to help.
A quick lesson in sleep
We all cycle through different stages of light and deep sleep throughout the night. Sometimes, when we are in light sleep, we actually briefly wake up, but then go right back to sleep, and don’t recall these short awakenings in the morning. Infants go through these cycles as well, but sometimes when they wake up; they aren’t able to fall right back to sleep because they are dependent on certain things to make the transition from awake to asleep. A very common example of this is the infant who is regularly held and nursed until she falls asleep, and then is carefully laid down in the crib. It’s likely that when she arouses lightly overnight, the baby will fuss and cry because in order to fall back asleep, the child needs to be held and fed – not because she is hungry or being difficult, but because she hasn’t learned how to fall asleep any other way. For other babies it may not be nursing that they are dependent on, but may be being rocked or perhaps being in the swing.
Help your child learn how to fall asleep more independently
Before you start to make changes to your baby’s sleep routine, it is important to know what you want your child’s night to look like and be sure that all parents and caregivers are on the same page. Some families keep a “bigger picture” point of view with as the way that babies sleep in the United States is very different from how they sleep in other parts of the world.
If you want to help your baby sleep for longer stretches, I generally recommend a gradual approach to this (vs the “cry-it-out” method, which I wasn’t ever able to fully carry out with my children). I think the best first step is to dissociate feeding from falling asleep and an easy way to do this is to move the feeding to earlier in the bedtime routine. Perhaps try feeding your child before you change her diaper for the last time. Then, rock her briefly to get her nice and sleepy again before you attempt to lay her down in her crib. If she fusses (which she likely will), do your best to settle her without picking her up.
You can try rubbing or patting her belly or head lightly, singing or making sure her pacifier is in place if she uses one (just don’t give a bottle in the crib). If your baby gets really mad, go ahead and pick her up to settle her down, but try hard not to feed your baby or to let her fall completely asleep in your arms…and then try to lay her down again.
I will warn you that this takes time and for the first few nights it may draw out the bedtime process by an hour or two, but typically within a week, your baby will be starting to get better at settling herself. It’s important to also try to be consistent with the new pattern for naps as well as if your baby would wake up in the middle of the night – the more opportunities your baby has to practice falling asleep, the quicker she will learn.
If you try the above and are still struggling with getting your child to sleep, it’s definitely worth scheduling an appointment with her pediatrician to be sure there isn’t anything else going on and to discuss other possible things to try.
Make an appointment with Dr. Carleen Hanson, pediatrician at UnityPoint Health - Meriter - Monona Clinic for more tips on getting your child to sleep.
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