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Solving Sleep Problems With Infants

Sleeping baby

​​​Most experts recommend that a child should be at least 6 months old before parents try to solve bedtime problems. By 6 months, children's overall health, happiness and development have reached a point where they're capable of sleeping longer, waking up and self-comforting themselves to fall back asleep.

It's important to remember that children learn by doing and experiencing change as a result of what they do. One of the first things they learn is that a loving, attentive parent will respond to their cries. Since babies cry anywhere from two to three hours a day, they have ample opportunity to learn this behavior-response pattern.

When parents attempt to solve sleep problems, infants have to "unlearn" a pattern they have perfected since birth. The more loving and caring the parents are, the more likely it is that the child has established the connection between crying and quickly being soothed.

Another complication in solving sleep problems centers on the stages of sleep both children and adults experience. These range from the first, dreamy stage to the deepest level of sleep in which there is no consciousness. Everyone cycles through these stages during the night, but infants are more likely to wake themselves up and then not be able to go back to sleep. They become distressed and cry out for their parents. 

The quality of this cry changes from rumbles and whimpers to an all-out, piercing alarm. Parents often ignore the whimpering stage, but few can disregard the full-blown cry. So, the infant learns a full-throttle wail is the best way to get an immediate response. 

During the day, this sound is hard to take. At night, it's nerve shattering. Ignoring it, however, is essential in solving bedtime problems.

Two Approaches

Cold Turkey: Ignore the cry outright. This will not physically or psychologically harm the child. It's worse for the parents than the child since it goes against all they've learned: When a child cries, a parent responds. If strictly followed, however, the cold turkey approach will cure bedtime problems in three to five nights.

Be warned. It's difficult not attending to a child's cry at night. Time will seem to stand still.  Actually, most infants stop after an hour. The crying may be harder on one parent than the other, and arguments may result. It becomes even more difficult when one or both must work the next day. Bear in mind the situation should be resolved in a few nights.
It's best not to visit the crying infant at all. But if you must, follow the "putter" principle. One of the parents goes into the bedroom and quietly "putters" about  -- without turning on lights or picking up the child. Conversation should be kept to a minimum. If your child does not need help, such as a diaper change, quietly leave.

Graduated Ignoring: In the Ferber Method, developed by Dr. Richard Ferber, parents ignore the infant for specific lengths of time, gradually increasing the length. The first night may be five minutes, the second night 10 minutes, and so on until the length reaches 45 to 60 minutes.  For parents who cannot go cold turkey, the graduated method is recommended. However, in the end, a parent must be willing to endure crying for a longer time - up to two or three weeks - until the situation is resolved. 

With either approach, the primary objective is to help children learn to manage the distress they experience when they wake up and must put themselves back to sleep. Think long-term reward for short-term discomfort.  Learning good sleep habits early on is best for both the child and the parent.

Learn more about this topic in Good Night, Sweet Dreams, I Love You, Now Get Into Bed and Go to Sleep! by Patrick C. Friman, PhD.

This content was created by Boys Town expert Pat Friman. To learn more about him, visit his expert page here.