Parents are often tired, really tired, and office visits often involve the question, “how do I get my child to sleep through the night?” My answer varies depending on the child’s age health, and the parents.
For very young infants, up to at least 4 months of age, sleeping through the night is just luck of the draw. Some will, but most do not and it is not considered safe to implement sleep training this early. The first few months of life are a time of building energy stores, intense growth, and major brain development. Regular around the clock feedings are often needed to fuel this progress. What you can do from birth is get in the habit of putting your baby in their crib or bassinet drowsy but still awake, so that they learn early on to fall asleep without being held, fed, or rocked.
Between 4 months and 12 months many children will start sleeping through the night on their own. If this happens to you, enjoy it and continue to focus on regular bedtimes and wake times. If this does not happen automatically, it is safe to use sleep training to help your baby learn to fall asleep on his own and stay that way. Many breastfeeding moms delay sleep training because middle of the night feedings help maintain their milk supply, but by 12 months of age, every child should sleep 10-12 hours uninterrupted through the night for optimal brain development.
Sleep training most often brings to mind hours of crying until exhaustion wins over and the child falls asleep or the parent gives in and goes to comfort the child (often called the Ferber Method after the pediatrician who invented the protocol). While this can work, it is not the only option. The goal of sleep training is to teach a baby to fall asleep independently, and self-soothe if they wake during the night. Even adults wake during the night, but consciously or subconsciously we note that it is still dark or the alarm has not yet sounded, and fall back asleep. This is what we want our healthy babies to learn to do as well.
To help your baby learn this skill, the most important thing you can do is be consistent. Research sleep training methods and tips like the Ferber Method, the No Cry Sleep Solution, the Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child regimen, and others. Figure out which options makes you feel most comfortable (and works with your situation – thin apartment walls are not ideal for crying it out). Then get everyone in the household educated and on board. This includes older siblings, some of whom will get up and go to a younger sibling in the night before mom and dad even realize it has happened.
Once you start, commit to the routine and find ways to catch up on sleep with daytime naps or taking turns with nighttime duties. You need to be at your best to stay consistent and on track. Some babies pick up a new habit within a couple of days, but for many it can take 3-4 weeks to see true change. Keep reminding yourself that you are actually doing your child a favor by helping them get that uninterrupted sleep. They will be healthier and learn faster during the day after a good nights sleep, and you will be a more engaged and alert parent if you are getting adequate rest as well. As always, there are certain situations and health conditions that should be taken into account when determining the best sleep routine for your child, so always talk with your child’s provider before starting any sleep training.
Anne Welch, MD is pediatrician in Boston, MA. She writes about pediatric health topics and parenting at her blog www.cactusinthecommonwealthpeds.com.