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Over the years of putting our own children to sleep and keeping them asleep, and counseling thousands of other moms and dads on various styles of nighttime parenting, here are some time-tested, proven attitudes and techniques. Most of these are applicable to infants and toddlers of all ages.
If your current daytime or nighttime routine is not working for you, think about what changes you can make in yourself and your lifestyle that will make it easier for you to meet your baby's needs. This is a better approach than immediately trying to change your baby. After all, you can control your own reactions to a situation. You can't control how your baby reacts. Use discernment about advice that promises a sleep-through-the-night more convenient baby, as these programs involve the risk of creating a distance between you and your baby and undermining the mutual trust between parent and child. On the surface, baby training sounds so liberating, but it's a short-term gain for a long-term loss. You lose the opportunity to get to know and become an expert in your baby. Baby loses the opportunity to build trust in his caregiving environment. You cease to value your own biological cues, your judgment, and instead follow the message of someone who has no biological attachment, nor investment, in your infant.
Especially in the first six months, avoid sleep trainers who advise you to let your baby "cry-it-out." Only you can know what "it" is and how to respond appropriately to your baby. Using the rigid, insensitive "let-him-cry-it-out" method has several problems. First, it will undermine the trust your baby has for nighttime comfort. Second, it will prevent you from working at a style of nighttime parenting until you find the one that works best for you and your family and third, it may keep you and your doctor from uncovering hidden medical causes of nightwaking. Nightfeedings are normal; frequent, painful nightwaking is not. (See related lessons: Hidden Medical Causes of Nightwaking, Letting baby "cry it out" yes, no?, and 4 Possible Hidden Causes of Colic.
Sleep is not a state you can force your baby into. Sleep must naturally overtake your baby. Your nighttime parenting role is to set the conditions that make sleep attractive and to present cues that suggest to baby that sleep is expected. Try the following sleep tight tips, which may vary at different stages in your baby's development. What doesn't work one week may work the next.
So-called "Disadvantages": Because of the concept of sleep associations, baby learns to rely on an outside prop to get to sleep, so—as the theory goes—when baby awakens he will expect help to get back to sleep. This may exhaust the parents.
So-called "Advantages": If baby learns to go to sleep by himself, he may be better able to put himself back to sleep without parental help, because he doesn't associate going to sleep with parents comforting. May be tough on baby, but eventually less exhausting for parents.
Remember, in working out your own parenting-to-sleep techniques and rituals, be sensitive to the nighttime needs of your individual baby and remember your ultimate goal: to create a healthy sleep attitude in your baby and to get all family members a restful night's sleep.
Many infants need help making the transition from being awake to falling asleep, which is really a prolongation of the bedtime ritual that conditions baby that sleep is expected to soon follow.
Wearing down is particularly useful for the reluctant napper. When baby falls asleep in the sling, snuggled with his tummy against your chest or draped over your chest once you lie down, you both can take a much-needed nap.
Now that you've learned all the tricks of the nighttime trade to get your baby to sleep, here are some ways to keep your baby asleep. Because of the characteristics of babies' sleep cycles and easy arousability from sleep, you will notice that we purposely omit what we call the "harden your heart" method: put your baby down to sleep awake in a crib in his own room, put cotton in your ears, and let him cry himself to sleep. When he awakens, don't go into him. He will soon learn to put himself to sleep and back to sleep. We believe that this method is unsafe, runs the risk of baby losing trust, and, for infants with persistent personalities, doesn't work. Try these tips to help your baby sleep increasingly longer stretches at night.
1) Clear the nose. In the early months, babies need clear nasal passages to breathe. Later they can alternatively breathe through their mouth if their nose is blocked. Bedroom inhalant allergies are a common cause of stuffy noses and consequent nightwaking. Dust-free your baby's bedroom as much as possible. (Remove fuzzy blankets, down comforters, dust-collecting fuzzy toys, etc.) If your baby is particularly allergy-prone, a HEPA-type air filter will help. As an added nighttime perk, the "white noise" from the hum of the air filter may help baby stay asleep.
2) Relieve teething pain. Even though you may not yet be able to feel baby's teeth, teething discomfort may start as early as three months and continue off and on all the way through the two-year molars. A wet bedsheet under baby's head, a drool rash on the cheeks and chin, swollen and tender gums, and a slight fever are telltale clues that teething is the nighttime culprit. What to do? With your doctor's permission, give appropriate doses of acetaminophen just before parenting your baby to sleep and again in four hours if baby awakens.
3) Change wet or soiled diapers. Some babies are bothered by wet diapers at night, most are not. If your baby sleeps through wet diapers, there is no need to awaken her for a change – unless you're treating a persistent diaper rash. Nighttime bowel movements necessitate a change. Here's a nighttime changing tip: If possible, change the diapers just before a feeding, as baby is likely to fall asleep during or after feeding. Some breastfed babies, however, have a bowel movement during or immediately after a feeding and will need changing again. If you are using cloth diapers, putting two or three diapers on your baby before bedtime will decrease the sensation of wetness.
4) Remove irritating sleepwear. Some babies cannot settle in synthetic sleepwear. A mother in our practice went through our whole checklist of nightwaking causes until she discovered her baby was sensitive to polyester sleepers. Once she changed to 100 percent cotton clothing, her baby slept better. Besides being restless, some babies show skin allergies to new clothing, detergents and fabric softeners by breaking out in a rash.
5) Remove airborne irritants. Environmental irritants may cause congested breathing passages and awaken baby. Common household examples are cigarette smoke, baby powder, paint fumes, hair spray, animal dander (keep animals out of an allergic child's bedroom), plants, clothing (especially wool), stuffed animals, dust from a bed canopy, feather pillows, blankets, and fuzzy toys that collect lint and dust. If your baby consistently awakens with a stuffy nose, suspect irritants or allergens in the bedroom.
WHAT TO DO WHEN BABY AWAKENSWHAT TO DO WHEN BABY AWAKENS
When your baby awakens, develop a nighttime parenting approach that respects your baby's need for nighttime trust and comfort, in addition to the need for baby and parents to quickly get back to sleep. While some babies are self-soothers, being able to resettle easily and quickly without outside help, others (especially those high-need babies with more persistent personalities) need a helping hand (or breast, or whatever tool you can muster up at 3:00 a.m.). Try these back-to-sleep comforters:
The above tools not only help your short-term goal of getting your baby to sleep, but, more importantly, create a healthy sleep attitude that lasts a lifetime. A baby who enjoys this style of nighttime parenting learns that sleep is a pleasant state to enter and a secure state to remain in. Therein lies the key to nighttime parenting.