Out of nowhere, your star sleeper is up in the middle of the night again. Don’t panic, we’ll help everyone rest easy.
The scene wasn’t pretty. It was 4 A.M. and my 11-month-old son and I had been awake for hours. I’d tried everything to get him settled: rocking, singing, feeding, and even bringing him into our bed, where he excitedly climbed over his dad as if we were having an impromptu family cuddle puddle. When he began crying for what seemed like the tenth time in a few hours, I broke down too. Harper had been sleeping through the night for months. How could this be happening? Was it possible that my proudest parenting achievement had completely come undone?
Here’s what I didn’t know at the time: It’s 100 percent normal for babies who have been snoozing blissfully for eight to 12 hours each night to suddenly go through some bad patches. “Once your child is sleeping through the night, never expect that it will last forever,” warns Parents advisor Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night.
With that in mind, we’ve identified the most common reasons that star sleepers tend to wake up — and asked experts to offer solutions for each dilemma.
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Wake-Up Call: Developmental Milestones
Sara Moe, mom of 8-month-old Finn and 3-year-old Dashiell, from Los Angeles, remembers that both her children woke up in the middle of the night during the weeks when they were learning to crawl. “I would go in and find them on their knees, still half asleep, utterly confused about how they got that way,” she says.
That’s not uncommon. One of the biggest disruptions to slumber time is that your little one is working hard on mastering a new skill — seemingly all night long. A baby learning to roll onto her tummy may have trouble finding her way back to her original position. When she begins to sit up later, you might find her crying because she hasn’t figured out how to lie back down. Another biggie is walking: Research shows that a kid can get so excited about this milestone that she literally can’t sleep, says Dr. Mindell.
Sleep-better solution: Spend time practicing the new skill with your kid during the day. “Let your baby move around a lot, and try to avoid excessive stroller or car-seat time,” says sleep consultant Jennifer Waldburger, coauthor of The Sleepeasy Solution: The Exhausted Parent’s Guide to Getting Your Child to Sleep. When your little one wakes up because she’s stuck in a new position, help her lie down again but don’t linger — you don’t want this to become a game.
Wake-Up Call: Separation Anxiety
Children under the age of 1 don’t understand object permanence — the idea that you may go away but you will always come back. As a result, your baby can feel panicked when he wakes during the night and doesn’t see you — especially if you were there when he drifted off. If he rouses with a startled cry and then seems playful after you pick him up, he might have just missed you. The worst thing to do is follow his lead and start socializing. “Don’t turn the middle of the night into fun time,” says Waldburger.
Sleep-better solution: Teach your baby that you’ll never disappear by playing games like peekaboo or hide-and-seek with his stuffed animals in the daytime. If he’s crying in the middle of the night for no apparent reason, pat him or pick him up for a minute or two to reassure him that you’re there and then give him a kiss good night — and goodbye. Trying to sneak out can backfire. “If your child is experiencing separation anxiety it will just make him more panicked and hyper-vigilant,” says Waldburger.
Wake-Up Call: Naps, Naturally
As your baby gets older, she’s going to begin needing fewer naps. These fluctuations can affect her overnight schedule as well. “If her rest periods are too close to bedtime she may not be sleepy, and if they’re too short she may be overtired — either scenario can make her more likely to wake at night,” says Marc Weissbluth, M.D., professor of clinical pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University and author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.
Sleep-better solution: If your baby’s routine has changed recently, consider keeping a sleep journal for a week to see whether you need to adjust her bedtime or tweak her naptimes. One way to gauge if your baby is getting enough quality sleep is to watch her between 4 and 5 P.M. “Many parents write this time off as the ‘witching hour’ — but it’s really the time when poor sleep catches up with a baby,” says Dr. Weissbluth. If your little one seems playful and happy, then her schedule is probably okay; if she’s clingy and short-fused, she may have given up her nap too soon or needs to go to sleep earlier.
Wake-Up Call: Routine Disruption
When Harper was 6 months, we took him for a week at the beach. When we got home, I resumed his bedtime ritual of bath, bottle, and book. But what used to soothe him had stopped working. He began crying as soon as I left his room.
No surprise we were back at square one — vacations, teething, or illness can all disrupt your baby’s shut-eye schedule. And it’s a vicious cycle: Sleep deprivation, even one hour less each night, can add up and make your baby even more likely to wake at night.
Sleep-better solution: Set aside a few days to get back on track. If your baby continues to wake after three nights post-vacation or illness, do a sleep-training refresher. It’s also helpful to keep as much of a routine in place as you can when you’re away from home — if it’s always bath and book before bed, keep that ritual intact as much as circumstances will allow.
Wake-Up Call: It’s A Mystery To You
You might have a bad night’s sleep now and then, and so will your baby. Maybe she has a tummy ache, or she’s too hot — or cold. Perhaps she’s getting smarter. “When the brain is rewiring itself for a cognitive leap, it can affect sleep,” says Waldburger. Most often, the rough patch will pass or the answer will reveal itself over the course of a few days — a new tooth, a first word, a growth spurt — or all of the above!
Sleep-better solution: If you don’t know why your child is waking, comfort her by patting, holding, or rocking her. Soothe yourself by remembering that you won’t create a bad habit in one night and that you and your baby are passing through a stage. “Learning to sleep is like riding a bike. She may fall off sometimes but she won’t forget,” says Waldburger. Feel free to use that as your late-night mantra.
Baby Sleep: When to Let Your Baby Cry It Out
Originally published in the February 2012 issue of Parents magazine.
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