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Regardless of what well-meaning relatives may tell you, you can't spoil a baby under 4 months old. So when your baby cries at this early age (even at 3 a.m.) it's important to pick him up and comfort him. Babies this young need reassurance -- and when you consistently respond to your child he learns to trust that you'll be there for him. However, an older baby can absolutely learn to use crying as a way to manipulate you into picking him up and giving him attention, sometimes several times a night.
To help your child learn to soothe himself and sleep through the night consistently (so you can too), follow these simple steps:
• Cut out the middle-of-the-night feeding. Once your baby's past 3 or 4 months, it's no longer necessary for him to snack at 3 or 4 a.m. -- and continuing this feeding only encourages your baby to wake up more often.
• Don't rock your baby to sleep in your arms (although we know how tempting it is). Imagine his fearful surprise when he wakes and you're not there. Instead, put your child down when he is groggy but not totally asleep.
• When your baby wakes up crying, allow him to wail for 10 minutes (as long as you're sure he's healthy and safe). Then go to him and offer reassurance, but do not pick him up, turn up the lights, offer toys, or speak in an overly animated voice, all of which will encourage him to keep up the habit.
• Put things around your baby's crib to help soothe and relax him. For example: a crib-safe mirror, a ceiling fan, or a crib aquarium that makes bubbling underwater noises.
• Repeat the process as often as needed throughout the night. Most babies take about a week to figure out that nighttime isn't playtime and learn to fall back asleep on their own. Of course, you should still lavish your baby with love and attention throughout the day.
Remember, all bets are off if your child is sick, teething, or in a strange crib, since babies need extra attention at times like these. Very often, a family vacation can disrupt your baby's sleeping habits. If this happens, simply start the process over; it'll likely go faster the second time around.
Copyright 2009 Meredith Corporation.
The answers from our experts are for educational purposes only. Please always refer to your child's pediatrician and mental health expert for more in-depth advice.