5 Common Sleep Problems and Solutions

Here's how you and baby can both catch some zzzs.

Need Sleep?

Are your baby's sleep habits keeping you up at night? You're not alone. With four kids, I've encountered just about every possible pitfall, from one son who would only fall asleep in his car seat to another who refused to nap longer than 20 minutes at a stretch for months on end. Sleep can be a loaded issue, and you may wonder if you're somehow causing your baby to wake frequently or sleep fitfully. Relax. All moms run into tricky situations with their babies, and as with any other parenting decision, there's more than one "right" way to address them. Here, we've gathered five baffling sleep scenarios and asked other parents and sleep experts for possible solutions.

Next: The Rocker

The Rocker

Sleep Scenario #1

My baby is 5 months old. I've always rocked her to sleep, but I'd like to be able to lay her down and have her fall asleep on her own. How can I make this happen without a lot of trauma and tears for either of us?

In order for a baby to transition from falling asleep while rocking in your arms to falling asleep on her own, she has to master two smaller skills -- the ability to fall asleep someplace other than in your arms, and the ability to fall asleep without being rocked, explains Ann Douglas, author of Sleep Solutions for Your Baby, Toddler, and Preschooler (Wiley).

If you aren't comfortable with making your baby learn to put herself to sleep "cold turkey," you can try substituting what Harvey Karp, MD, author of The Happiest Baby on the Block (Bantam) and an American Baby advisor, calls a new sleep association. From being inside your body, babies are born accustomed to drifting off to sleep amid noise, tactile stimulation, and rocking. Gradually replace rocking with white noise (you can play a CD), Dr. Karp recommends. If you play the sounds while you're rocking the baby to sleep for four or five consecutive nights, she will begin to create a new association with sleep, and her transition from falling asleep in your arms to falling asleep in the crib will be easier, Dr. Karp says. "The idea is to create other sleep associations that don't require your presence to help the baby fall asleep," he adds.

Be prepared for your baby to put up a big fuss the first few times you lay her down awake. Some sleep-training techniques instruct parents not to pick up a crying baby but to come into the room at set intervals (every five minutes, for example) and talk to her in a reassuring voice.

But that approach doesn't work for all babies or parents. Christine George, of Lansing, Michigan, tried that method with her 6-month-old, Kayleigh, but the crying didn't stop, even after 10 or 15 minutes. Instead, Kayleigh became more and more upset until she was screaming, red faced, and gagging. "After two nights of becoming almost as upset as my baby was," George says, "I decided that technique just wasn't going to work for me."

What did work? "We'd walk around the room with her for a few minutes until she was drowsy, and when we laid her in the crib, we'd gently bounce the mattress with one hand while pressing her belly with the other hand and saying 'Shhhh' for a minute or two until she fell asleep," George says. "After a while, we were able to do it without the hand on the belly, and then without the bounce, and finally we were able to lay her down awake and she'd fall asleep." The process took two weeks.

Remember that there's no one-size-fits-all approach, advises Claire Lerner, LCSW, an American Baby advisor and the director of parenting resources at Zero to Three, the National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families. "With some babies, you can pat them or just sit there so they can see you, but for a lot of babies that's just confusing," she says. But even if you choose to walk away from her bed, the crying isn't likely to last more than a few nights. "The more consistent you are, the quicker she'll learn," Lerner says.

The Anywhere-But-Home Sleeper

Sleep Scenario #2

My 10-month-old falls asleep in his car seat when we run errands but won't remain asleep when I try to take him in the house. Then he won't fall asleep during his bed or naptime.

Since babies this age are very curious, if he's falling asleep on short car rides, it's likely that he's not getting enough sleep around the clock, advises Marc Weissbluth, MD, pediatrician and author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child (Ballantine). Observe your child over a 24-hour cycle, and see if you're missing cues that he's sleepy: Is he rubbing his eyes, acting clingy or anxious, or whining? If you're reasonably sure that your baby's getting enough sleep overall, it's possible that you're just planning your outings too close to his naptime, so you may want to readjust your errand schedule to accommodate his naps -- a 20-minute catnap in the car can spoil the two-hour rest you looked forward to all morning.

Since that's not always possible, another option is to let your baby finish out his nap in the car seat. "You can grab a book and read in the car while your little one finishes his nap, or transfer him right in his car seat and park him next to you on the floor in your house until he wakes up," suggests Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution (McGraw Hill).

The Speed Napper

Sleep Scenario #3

My baby goes down easily for a nap, but she gets up after 20 minutes. Within an hour she's rubbing her eyes and looking tired. How can I help her nap longer?

First, try to get at the root cause. Is your baby objecting to something in her nap environment? Maybe it's too warm or too cool, too loud or too quiet. Or perhaps she just hasn't mastered the skills that will allow her to soothe herself back to sleep if she wakes up.

If your baby is consistently waking up too early from her naps, work on establishing adequate nighttime sleep first. "Being overtired actually prevents babies from sleeping well," says Donald Goldmacher, MD, cocreator of the video Helping Your Baby Sleep Through the Night.

If she does sleep well at night, make sure her naps are in a similar environment; buy thick curtains to pull across the windows and create a pre-nap wind-down similar to your bedtime routine. Another possibility: perhaps you're waiting too long to put baby down for her nap -- most babies should nap two hours after they've woken up in the morning.

The Nap Resister

Sleep Scenario #4

My 11-month-old used to take two naps a day -- one in the morning and then one in the afternoon. Now he's suddenly resisting his morning nap. What can I do?

Eleven months old is on the young side to be dropping a nap, but it's not unheard of, says Dr. Weissbluth. He reports that 90 percent of all 12-month-olds take two naps a day, but by 15 months, 20 percent drop that morning nap.

How can you tell whether your baby is ready to give up his morning siesta? Keep an eye on him around 4 to 5 p.m., says Dr. Weissbluth. "If your baby is good-natured and happy, he's probably well rested. If he's rough around the edges, he probably isn't, which means he needs that second nap." Why wait until late afternoon to monitor his mood? At the end of the day, says Dr. Weissbluth, many children run out of steam because they aren't sleeping well enough, but they may have a rebound of evening energy that can mask sleep deprivation.

The Routine Sleeper

Sleep Scenario #5

My 7-month-old has a predictable bedtime routine, and she sleeps great at home. But she's so used to the routine that any little change throws her off. We have a vacation coming up, and I'm afraid she won't go to sleep in the hotel. What can we do to make sure she goes down?

Try to re-create your at-home bedtime routine as much as you can. Even if you aren't at home, you can probably give your baby a bath at around the same time as usual. Take an item from home, like a familiar sleeper, portable crib, or music that she's used to, and be sure to give her ample wind-down time each evening, particularly if your trip includes contact with a lot of new people, a whirlwind itinerary, or noisy or brightly lit environments.

Shannon Cate, of Illinois, says that her 10-month-old daughter, Nat, was a good sleeper at home but couldn't settle down if she could see her parents in the same room. "We learned that we needed a suite when we stayed in a hotel," Cate says. "That way, we could put Nat in a separate room at her usual bedtime, and we could order room service for dinner and watch a movie."

This option is expensive, though. "In a pinch, we've created partitions with furniture to block our daughter's view of us," Cate adds. "We also never leave home without her white-noise machine, to muffle the sounds of TV and talking."

Co-Sleeping Considerations

It's a key question for many new parents: Is co-sleeping safe -- or not?

Past research published in the journal Pediatrics has found that babies are up to 40 times more likely to die from suffocation while sleeping in an adult bed than they are when sleeping on their back in a safe crib. But that data doesn't draw a distinction between safe and unsafe bed-sharing conditions, notes James McKenna, PhD, director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame.

Certain factors do make bed sharing more or less safe, says James Kemp, MD, coauthor of the Pediatrics study and director of the Sleep Lab at Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center, in St. Louis. Still, Dr. Kemp feels that cribs are often the safer choice because they're standardized, unlike adult beds, which have many hard-to-control variables.

Parents often find that positioning a bassinet or crib next to their bed is a happy and safe middle ground, but if you're one of many parents who are co-sleeping, McKenna offers this advice:

  • Place your baby on his back to sleep.
  • Your bed should be firm, smooth, and flat, and your fitted sheets should be very secure. No heavy bedding, toys, or pillows should be near the baby.
  • Be sure that there is no space between the mattress and headboard or footboard, and that there is no space between the wall and the mattress where your baby could get stuck. Babies should sleep between their mother and a mesh guardrail that doesn't have any slats or spaces where a baby's head can become stuck. (Many fathers aren't as in tune as moms to a sleeping baby's breathing and motions.)
  • Don't sleep with your baby if you are under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or medication that makes you drowsy; if you're a smoker; or if you're a very sound sleeper who has difficulty waking.
  • If your weight causes your mattress to dip in, creating a pocket, or if your baby rolls toward you, she isn't safe sleeping in your bed.
  • Neither you nor your baby should wear bedclothes with strings or long ribbons.
  • Never leave your baby alone.

Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the September 2007 issue of American Baby magazine.

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