Q. I am trying to train my 5-month-old to sleep through the night, but when I let him cry it out, he keeps waking up my 3-year-old. What's a tired mom to do?
A. I remember those dead-of-night wake-ups so well -- my daughter screaming at 3:30 a.m., not at all moved by my whispering "night-night" and giving her back rubs. If listening to her cry herself to sleep wasn't bad enough, then hearing my 3-year-old call out "Mommy?" really made it a tough (and early) morning.
Here are some ideas to help you make it through sleep training:
Make noise -- white noise, that is. The sounds will drown out middle-of-the-night crying. You can buy a white-noise machine, but I always ran a room fan in my older child's room. It provided just enough "noise" to cover the cries coming from his little sister's room. Other families I know play a relaxation CD softly on repeat.
Talk to your daughter about what's going on. Explain that her brother is learning how to sleep through the night. Remind her that she knows how to get herself back to sleep when she wakes up. And make a plan together for what she can do if she's awakened by her brother. For instance, you could tell her, "Close your eyes again, cuddle with your bear, and think about the story we read right before bedtime."
Don't linger in her bedroom. If your daughter wakes you up because her brother woke her, go in and explain (in whispers) what is happening: "Your brother is crying because he's having trouble falling back asleep." Don't turn on any lights or do anything that may make her more alert. Let her know what the plan is, and be consistent each time she gets up. You could say, "Mommy is going to tuck you in now and give you a kiss. Then we all have to go to bed until morning."
Be patient. You may have not just one, but two cranky children for a while until your youngest is sleeping through the night. When you see more frequent tantrums, whining, or clinginess, you'll know why. Just think how tough it is for you to make it through the day -- and you're a grown-up who can order up a latte! So hang in there, maintain a regular bedtime and naptime for your kids, and someday soon everybody in your home will be sleeping tight.
Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a nationwide nonprofit that promotes the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).
Originally published in American Baby magazine, February 2007.