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Keeping Baby Sleep Schedule on Track

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Q: My 5-month-old used to sleep six hours at a stretch every night, but recently he's been waking up every two hours. What could be the cause, and how can I help him return to his old schedule?

A: It can be frustrating, not to mention exhausting, when a baby who once slept well starts waking up again during the night. But this is a common problem that requires parents' patience and understanding. In a healthy baby, this can result from a change in routine, such as going on a family trip or sleeping in a new room or crib. Sometimes, the excitement of learning a new skill such as sitting or crawling can lead to sleeplessness. And if an illness has been causing a baby to wake up frequently, he may continue to do so out of habit once he's well.

In solving sleep problems, parents may become lost in a maze of theories and advice. Should they let the baby "cry it out" or opt for a gentler approach? The key is to weigh everyone's need for sleep with your feelings about letting a baby cry. Whatever method you choose, implement it slowly. The less abrupt parents are in introducing a new routine, the less likely babies are to get upset.

To help your baby learn to soothe himself to sleep and to sleep for longer stretches, put him to bed when he's drowsy but still awake, says Suzanne Corrigan, M.D., associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas. When he wakes up at night, try to avoid picking him up. Instead, pat him gently to coax him back to sleep. Dr. Corrigan says it may help to create a "lovey": a small blanket that you've held close to you so it picks up your scent. When your baby wakes, give him the blanket to help calm him with your familiar smell. If you do need to pick him up, have your husband try first, especially if you're breastfeeding: Fathers don't smell like breast milk, so if they're doing the soothing the baby won't start thinking about food.

To get a handle on what works best, keep a sleep journal, says Dr. Corrigan. Record your baby's sleeping and waking times and what you did before and after. This may reveal a helpful pattern: Perhaps he sleeps longer in a darkened room, for example, or when he has an earlier bedtime.

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All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

Copyright © 2003. Reprinted with permission from the December/January 2003 issue of Child Magazine.