How to Have Happier Bedtimes and Better Sleep

6 to 18 Months

Some parents are surprised to find that around 8 or 9 months, their baby, who had been sleeping through the night, suddenly begins to wake in the middle of the night and cry for them. "They're at that developmental stage when they are starting to understand object permanence," explains Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist at Zero To Three, a nonprofit organization devoted to promoting healthy development in the first three years of life. "They are beginning to understand that you exist out there even though they can't see you, so, naturally, they call for you."

Whether your child has regressed or has never quite mastered the skill of going to sleep solo, teaching him to fall asleep on his own takes a great deal of resolve. Some experts, echoing the advice of child-care expert Dr. Benjamin Spock, recommend putting your baby to bed and letting him cry it out. Within a couple of nights, the crying should dissipate, and healthy sleep habits should prevail.

Parents who consider this method too harsh often turn to "Ferberizing" -- the more gradual method described by Richard Ferber, M.D., director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children's Hospital, in Boston, in his best-selling book Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems (Fireside, 1985). If a baby cries when put in his crib, parents are advised to give their child a reassuring pat and leave the room. If the crying continues, they wait five minutes and return to calm the child -- but they are not to pick him up. Parents wait for increasingly longer intervals between reassuring visits until the child finally falls asleep. Ideally, the whole process should take as little as three days.

"It's horrible to hear your child scream," concedes Lerner. "Parents have to know how much they can tolerate. Don't start any kind of sleep training until you are committed to following through -- if you let your baby cry one night and then go to him the next, it may worsen the problem."

Some parents balk at the idea of letting their child cry at all, worrying that by not responding to their baby's cries, they will lose her trust. "You have to balance the building of trust with teaching certain skills. Children do need to learn to fall asleep on their own," points out Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night: How Infants, Toddlers, and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night's Sleep (HarperCollins, 1997) and an associate professor of psychology at St. Joseph's University, in Philadelphia. "Trust is not going to be affected by two or three evenings of your child being upset while learning how to fall asleep. It will be balanced out by the other hours in the day in which you respond to your child and her cries."

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