Simple nighttime rituals go a long way toward helping your child fall asleep. But what should you do if she awakens during the night?

newborn baby sleeping
Credit: Alexandra Grablewski

To expedite your child's journey to the land of nod, try to develop a bedtime ritual that works for both of you. Having a bath, getting into a clean diaper and pajamas, having his teeth brushed, getting his hair combed, and being taken to bed by Mommy or Daddy at the same time every night can be the sequence of events that gives your child a clear signal to get ready for sleep. A story, a song, a short, quiet talk with you, and a snuggle with his special soft toy or blanket all help to send your child on his way to sleep feeling calm, secure, and cared for. Give him a goodnight kiss, turn on the nightlight, turn off the lamp, and leave the room.

So far, so good. But what should you do when, about three minutes later, you hear the hair-raising call of the un-asleep? No experts really advocate ignoring this call and letting your child cry incessantly. Neither should you rush to her bedside and let her enjoy a few more minutes of playtime or of your company, however.

Instead, many experts advise a middle-of-the-road approach that most people can live with. The so-called Ferber method, named for pediatrician Richard Ferber, M.D., is virtually revered in many households not only because of its effectiveness but because of the respect it provides both parent and child. The Ferber method teaches your child to help himself back to sleep so he need not call you every time he wakes. Here's how it works:

Step 1: When your child calls out for you or starts crying after you have put him to bed, wait for a minute or two, then go to him but do not turn on the light in his room or take him out of the crib.

Step 2: Speak quietly to your child and reassure him that you are there if he needs you. But also be firm about the fact that it is time for sleeping and not for talking. Then leave the room while your child is still awake.

Step 3: The next time he cries (which may be immediately after you leave), wait a minute longer than you did the first time, then repeat the process.

Continue in this fashion, letting your child cry a little bit longer each time before you go to him. Speak to him briefly, and leave the bedroom while he is still awake. On the second night, wait a little longer than you did the first time on the first night before going in to your child, then repeat the pattern. By the second or third night, you may well find that your child is already going to sleep sooner.

When your child wakes in the night and cries for you, use the same technique. Let him cry for four or five minutes, then go to him, reassure him that you are there, and leave. Return at lengthening intervals as necessary. Eventually, your child will learn to put himself to sleep without your help. The associations that he once may have needed -- having his back stroked or a lullaby sung to him until he fell asleep -- will gradually be replaced with others: Being in his crib with his special toy or blanket, for example, will be enough.

You can rest assured that a little bit of crying will not hurt your child. In the long run, allowing him to cry for a few minutes at a time for a few nights will be far more beneficial to him (and to the rest of the family) than allowing a poor sleeping pattern to persist. Using this method, success can come remarkably quickly, almost always within a couple of weeks once you start it, and often within just three or four nights.

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.