Babies go through periods of sensitivity to separation from parents and at those times, sleep disruptions are likely to occur. This is particularly so when a child goes from one developmental stage to another, such as beginning to crawl, standing up, and learning to walk. With toddlers it is not unusual around the time they learn to say “no”. At this time they become anxious about the conflicts that occur between themselves and mom when they assert themselves. It’s also normal for toddlers to react with sleep problems when a lot of changes occur.
After the first year, when babies are developing a more clear sense of being separate from mom, they are also more sensitive to when mom isn’t there. When you aren’t where your baby expects you to be it can suddenly feel frightening. In fact, we call this “separation anxiety” because it occurs a lot in very young children if they can’t find mom just when they want her, or when they realize they can’t get her back right now.
If your baby is five months or older and having trouble sleeping through the night you can try our sleep routine. First, you need to start by setting up a bed for yourself next to your baby’s crib. It can be a cot, a futon or a sofa cushion. Lay it down next to his crib and be sure you’ll be reasonably comfortable. You can tell him that it’s there so if he wakes up, you or his dad will come and be near him.
You really have to go all the way with it, and be prepared to be there several nights. When he wakes up, you go in and tell him something like, “I’m going to be right here–so you just go to sleep.” He’ll probably be very upset that you don’t pick him up, so reassure him, but don’t actually get up or pick him up. You can suggest he hold his blanket and take his pacifier.
Give it time, and every once in awhile just repeat what you’ve said to him, but don’t talk a lot. He’ll see you’re not leaving and in a couple of nights he will settle down. By the second or third night he probably will stop crying, but it may take a few more nights for him to be fully reassured. Meanwhile, you won’t get so exhausted going back and forth.
Wait until he awakens and then go in. Remember not to give him anything to eat or drink. Just count on comforting him by being there with a little talking. He will soon become reassured and his need to sleep will take over. The important thing is that you hold to the routine once you’ve started this. Also, we suggest you begin on a weekend so your husband or partner can be a part of it and won’t be exhausted.
Generally, the first night your child will still cry a good deal, even with you in the room. A one year old may stand at the crib’s railing and scream to be fed or picked up. Eventually, if you are both firm and gentle, your baby will fall into a light sleep. Until the pattern gets set, it’s best for you to stay in the room. Your baby will probably reawaken three or four times for reassurance the first two or three nights. Usually on the second night he will sleep until about 2 a.m. and then awaken, crying and feeling miserable.
We have found that parents only need to go in and lie nearby and give reassurance in a calm, soothing manner. They should not pick the baby up, simply remain nearby. If you have been able to carry out the routine in the first two nights, most babies will usually sleep straight through until morning in a few nights and there will be no further need to go into his room.
What is most important about this method is that a child is not let to “cry it out” alone and does not feel abandoned.
If you would like guidance on this or any other non-medical child development question, and you live in the Los Angeles area you can call the Warm Line free of charge at 310-281-9770. A child development specialist will return your call within just a couple of days.