The suggestions here can be used by parents to help their babies become self-soothers-that is, babies who can relax into sleep on their own.
All of the steps that will be described here and in Sleep 2 taken together can turn around the very difficult problem you face if your baby awakens frequently during the night.
First, it is important to find out if your pediatrician is satisfied with your baby’s weight gain and feels that it’s OK for her to sleep through the night. If this is the case and your baby weighs 15-16 lbs and she has not begun to sleep the night through, a “stretching” can be initiated using the pacifier or giving water in a bottle instead of milk. Usually, by 6 months babies are ready to give up-all-night feedings but you should check with your pediatrician because some babies need one-night feeding for a while longer.
To begin with, you need to stretch out the time between her feedings both during the day and during the night. Nursing each time a baby awakens in the night doesn’t work well. What seems to happen is that a baby gets trained to be hungry at night–but then takes only a small amount of milk. Oftentimes, it’s the sucking that is more important than the milk your baby gets. Nursing fulfills more than the satisfaction of hunger for infants. Along with nursing come feelings of closeness to mother’s body, of being held, of being touched and touching, of being talked to, and just as important the gratification of just sucking. For babies, sucking is a way of relaxing and it helps them fall asleep.
That’s why an infant needs to learn to suck her thumb or pacifier early. Try to get a pacifier that she likes. If she doesn’t have one yet it may take some work to get her to like it. It will probably take a while, but don’t give up. You might try dipping it in some breast milk. Just keep working at it on and off during the day so she begins to accept it. It should be fun so she connects it to pleasure. Then once she becomes friendly with the pacifier you can give it to her when she awakens at night.
It’s also a good idea to have a favorite blanket that she can hold in her hand each time you try to get her to use the pacifier. Touching a soft object such as the satin edge of a blanket or even a familiar diaper creates a calm feeling. Then put the same blanket into bed with her when she goes to sleep. The blanket is a reminder of you so it helps comfort her along with the pacifier.
Wake her up before you go to sleep, say at 10 or 11 and nurse her. You’ll know she’s not hungry and that she can then last at least 4 hours. If she wakes up, try patting her or singing to her-just don’t begin nursing as soon as she awakens. If you have a partner it would help a great deal if they could go into her first. She won’t expect the nursing from him and that will help stretch the time.
At around 5 or 6 months your baby is just beginning to realize that you are not part of her and that you can walk away from her whenever you want. She doesn’t like that, it upsets her and may even frighten her. When she wakes up you may see her anger and her fears. A first step, therefore, is to put her into her crib when she is awake so she sees you as separate from her. Begin by not letting her fall asleep nursing either at nap or bedtime. Sit her up and talk to her about nite- nite time and put her in her crib so she knows what is happening. Then give her her pacifier and blanket and talk a little more to her. If she cries just stay there and talk to her or rub her back- but don’t take her out of her crib. It’s best if you or your partner stays there until she falls asleep.
Stretching feedings, using a pacifier and security blanket, and putting her into her crib awake for naps and bedtime(after 3 -4 months old) are all pieces that make up a pattern that leads to sleep.
And don’t forget, there are inevitable circumstances that disrupt every baby’s sleep patterns such as trips, house guests, colds, teething, illness, or a change of baby-sitter. But the schedule should be re-established once the disruption is over.
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.