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Q&A on Sleeping

by The Next Family June 24, 2011

Note from the editor: It is important to us that TNF expose you to both sides of the coin on parenting issues. Your child may not fit the personality described by one writer but s/he may very well be like another. Each week in this Q & A segment we will juxtapose two parenting philosophies –one as proposed by Julie & Holly (more of an unconditional parenting style), and the other by Joe Newman, who provides a more transactional parenting approach.

Question:

My 3-month-old is a terrible sleeper and I’m not sure what to do. She wakes up every couple hours and the only thing that seems to get her back to sleep is nursing her before I put her back in her crib. I’m so exhausted from getting up so many times during the night. Is it too early to begin sleep training?

Answer by Joe Newman (Behavior Consultant)

To be honest, this is not my area of expertise.  So I will make this brief and allow you to proceed to Julie and Holly’s answer.

Many parents I know who’ve had similar problems have raved about the book “The Happiest Baby on the Block” by Harvey Karp, M.D. The methods he‘s developed seem compassionate and effective.

And I’ll leave you with some common wisdom from Babycenter.com:

“Typically, by age 3 months or so, babies have started to develop more of a regular sleep/wake pattern and have dropped most of their night feedings. And somewhere between 3 and 6 months, experts say, most babies are ready for sleep training and are capable of sleeping through the night. They’re not talking about eight hours, though — they generally mean a stretch of five or six hours.

Of course, every baby is different: Some may be ready earlier, others later. And some will sleep seven hours or longer at an early age while others won’t do so until they’re much older.

Before starting sleep training, make sure your baby doesn’t have any medical conditions that affect his sleep. Then be flexible about how you apply your chosen program and carefully observe how your baby reacts. If he’s very resistant or you see a change for the worse in his overall mood and behavior, stop and wait a few weeks before trying again.”

Good Luck.

Joe Newman is a behavior consultant who trains parents, teachers, administrators and specialists.  During the last twenty years he’s taught 2nd through 12th grade classes, designed curriculum, and founded a national mentoring program.  His book Raising Lions is available at Amazon.com.

Answer by Holly Kretschmar & Julie Gamberg (Parents and Educators)

We sympathize. Sleepless nights with a newborn can sabotage our best intentions to be patient parents and leave us desperate for a few consecutive hours of shut-eye.

Yes, three months is too young to begin sleep training. Sleep training advocates recommend starting no earlier than six-months-old, and the risks of sleep training using “cry it out” (a.k.a. “CIO”) methods at any age are under investigation. Several studies cite the damage that this type of sleep training can do to infants, including one conducted by researchers at the Harvard Medical School: “The early stress resulting from separation causes changes in infant brains that makes future adults more susceptible to stress in their lives.” 

Researchers found that despite Americans’ fears that children will become dependent, physical contact and reassurance makes children more secure and better able to form adult relationships. Sleep training can exacerbate children’s fear of sleeping, and it can condition parents to ignore their baby’s pleas for help.

Our culture tends to expect babies to conform their behavior to meet their parents’ lifestyle, including ‘sleeping through the night’. Much of parenting requires shifting our expectations; waking every few hours to nurse is normal for the first year of life, and many children don’t sleep without interruption until after 2. Babies have small stomachs and they need regular calories – and perhaps more importantly, comfort – to thrive. An infant can be ‘trained’ to put aside her core needs (for food, comfort, a dry diaper, for example), but this can negatively affect her ability to grow into a confident, secure person. Infants are a bundle of needs – none of them separable from wants. It’s difficult to force anyone to sleep, and in general, it’s more effective to teach children to enjoy sleeping by creating positive sleep associations that will help them sleep soundly for their whole lives (or, until they have children!).

To minimize trips down the hall, we recommend sleeping near your baby. You can try sleeping in the same bed, attaching a ‘side-car’ (three walled) crib to your bed (such as the Arm’s Reach Co-sleeper), or bringing your baby’s crib into your room (encouraged by the American Academy of Pediatrics). The majority of the world ‘co-sleeps’; North America, Europe, and Australia are unique in insisting that babies sleep alone. Co-sleeping can also be a boon for working parents who can use the night time to catch up on snuggling. As one parent puts it, “How is it fair that the parents get to sleep together, but not the child?” Although there has been some controversy, studies indicate that if parents follow simple precautions (don’t smoke, drink, or take drugs before co-sleeping, keep infants away from bedding and close any cracks between your bed and the wall), co-sleeping protects against SIDS. [For more on co-sleeping safely, visit the site of Dr. James McKenna, Director of the Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Lab at the University of Notre Dame.] If you’re concerned about your baby rolling off your bed, consider a bumper. Also, some bed-sharing families find it easier to sleep in the children’s room, if it’s large enough, to maintain a private space for parents.

Nursing to sleep is also normal and developmentally appropriate. Don’t worry about establishing a bad habit; children can learn to wean and put themselves to sleep when they’re developmentally ready, just as children learn to walk and talk on their own. If you try nursing lying down, sleeping next to your baby, you’ll find you learn to respond to her stirs before she cries, and before either of you fully wakes. Nursing will help your baby learn that sleep is a natural, comfortable state to enter.

Regardless of whether you make changes to your sleeping arrangements, it’s important to take care of yourself. If you’re home with your baby, we cannot recommend strongly enough that you sleep when your baby sleeps, including during the day. Your baby is probably sleeping at least fourteen hours a day; rest for as many of those hours as you can and you may find the sleep interruptions are more tolerable. If you’re not home, consider sleeping when your baby does in the evening. You may need to make some adjustments, such as buying pre-made (or frozen) meals for dinner so that you can eat quickly and go right to bed.

Finally, if you have a partner, we recommend sharing night waking duties, which could include bottle feeding or simply trading off who wakes with baby in the morning. Alternatively, consider hiring a night nurse or early morning sitter for some temporary relief. Soon, your baby will be sleeping through the night, chattering merrily at you in the morning, and you’ll be grateful for the investment you made in her physical and emotional health. In other words, this too shall pass.

Holly Kretschmar and Julie Gamberg are two parents, writers, and educators who live in Los Angeles and are writing a book about parenting tools.

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