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Sleeping Through the Night

By Kelli J. Shidler, M.D.

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Getting a baby to sleep through the night can be one of the most difficult challenges parents face. Many parents wake up three or four times a night to soothe their baby or toddler back to sleep.

On the other hand, teaching a child to sleep through the night can be one of the most rewarding accomplishments for both the child and the parent. For the parent, an uninterrupted seven or eight hours of sleep is well needed and deserved. For the baby, learning to fall asleep on her own and back to sleep when she awakens teaches her valuable skills she will use as she grows into toddlerhood and childhood.

A child depends on his parents to help him develop good sleep habits. In order to do so, it is important to have a sensible plan that both parents agree to and stick with. The earlier the guidelines for sleep are established, the easier it will be to prevent sleep problems in the future.

Parents can teach their baby good sleep habits starting in the newborn period. This is the time to begin teaching her how to fall asleep on her own, and as she grows, continue to sleep throughout the night. At around two to three months of age, many babies begin to sleep through the night.

By following a few simple guidelines, parents can be on their way to a stress-free, sleep-filled night.

Sleeping guidelines for babies under one year:

  • From the time your baby is a newborn, put her in the crib or bassinet before she falls asleep in your arms, when she is drowsy but awake. It can take 20 minutes of restlessness before a baby actually falls asleep. Do not pick her up. This will lead her to believe someone will pick her up each time she cries.
  • During the day, do not let your baby sleep for more than three hours at a time. This teaches the infant that nighttime is when she sleeps the longest.
  • When your baby awakens in the middle of the night, try soothing her back to sleep before offering a feeding. If this does not work and she is truly hungry, make the feeding as quick and unentertaining as possible. This will teach your baby that nighttime is for sleeping, not playing or snuggling.
  • Do not allow your baby to sleep in your bed. A baby who becomes used to sleeping with her parents will not want to move to her own bed. Co-sleeping is also unsafe and is not recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Sleeping guidelines for children over one year:

  • Establish a bedtime routine. Children need familiarity, and a bedtime ritual can be very comforting. This may include eating dinner at least one hour before bed, taking a warm bath, putting on a fresh diaper and clean pajamas, and reading a bedtime story. When establishing the routine, add one element each week until you find a routine that works. Be sure to complete the bedtime routine before your child falls asleep.
  • Insist that once your child is put to bed, he must stay there. This can be difficult at any age. If your toddler is having a temper tantrum, you should ignore it and leave the room. By responding to protests, you will only teach him he can prolong his bedtime.
  • Never ignore a child's nightmares or bedtime fears. Everyone has four or five dreams each night, some of which may be nightmares. Always reassure your child. If nightmares continue, consider what might be causing the fears, such as something on television. Eliminate television at least a half-hour before bedtime, and avoid programs with violence or scary themes.

Contact your child's physician during office hours if you are unable to find a way to soothe your newborn's crying. If your baby cries constantly for more than 2 hours or acts sick, call his or her pediatrician immediately.