I have a 15-month-old son, Nicholas. I would like to break a habit I formed of rocking him to sleep every time he wakes up in the middle of the night. Sometimes 4-5 times per night. I would also like to know how I can get him to go to sleep on his own, after his night time bottle.
Mrs. Pamela Marino – Miami, Florida
Dr. Greene’s Answer:
It is so rewarding to rock our little ones to sleep. The feeling of closeness we get from holding them in our arms as they drift off is, for many parents, the pot of gold at the end of a multi-colored rainbow. It’s very hard to give that up. At the same time, it is not particularly rewarding when it happens 4 or 5 times a night! For many parents, this is the dilemma. We want to rock them to sleep when it is good for us, but we want them to fall asleep on their own most of the time. It sounds like you have come to the place where you are ready to give up rocking him to sleep altogether. I am sure this must be difficult for you. I know both you and Nicholas will miss this truly intimate time. Giving up rocking Nicholas to sleep is necessary in order to teach him to fall asleep on his own.
There are two issues involved in your situation. First, you want Nicholas to learn to fall asleep on his own. Second, you want him to learn to go back to sleep without your assistance when he wakes up in the middle of the night. Learning these skills will put Nicholas ahead in life. They are, however, skills that cannot be mastered overnight (no pun intended). Many adults never master them and rely on drugs or alcohol to help them fall or stay asleep. It is no wonder the over-the-counter market for sleep aids is so large!
The first step in helping Nicholas fall asleep at night is to develop a bedtime ritual. This may include an evening feeding at least one-half hour before bed, bath time (a warm bath right before bed tends to make children sleepy), putting on a fresh diaper and clean pajamas, having Nicholas lie in his crib, and reading a bedtime story. Add one new element of the ritual per week for several weeks until you have established a routine that works well for your family. Not all of these steps are necessary, but you may find many of them helpful. At first you will need to stay by Nicholas’s crib, and perhaps keep reading to him, until he falls asleep. Down the road, you will be able to read for a set amount of time and then leave him alone to fall asleep. In the transition period, it is helpful to give him a children’s cassette tape player with a tape of his favorite stories being read by Mom and Dad. Often when children can turn the tape on and listen as long as they want, they will fall asleep very rapidly. This is particularly true when you tell them that you’ll come back in and check on them in a while.
For most of us, adult and child alike, there are a few reasons for occasional sleeplessness. In adults, it is most often linked to physical illness, stress, excitement, or emotional upset. In children, it is usually associated with physical illness, physical discomfort (such as teething), or entering a new developmental stage. Often when a child is learning a new skill, such as sitting, standing, walking, or talking, he or she has a great deal of difficulty sleeping through the night. At each of those landmarks you can expect to have your child wake up frequently during the night to “try out” what he is learning.
It is not at all unusual to have a child who is sleeping through the night without any problem, and then, when he learns one of these new skills, your nights of blissful rest are over. This scenario occurs with the acquisition of any new skill, but is most pronounced when a child is learning to walk — you hear your child crying, so you get up to check on the problem only to find that Junior is standing up in the crib holding on for dear life and screaming in what seems to be complete terror. Your immediate response is to grab your bundle of joy and comfort him in whatever way the two of you have established as “your” way of relating to each other. For you this has been rocking Nicholas, for other parents it may be nursing, or giving Junior a bottle. In reality what is going on is Junior is so excited about pulling to standing that he doesn’t sleep as soundly as normal. When Junior does wake up, naturally he wants to work on putting this most exciting of new skills into practice. Once on his feet, the way back down looks very scary! Junior’s instinctual response is to scream for help! At this point, the thing Junior needs most is to be gently helped back into his favorite sleeping position and soothed back to sleep. You may need to do this several times a night during the phase when your child is learning a new skill. When Junior has mastered the new skill, he will resume sleeping through the night, if in the mean time he hasn’t come to depend on rocking or feeding.
If you want to teach him to go to sleep on his own, it is quickest not to break the rules and rock Nicholas back to sleep when he wakes up in the middle of the night — unless he is waking up because of physical illness or physical discomfort. Then it is very important to take care of his needs. This may include taking his temperature, calling your pediatrician or giving needed medications, and comforting (yes, even rocking) him while he falls back to sleep. Children understand that the rules are different when they are sick. As a parent, the challenging thing is to determine if your child is awake because of illness or sleeplessness. Over time you will become very good at sensing what is going on.
I’m sure this habit, as you put it, will be hard for both of you to break. There will, most likely, be many times during the nights ahead when you will want to pick him up and rock him back to sleep. If you do give in and rock him to sleep when he is not ill or in pain, it will slow the learning process. But don’t let that stop you from continuing. After all, life is a process!
Last reviewed: April 06, 2009