Our son, who used to be such a sound sleeper, is now waking up in tears in the middle of the night. He doesn’t seem to be sick and eventually falls back to sleep if I hold him for a few minutes. What’s going on? Is there anything I should be doing?
Dr. Greene’s Answer:
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.
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.
Last reviewed: May 06, 2008