Our five-month-old daughter has trouble going to sleep on her own. We put her down in her crib when she starts getting sleepy, but almost instantly she starts to scream until we pick her up. We have tried pacifiers, lullaby tapes, and rocking, but she insists on being walked. This is wearing us out. Help!
Marc Hall – Richmond, Virginia
Dr. Greene’s Answer:
Your darling daughter has worked her magic on your heart. Her smiles delight you, but oh, the despair that comes with her incessant crying. Hearing her cry, much less scream, will cause physical changes in your body as your muscles tense and your heart beats a little bit faster. On top of that, both you and your wife are probably sleep deprived by now. All in all, a very difficult situation.
If you want to change this pattern of behavior, you can. I will tell you, though, it won’t be easy. At about this age (3 to 6 months) most babies begin to occasionally sleep through the night on their own. As soon as your daughter has slept through the night at least once (after you have gone through the painful process of getting her to sleep), you can begin to teach her to sleep the entire the night in her crib — including falling asleep. If there is any question that she might be teething, getting a cold, or otherwise needing special attention on the night that you are going to initiate this process, wait to start it. If you are going to be successful, there is no turning back once you start. This is how it is done:
- Prepare for bedtime as you normally would, making sure all of her physical needs are met.
- Include all the things that she has learned to associate with going to sleep in her bedtime ritual, i.e. lullaby tape, special blanket or toy, etc.
- When she gets sleepy, put her in her bed.
- Position yourself so that you can gently pat her and make sure she remains lying down by gently applying pressure on her body if needed.
- When she begins to cry, don’t pick her up — this will be extremely hard to do, but if you pick her up, she will learn to cry next time until you do again!
- Continue to pat her, sing to her, tell her you love her –whatever it takes –even though she is crying. You will not be abandoning her, only teaching her to let go and fall asleep.
- Ideally, you and her mother can do this together for mutual support.
- When one of you can’t take it anymore, that one should leave the room for a while.
- Keep singing, patting, and comforting her until she falls asleep.
This will work, eventually. The first night it may take an hour-and-a-half or even more for her to go to sleep. The following night she may go to sleep all by herself or you may need go to through the same painful process again. Either way, you will probably face about six crying episodes before your daughter learns how to go to sleep on her own. Each successive episode will get shorter than the one before it. Also, you can begin to leave her alone for a few minutes at a time during the crying and screaming period.
If you decide to tackle this problem head on, it is very important that you and her mother agree that this is the way you are going to handle it. No matter how hard it gets, you must follow the plan with two exceptions: 1) If your child is sick then, of course, you will want to take her out of her crib and give her the attention she needs. 2) If you are on vacation, or not in your own home, and your daughter is disoriented or afraid, you may want to hold her. If this is the case, she will be able to grasp that there is a special reason Daddy is walking her to sleep. Generally the nights following exceptions are rougher than usual, so leave extra time in your schedule to help her get back into the pattern of going to sleep on her own.
By teaching your daughter to fall asleep on her own you will be teaching her some very valuable skills! Although this is extremely difficult, it is really worth the struggle. To be successful in life she needs to learn how to put herself to sleep. When she does, she, and you will be much happier.
Last reviewed: February 06, 2008