Learning To Fall Back To Sleep

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!

Dr. Alan Greene

As a father of four himself, Dr. Greene has devoted himself to freely giving real answers to parents' real questions -- from questions about those all too common childhood conditions to those that address the most recent and rare pediatric illnesses. His answers combine cutting edge science, practical wisdom, warm empathy, and a deep respect for parents, children, and the environment. He is also an electrifying public speaker, and has personally touched many during his talks in North America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Dr. Greene is a graduate of Princeton University and the University of California at San Francisco. Upon completion of his pediatric residency program at Children's Hospital Medical Center of Northern California he served as Chief Resident. He entered primary care pediatrics in January 1993.

Dr. Greene is the Past President of The Organic Center and on the Board of Directors of Healthy Child Healthy World. He is a founding partner of the Collaborative on Health and the Environment. He also consults for the Environmental Working Group.

In 1995, he launched DrGreene.com, cited by the AMA as “the pioneer physician Web site” on the Internet. His award-winning site has received over 80 million Unique Users from parents, concerned family members, students, and healthcare professionals. In addition to being the founder of DrGreene.com, he is the Medical Director for HealthTap.

In 2010 Dr. Greene founded the WhiteOut Movement to change how babies in the United States are fed. In 2012 he founded TICC TOCC - Transitioning Immediate Cord Clamping To Optimal Cord Clamping. He is also the founder of KidGlyphs, a free iPhone app that provides a tool for young children to express themselves beyond their verbal skills while teaching them important language skills.

Dr. Greene is the Founding President of the Society for Participatory Medicine and has served as both President and Board Chair of Hi-Ethics (Health Internet Ethics. He is on the Board of Directors for Healthy Child Healthy World, The Lunchbox Project, and The Society for Participatory Medicine. He has also served as an advisor to URAC for both their inaugural and their updated health web site accreditation program. He is a founding member of the e-Patient Scholars Working Group, and a founding board member of the Center for Information Therapy.

Dr. Greene is a regular columnist for Parenting Magazine. He is also the Pediatric Expert for The People’s Pharmacy (as heard on NPR) and Healing Quest (seen on PBS stations). He was the original Pediatric Expert for both Yahoo! and iVillage.

Dr. Greene is the author of Feeding Baby Green (Wiley, 2009), Raising Baby Green (Wiley, 2007), From First Kicks to First Steps (McGraw-Hill, 2004), The Parent's Complete Guide to Ear Infections (People's Medical Society, 1997), and a co-author of The A.D.A.M. Illustrated Family Health Guide (A.D.A.M., Inc., 2004). He is the medical expert for three additional books, The Parent's Soup A-to-Z Guide to Your New Baby, (Contemporary Books, 1998) The Parent's Soup A-to-Z Guide to Your Toddler, (Contemporary Books, 1999), and The Mother of All Baby Books, (Hungry Minds, Inc., 2002).

Dr. Greene is a frequent keynote speaker at important events such as Health 2.0 2011 held in San Diego, CA, IFOAM 2008 (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements), held in Modena Italy, the first European Internet health conference, held in Maastricht, the first International eHealth Association Conference, held in Jeddah, and the largest e-Healthcare World Conference, held in Las Vegas, and the first Green Power Baby Shower, held in Hollywood. Dr. Greene also appears frequently on TV, radio, websites, and in newspapers and magazines around the world, including such venues as the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, Fox and Friends, The Dr. Oz Show, CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC network news, NPR, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Time Magazine, Parade, Parenting, Child, Baby Talk, Working Mother, Better Home's & Gardens, and the Reader's Digest.

Dr. Greene loves to think about challenging ideas, he enjoys being where nothing manmade can be seen, and he wears green socks.

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  1. Poth Poth Lwin

    My giril is 18 months and has weight 20 pound now. I would like to know seriously if formula (breastmilk is not possible now) is important for her, but the baby refuse all kind of milk.
    Here is her diet history.
    She was 5.5 pound at birth time.
    1-5 months – only breast milk
    6-12 months – breast milke + solid food
    After 12 months, not available for breastmilk, but I fed her verious solid food (chicken or fish, vegetable, bean, etc. everyday). She is OK and healthy. But her weight is just below normal. But Her speicalist says, baby needs more formula (milk), about 24 oz aday.
    The problem is baby seriously refuse milk.

    I will be happy if I have any suggest from you.

    Warm Reagrds,

    Poth Poth

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  2. shikha

    My little one is 6 month old and she would sleep only when I would breast feed her while lying down and if I try to get up she will cry..! :(. Being a working woman, I am so upset about this habit. What shall I do to change her habit?

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  3. Joann Woolley

    A fabulous explaination Dr. Greene as to why children wake, why they need to be comforted and HOW we can move beyond those “habits” to get our children to fall asleep on their own. My now 4 1/2 year old started to fall asleep on his own when Dad implemented a new action of scratching his back for a count of 30… after that it was a quick kiss, I love you, good night. He started this when he turned 3yo and was old enough to see how we said good night to the older 2 kids, and it really only took a few nights (it happened when I was out of town, which most moms report makes it easier).

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    • Funny how mom being out-of-town changes the family dynamics. Maybe moms should take more trips ;)

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      • Joann Woolley

        Not a bad idea Cheryl! I’m an advocate for Moms Night Out, maybe I need to advocate for Mom Take a Trip haha!

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