By Brian Coatney
If you’re having trouble getting your child to sleep through the night, why not ask a pediatrician, such as Dr. Karen Dougherty, for a good place to start. Dougherty, who teaches anatomy and physiology at Hopkinsville Community College, hasn’t forgotten the multitude of parents and children who streamed into her medical practice for 25 years. The retired pediatrician remembers getting calls in the middle of the night from sleepy and frustrated parents about how to get their child to go and stay asleep. Her go-to advice: “You can’t make another human being eat, sleep or go to the bathroom.” True enough, but what do you do when you’re just ready to get some shut-eye in your own bed?
Right away, Dougherty says parents need to be on the same page about sleeping arrangements. There are two opposite views when it comes to children sleeping in their own beds. She explains that one view focuses on meeting the child’s attachment needs, even if that means parents and children sleeping in the same bed to feel secure. The opposite view favors letting the child learn to self-soothe, or giving your child time to calm themselves.
Some children can wake up six times a night but ultimately learn how to go back to sleep on their own. Letting a baby cry can be agonizing, but not letting the infant self-soothe will teach the child that he can be rocked, fed or brought to the parents’ bed.
To find the middle ground, Dougherty says start by setting a timer between two and five minutes.
“Don’t guess,” she says about counting the time. “When a baby is crying or screaming, a minute seems like forever, so set a timer.”
Dougherty suggests increasing the time in small increments until the five-minute mark is reached. The result is a gradual extinction of the crying as the infant learns to self-soothe.
“Usually within six months, most babies sleep through the night, and almost all (night) within a year,” she says.
She reiterates, this is not for the faint-hearted. The first two or three nights are terrible and babies can go “ballistic.” However, an old adage is worth remembering, “Things get worse before they get better.” As Dougherty puts it, “Before the crying extinguishes, it accelerates.”
- Use good judgment – Don’t start this process at a bad time. “Don’t pick date night to start.”
- Be matter-of-fact – Don’t react to fits and don’t bargain. “Don’t give in to one more drink of water or one more story.”
- Choose your words wisely – “Get in your bed and go to sleep” is not effective because you can’t make a child sleep. What Dr. D does suggest is saying, “You have to stay in your bed and rest.”
- Establish bedtime rituals – Create nightly rituals that prepares your child for sleep, like bath time, putting on pajamas, singing/playing a favorite song, reading a story or snuggling with attachment objects
- Don’t expect a one-size-fits-all plan – It may take some children longer to grasp that they have to sleep in their own bed. The key is to stay on the same page and keep trying.