How can we train our eight-month-old to get back to sleep by herself?
She has started waking up constantly during the night and I am becoming exhausted
Sleep training that cuts out crying takes a lot of patience. Photograph: iStock
Question: When my daughter was born she settled really quickly into a routine of sleeping through the night. My two sisters had “horror stories” of their babies waking through the night, and suffering from colic – so I thought we were really lucky with our little girl.
She was always a great feeder, and at 10 weeks she was sleeping nine hours through the night. She was also a happy little baby and so myself and my husband were delighted. She is now eight months old and all has changed – she is much more fractious and constantly wakes at night. It all started five weeks ago when she got a bad cold and she woke a lot in the night looking for us. But now the cold is gone, she still wakes up looking for us. Last night she woke four times.
When she wakes at night, sometimes we take her into our bed and let her sleep there. We can’t keep doing this. We have tried just letting her cry, but she gets more worked up then and can’t sleep at all. Lately we have tried sitting with her beside her cot soothing her, but it can take a while and sometimes the minute we leave she cries for us again. I am getting really exhausted and I work full time.
There is a lot of pressure in work at the moment, and the sleep deprivation is not helping.
Answer: Your question highlights how getting babies to sleep through the night can be a long-term process with moments of progress but also many setbacks. Many parents will identify with your experience of having a baby who was initially a good sleeper only for this to be disrupted at a later stage. In your case, the disruption was caused by illness but in other situations it can be caused by teething or developmental changes as they grow. At six or eight months many babies become quite attached to their parents so when they wake at night they will seek you out rather than going back to sleep by themselves. When your daughter awoke in distress because of her cold, she understandably sought you out to comfort her. This helped her manage and get back to sleep, but the comfort-seeking has now become a habit, even though the cold is gone. This is understandable from your daughter’s perspective but very tiring for you as a parent, particularly during a difficult period in work.
Managing night-time waking
When supporting parents dealing with a baby waking at night, my goal is to help the parent find the least disruptive and least tiring method that gets them through the night. Some parents find the quickest way to get their baby back to sleep is by taking them into their own bed for a period, others go and lie with their child near the cot as this might work. Others soothe their child as they lie in the cot and try to gradually withdraw. It is a case of gently persisting to find what works for you. I am not a fan of the “cry it out” methods because, as you have found, they can agitate the child more and they are very hard to implement in the middle of the night when you are already exhausted as a parent. One thing that can help is to share out the duties at night. Dad does one night and Mum does the next or you divide the night into shifts that you share. I tis also important to try and sleep when the baby sleeps and this might mean going to bed early many evenings to give you time to catch up. Self-care is the key to surviving an extended period of night-waking.
Help your daughter settle at night
The goal is to help your daughter relearn how to self-settle and to relearn how to get herself back to sleep during the night. Often the best place to start this “learning” is during the bedtime routine, rather than in the middle of the night. This means you create a consistent relaxing bedtime routine that helps your daughter associate sleeping with lying in her cot by herself. Some parents use a soother or a teddy or even lullaby music, but the key is to not be directly involved in your child falling asleep. This means you don’t let your daughter fall asleep in your arms or when you are feeding her and instead place her down on the cot when she is tired but not yet asleep. The goal is to let her take the final step of falling asleep by herself. Once this is re-established during the bedtime routine, this makes it much more likely that she will be able to do this when she wakes at night. If she uses a sleep support, make it one that she can use again in the middle of the night (such as a teddy, or soother attached to her pyjamas that she can find easily at night, or music you can turn on remotely).
Sleep training that cuts out crying takes a lot of patience, but once the routine is established it can be more durable in the long term. See my website for some more articles.
John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is author of several parenting books, including Positive Parenting and Parenting Teenagers. See solutiontalk.ie