“Does your baby sleep
through the night yet?” That’s a familiar question for new parents
and one they dread answering if their child is still waking up. Many
people believe that a baby should be sleeping through the night by
the time he’s three months old, and if he isn’t, his parents may
naturally feel frustrated and worried. Losing sleep is one of the
hardest adjustments new parents have to make.
Actually, it’s rare for an infant consistently to sleep through the
night. Some babies do sleep through when they’re three weeks old,
but many are still waking up at ten months and others are two or
three years old before they sleep all night. The frequency of waking
varies from child to child and depends on many circumstances.
An infant may wake up at night to be fed, changed, or held. A
slightly older child may turn himself over during the night, waking
up in the process. If a baby has new teeth coming in, he may be
uncomfortable and wake up to be comforted. And if he is
developmentally at the stage when he believes people exist only if
he can see them, he may wake up to see his parents and be reassured.
Parents often consider this last type of wakefulness to be
manipulative because the child stops crying as soon as they come in
his room. But he does not intend to manipulate—he just wants to see
his parents and be close to them.
Basically, a baby wakes up because he needs to be loved, comforted,
fed, or helped. He doesn’t understand that his parents prefer to
meet his needs during the day and sleep during the night. He wants
them whenever he needs them—day or night.
A wakeful baby can be difficult and frustrating for parents. If they
get up at night to respond to their child, they lose sleep and
suffer all the physical and emotional consequences of being tired.
They also face the criticism of others who say, “The only way your
baby is going to learn to sleep is if you let him cry it out.” Such
comments are unfortunate because parents who do get up at night with
their children need support and encouragement. Many parents
eventually become secretive about getting up because they don’t want
to be ridiculed by friends and relatives.
Sometimes parents of a wakeful child become resentful, envying other
parents whose children sleep all night, and wondering what’s wrong
with their own child. “Does everyone else have an easier baby?”
Parents may blame themselves for their situation, believing that
they caused their child’s wakefulness by being too attentive to his
cries: “If only we had let him cry it out earlier, maybe we’d all be
There’s really no need for doubt and self-blame. Parents who go to
their child at night give him a sense of security and show that they
care about his needs. When a child is left to cry it out at night
(which is what many childcare advisors advocate), he learns only
that he has no options, that his needs will not be consistently met,
and that his only choice is to give up. It’s important to go to a
baby who wakes up crying.
Parents of a wakeful child need to know that they are not alone.
Many babies wake up during the night. One mother who was frequently
up with her child in the middle of the night took comfort looking
out at the house next door. There she saw a brightly lit window
indicating that her neighbors were awake with their own infant. This
mother felt relieved knowing that other people were going through
the same thing she was. Once parents understand this—that they are
not alone—they can alter their expectations about normal sleeping
pat terns and begin to feel better about their child’s behavior.
If you are the parent of a wakeful child, you will want to help him
get back to sleep as quickly as possible. First, try to meet his
needs by changing him, feeding him, or making him more comfortable.
If he’s still wakeful, try soothing him with rocking or singing.
Sometimes mechanical, repetitive sounds are calming. On a “loop”
tape you can record the hum of a hair dryer, humidifier, air
conditioner, fan, even a vacuum cleaner, and play it when your baby
needs to be comforted. There are special tapes, CDs, and toys that
play the sounds of heart beats; you might try one of these. You can
try staying with your child in his room, rubbing his back until he
falls asleep. Or you might want to bring him back to bed with you so
he can nurse or just calm down while you rest. Having him sleep with
you may be less exhausting and frustrating than getting up several
times to comfort and feed him.
If you’re not getting enough sleep, try napping during the day or
early evening, or going to bed early at night. And recognize that,
exhausting as this part of childcare can be, wakefulness will
decrease as your child gets older. Eventually, you will get a full
night’s sleep again.