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Unhealthy Sleep Habits or a Temporary Infant Sleep Disruption?

Your 6 month old baby used to sleep like a rock, waking only once or twice a night to nurse and go straight back to sleep.  Now he wakes every hour or two until you take him into your bed.  What is going on?

a) he is manipulating you and wants nothing more than to torture you in the middle of the night
b) he is suddenly more aware of his surroundings and now realizes that he would rather have you next to him when he wakes up alone at night
c) he is sick
d) he is teething
e) he is having a growth spurt
f) b, c, d and e

Sleeping Like a Baby

Sleeping peacefully...for the moment!

What Are Healthy Sleep Habits?

Much has been written on the topic of infant and toddler sleep, but one of the most widely touted books is Marc Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.  Weissbluth describes how sleep is essential to the develpment of the brain and how adequate sleep improves children’s behaviour, performance in school, lengthens attention spans and maintains physical health.  While sleep is undoubtably crucial for the happy, healthy functioning of human beings of all ages, how we get to sleep and stay there depends on many, many factors.  Weissbluth discusses the manner in which we fall asleep, and how making a sleep association such as, “when I fall asleep mom is right there, therefore I need mom right there in order to fall asleep,” prevents babies from being able to fall asleep on their own when they awake in the middle of the night.  Weissbluth and many other sleep experts recommend that babies learn to fall asleep alone in a crib in order to create healthy sleep habits and avoid having a child who depends on your physical presence, breastmilk, rocking or cuddles in order to fall back asleep again.

What is an Infant Sleep Disruption?

Everyone has sleep associations, and it’s easiest to fall asleep when they are present and more difficult to fall asleep without them.  A sleep disruption comes from outside the regular routine and set of associations that makes it harder to fall asleep in the first place or wakes us up in the middle of the night.  Physical discomfort is a major culprit for sleep disruption – if you’re too hot, too cold, in pain or you can’t breathe through your nose when lying down, it’s going to be pretty hard to get a good night’s sleep even with all your usual sleep associations in place.  Babies and toddlers are extra susceptible to sleep disruptions because they are changing so much in a short amount of time.  Physical milestones, erupting teeth, the introduction of new foods and growing pains can all cause babies to wake up.

But my baby is still waking me up.  How do I know if this is a problem due to unhealthy sleep habits or a temporary sleep disruption?

As a parent it’s your responsibility to create a routine around sleep that is consistent and familiar.  This bedtime routine will help your child recognize that it’s bedtime and it also helps them nod off at the same time every night.  If you’ve got a healthy bedtime routine that is early enough, age appropriate, takes about 30 minutes and involves calm activities like a bath, massage, reading or quiet talking instead of jumping around on the bed or wrestling, then night wakings are most likely due to a temporary sleep disruption.  If you’re looking for more ideas about how to create a healthty bedtime routine or you’ve got a routine that’s not working for you any longer and you want to change it up, check out Elizabeth Pantley’s book, The No-Cry Sleep Solution.

The No-Cry Sleep Solution

The No-Cry Sleep Solution

If I don’t change my baby’s sleep associations RIGHT NOW he’ll be nursing to sleep FOREVER, right?

This is a common concern expressed by friends, relatives, grandparents and most of mainstream parenting culture.  However, it’s just not true.  All babies grow up, stop nursing and will eventually want their own beds, rooms, privacy, and eventually, their own apartments.  Not only will your child naturally wean himself off nursing and co-sleeping, if you decide that you’re really ready to transition away from those sleep associations, you can initiate that and do so in a caring, gentle manner.  Babies and young children change at an absolutely astonishing rate in their first few years of life.  Don’t feel like you must have a 4 month old baby that sleeps the same way as a 4 year old.  There is plenty of time to create new sleep associations when you need to.  Leaving a child or baby to cry themselves to sleep is not the only effective way to change sleep associations, despite being reccomended by Weissbluth and many other infant sleep “experts”.

Before you set off down a path of sleep training that involves a baby or toddler crying to sleep, ask yourself: Am I absolutely sure that my child isn’t suffering from a sleep disruption such as illness, teething, growing pains or being about to reach a developmental milestone?  Would I be able to tell if he were?

Sleep disruption is exhausting and at 4am when you still haven’t really had a satisfying chunk of sleep and your baby is scraping all the skin off your midsection with his toenails, it’s hard to imagine that it will ever get better.  But it does, and when you come through to the other side of the cold, bad tummy or bout of teething, baby will usually go back to sleeping even better than he did before.

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  • mommainthefog March 16, 2010, 10:51 am

    Enough cannot be said on this topic! As a mother of a high needs child, it has been very hard for me to sort through what a healthy sleep pattern looks like for my son. Even though I was frustrated by many parts of Weissbluth I’m ultimately glad that I read his book because it helped me struggle with and think more deeply about what my sons sleep needs. Also, if you read him very carefully, you’ll find that he does say a couple of positive things about breastfeeding and co-sleeping here and there, but they are generally lost in his larger message advocating independent, crib sleep.

    • michelle March 16, 2010, 10:37 pm

      Yes, Weissbluth does have some valuable information and is worth reading… His perspective on sleep research and the importance of sleep is quite useful, but I think Pantley has more practical tips that are attachment parenting friendly. What did you find that worked for your high needs son?