Listening to a child cry at night—and choosing not to respond—may be one of the most difficult things a parent will have to do in their lifetime.
And yet, it may be critical in establishing a healthy sleep pattern that will benefit both parents and child for years thereafter.
“We have to learn early in life how to soothe ourselves back to sleep,” said University of Minnesota Health Pediatrician Helena Molero, MD. While it’s tempting to rock a baby until he or she falls asleep—especially when the child is colicky or ill—doing so reinforces the message that parents are part of the bedtime routine, Molero said.
Molero, a pediatric sleep specialist who sees patients at Discovery Clinic – Pediatric Specialty Care, doesn’t recommend that parents ignore a child’s cries for hours on end, or that they always discount the possibility that something is wrong. Instead, she suggests that parents gradually extend their response time when they hear a child crying at night.
“It’s tough to let a child cry, but if you usually answer the cry immediately, try to let them cry for five minutes,” Molero said. Keep lengthening the response time until the message begins to sink in, Molero recommends.
Molero’s other advice: When comforting the child, wait until they are relaxed—but not quite asleep—before putting them back in bed. That way, children will fall asleep by themselves and won’t need to be in their parents’ arms to initiate sleep.
Just as washing your hands before meals is a good habit that helps prevent illness, establishing specific sleep routines can create a lifetime of healthy sleep patterns, Molero said.
“If a child is less than 6 months of age, they will need a feeding in the middle of night. You should not expect a child to go through the night without a bottle. It’s normal at that age to wake up every four hours.”
After six months, though, children should not need a bottle in the middle of night. Continuing to provide a night feeding could lead to future sleep problems.
Molero also offered these important tips:
When none of this advice helps, parents can come to Molero and her fellow pediatricians at M Health, who can quickly determine if there’s an underlying physical or behavioral problem.