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Baby Got You Up At Night?

Set Your Infant's Clock

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Jennifer Drobny says that life with her 8-month-old daughter, Olivia, had become exhausting. The baby had never slept through the night. "We'd have to hold her and 'dance her' to sleep for an hour. Then she'd give us at most two hours' sleep and be awake again," says Drobny.

"I thought with my experience, we wouldn't have behavior problems," adds the 30-year-old mother, a graduate student at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. But after eight months of being awoken every two hours every night, Drobny was exhausted. Then she happened to run into psychologist Brett Kuhn in a hallway one day at the university. Kuhn, an assistant professor and pediatric sleep specialist, asked Drobny how she was doing. "I just started crying," she says.

Kuhn offered Drobny a solution to her (and her baby's) troubles: Let Olivia "cry it out."

That approach seemed awfully harsh to Drobny, at least at first. "I couldn't go cold turkey," she admits. After 10 days of preparing the baby for the change, Drobny left the house for two nights and let her husband Jeff launch the effort. Night 1 brought lots of awakenings and even a 90-minute crying fit. On night 2, things seemed to get better. Nights 3 and 4 were worse. Then a miracle: "She slept through the night last night," Drobny said after the fifth round.

Her advice to exhausted parents of night-rowdy infants: "Don't wait to get help."

And if you're stumbling through the day red eyed because your baby won't let you get sleep, there's more good news: The approach that proved successful for Drobny isn't the only thing you can try.

Night Means Sleep

Experts agree that there's not much parents can do to affect a baby's sleep cycle for at least the first month. The baby has no concept of day and night and doesn't associate night with sleep.

That means: Be prepared to feed, rock, dance, sing, or hum the little one to sleep. "Baby rules" for this period, advises psychologist Jodi Mindell, associate director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and author of Sleeping Through the Night.

But at weeks 3-5, parents can start signaling their infant that night means sleep, says Kuhn. Keep the lights off or very low during night feedings. Keep sounds quiet. After feeding, put baby back in the crib. Don't socialize.

Between 6 and 12 weeks, "start developing sleep habits," says Mindell, who is also a board member of the National Sleep Foundation. Start a routine of laying the baby down for naps and overnight sleep at the same times every day and night. "Like adults, babies have an internal clock, and you want to get it set," she explains. The routine can include putting on pajamas, feeding, and singing a song. "You want the signal to be: When these things happen it means time to sleep," says Mindell.

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