The 3 AM Wake Up Call
When I brought my firstborn, Matilda, home from the hospital weighing just 5 pounds, 7 ounces, demanding to be fed every hour and a half, and consuming so little at a time I could barely get the other cup on my nursing bra unhooked before she was full, it seemed I'd never sleep a full night again. But somehow she evolved into an 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. snoozer at about 5 months of age, and I became as smug as a mom could get.
I was in for a rude awakening, however, when Matilda learned a few months later to pull herself up to a standing position. Suddenly I was living with a human jack-in-the-box, who popped to standing whenever I put her down in her crib. Unfortunately, she hadn't mastered how to sit from this position, so bedtime -- and suddenly, night wakings as well -- became an endless cycle of tuck in, pop up, tuck in, pop up, until Matilda wore herself out or I gently held her down and rubbed her back. My nights of uninterrupted slumber appeared to be over.
Two more kids later, I've learned that this experience was far from unique -- even the best sleepers resume night wakings at times. "The second half of the first year can present some real nighttime challenges -- from teething to motor milestones to overnight guests -- and if you're really lucky, everything will occur at once," says psychotherapist and sleep coach Jennifer Waldburger, co-author of The Sleepeasy Solution. "You can't avoid the disruptions, but they don't have to become catastrophes either."
In other words, you will sleep again. According to Waldburger, soothing one's self to sleep is like riding a bicycle -- you never forget how. Here's how you can get your baby back to her bedtime routine.
Culprit #1: Teething trouble
Maddie Zeis was a dream sleeper -- eight uninterrupted hours a night since she was 2 months old -- until she hit about 8 months and began waking up crying repeatedly throughout the night. It would go on for a few nights, stop just as suddenly, and then occur again a few weeks later. Her puzzled parents eventually caught on to the fact that after a few nights of upheaval, a new tooth would soon appear. A sister recommended Humphrey's Teething Pellets No. 3, a homeopathic product, and soon Maddie was back to her usual state of all-night slumber. Now her mom reaches for this gum soother whenever she suspects a tooth is trying to rear its pearly head. (Want to give it a try? Ask your doctor first, but you can find it at Amazon.com
Teething seems to get most of the blame for nighttime upheaval. The catch is, teething is a process that goes on for so long (beginning between 5 and 9 months and continuing until about the second birthday) and the symptoms are so wide-ranging, it's hard to tell if it's truly the cause. Drooling, for instance, may get more severe when a tooth is about to erupt but is not a symptom by itself. Other possible signs -- a low-grade fever, crankiness, a rash around the mouth (a side effect of the drool), looser than usual stools -- may also be due to an actual illness.
What you need to know: "The only time teething should truly interrupt a baby's sleep is that acute 24- to 72-hour period before the tip of the tooth cuts through the gum; once it's through, the pain turns off, and you can jump right back into your routine," notes Waldburger.
To prepare for and minimize the disruption, familiarize yourself with the usual course of teeth arrivals, watch for more severe than usual symptoms (i.e., crankiness or gnawing on fingers), and keep an eye out for redder than usual, swollen gums (you may even be able to glimpse a bit of white just underneath). Then administer a doctor-approved dose of either acetaminophen or ibuprofen (the latter relieves pain a bit longer so it's ideal for nighttime) before putting your baby to bed and another in the middle of the night if she wakes up in distress when the first dose wears off, recommends Waldburger. Of course, the usual remedies of teething rings, frozen washcloths, and topical teething gels may also work if your baby finds them soothing during the day, but they're not as likely to provide the longer-term relief if you're in need of a serious block of shut-eye during the night (and who isn't?).
Babytalk contributing editor Stephanie Wood is a mother of three in Blauvelt, New York.