Baby Steps: A Crib of One’s Own

by Anita Sethi, Ph. D.

Baby Steps: A Crib of One’s Own

Q. My 8-month-old daughter has slept through the night since her second month, but lately she’s been waking up at 3 AM crying. I don’t think she’s hungry, because I feed her right before she goes to sleep. When she wakes up, she breastfeeds for about 5 minutes and then sleeps in our bed the remainder of the night. When I try to put her back in her crib, she just awakens and cries to be picked up. Why is she doing this and how can I get her to sleep on her own?

A. Given the choice of falling asleep next to the person you love most in the world, in a warm, cozy bed, or being removed to go to sleep alone in an empty crib, which would you choose? Of course your daughter wants to stay with you, and if you don’t mind (and you take the proper precautions, such as not surrounding her with soft bedding), then all is well. But keeping her with you when you don’t want her there will not help anyone, so if you want her in her own bed, that is what you should focus on.

It is unlikely that hunger is awakening your daughter unless she is very small for her age (smaller babies have smaller tummies) or her digestive system is immature for some reason. The fact that she nurses for a very short time also tells you that her awakenings are not about hunger. (If they were, you could offer her a snack before bedtime.)

It sounds as though your baby has gotten into the habit of falling asleep in your bed, with food, and knows no other way to get back to sleep. Since she is nursed to sleep at the beginning of the night, you need to make adjustments at that point: The only way she can get back to sleep on her own in the middle of the night is by learning to go to sleep without nursing at the beginning of the night.

But first, let’s look at the crib question. You have a couple of options, at least, depending on your desperation and your tolerance for your baby’s crying. If you cannot tolerate the tears (and you would not be alone in this — we are hardwired to respond to our babies’ cries), you can try to reduce the difference between being in the crib and being with you. If her room is down the hall, you might want to experiment with moving her crib into your room temporarily. You could also try going into her room to nurse. This way, she never shows up in your bed in the first place. Putting a hot-water bottle in her crib after you take her out will ease the transition from warm arms to cold crib (just make sure to take it out when you put her in). These solutions, of course, assume that you’ll nurse her when she wakes at night. If you don’t want to do that, there are fewer options, and they involve tears.

If you can tolerate the crying (and can be consistent), the fastest method is to leave your baby in her crib the next time she awakens in the middle of the night. Go in every 3 to 5 minutes to make sure she’s okay, but don’t pick her up. In most cases this works within a week, but it is very tough on your nerves, not to mention any other children or neighbors you might have.

Again, if she begins the night by falling asleep at the breast, it will be more difficult for her to not have the breast in the middle of the night. This means you need to put her into the crib at the beginning of the night after nursing but before she is fully asleep, so she’ll learn that she can fall asleep at any time without nursing.

Be aware that no method of getting Baby to sleep works for all families. If your baby does not respond to your efforts, it is time to re-evaluate. Try to make a valiant attempt before giving up, however, as inconsistency will only confuse your daughter and make it harder for her to adjust to any future changes.