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How to make it through the changes in your infant’s sleep cycle
By Charles Cappetta, MD
Night has come, and it is time for your bedtime ritual with your baby. You hug your baby before bed, kiss them and wish him or her a good night’s rest.
But as soon as you leave the room your baby cries out for you and the challenge begins of letting your baby cry themselves to sleep, which at times can take anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes or longer, and can change night to night.
It is important you realize you are not alone, as this is a common problem that arises to some degree in most babies between the ages of 6 and 10 months.
This occurs as two independent issues now begin to take place. Their sleep pattern usually changes between 6 and 10 months from a baby sleep pattern, which is one of a deeper-type sleep to an adult sleep pattern, which is a pattern of alternation from deep to light to deep to lighter sleep all through the night. As such, infants will have a tendency to awaken more so they can become fussy without apparent cause and often cry in the middle of the night. Parents will often say, “my baby used to sleep so well and now they don’t.”
The second issue that occurs during this time frame is the normal and expected stage for separation anxiety to appear, a developmental milestone for infants that occurs as a sign that they have bonded with their parents. This plays out in both day and night behavior where they need to see their primary care provider, who can be either mom or dad, or even other family members.
During the day you may have experienced this when you hear your infant cry as you leave the room even for a short time. This natural attachment reaction lasts for a few months usually, but when this happens at night, it can appear to be very worrisome.
Given these two co-existing normal developmental changes happening, especially at night when they now wake up because they are supposed to wake more often with the above mentioned change-over sleep pattern, when they look around and cannot see you they cry. You come in to soothe them thinking “something must be wrong” and they quiet down, often within a few minutes.
This quiescence usually happens not because something was actually wrong, but because they needed to see you and had no other way of getting your attention. Does this sound familiar? It should, as most parents will go this without even knowing it and without the thought of why, but only thinking when will it end?
Having said this, the remedies are based on asking yourself one critical question: how does your son or daughter go to sleep in the first place? For example, do you put your baby down for bed awake or sound asleep? If your baby happens to go to bed asleep in your arms, remember they then have no real opportunity to learn how to fall asleep on their own, so when your baby now awakens, he or she cries and has no idea how to get back to sleep without you rocking, feeding, or holding them.
Your baby will continue to cry until you recreate the environment in which he or she went to bed in the first place. Therefore, if you are having these problems, try to put your baby to sleep completely awake and let your baby cry so they can figure out what it takes to go to sleep and do it on their own.
The time frame to let your baby cry will depend on your own comfort as he or she may cry for 8 to 10 minutes to hours on end and this can be very tough for any parent to do, but rest assured your baby will be fine as he or she learns to fall asleep on their own.
There are many books written about this dilemma we as parents face around these sleep cycle changes but in my humble experience, both as a pediatrician and a father, time is the critical factor, so if you can avoid going in, it does work eventually. But the process can be exhausting and emotionally devastating to hear your baby cry.
We all look and hope for reasons to go into get them. Maybe they have an ear infection, maybe they have a cold, maybe this “not sleeping” is due to teething, maybe they are hungry, etc, which are all legitimate concerns, but the bottom line is they feel they need to see you and they have no other way but to cry to get you back in the room.
You can go in as often as you feel you need to, but sometimes this makes it worse as they think you are staying and yet when you turn around and leave after making sure they are OK, the cycle will continue.
Like any good novel this challenge will end, if you can follow the above steps.
Dr. Charles Cappetta, MD works at Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock in Nashua. For More information visit CHaDKids.org
Last updated by Parenting NH Administrator Mar 30, 2012.