When to Train My Infant to Sleep Through the Night?- Day time behavior and attention issues often related to poor sleep in toddlers, preschoolers, and young school-age children

sleeping toddlerThe study “Sleep onset and night waking insomnias in preschoolers with psychiatric disorders,” published October 2014  in Child Psychiatry and Human Development, looked at those having difficulty getting to sleep and those waking up frequently in the middle of the night, in young children enrolled in a psychiatric day treatment program. 41% of the 183 children met criteria for a sleep disorder with 23% having trouble getting to sleep and 4% with night awakenings, and 14% with both. You can read this study here…

I think many parents have struggled with how to get our infants and toddlers to sleep and have them stay asleep. This study shows how common day time behavioral and emotional troubles can be linked with poor sleep. Rather than promote one approach over another, I encourage parents to be willing to teach and train, if that is what it takes, so your infant or young child can learn to sleep through the night. I find the earlier good habits are established, the more likely they will last.

Preventing sleep issues may be a better approach than waiting until your infant is already slipping into sleep problems.  So what is the right age to start sleep training?  I suspect we will not agree on the answer, but can we agree that if our infant who was starting to sleep through the night or most of the night, is now waking more often (this usually happens around 4-6 months) that perhaps they are learning some bad habits (needing to eat in the middle of the night or needing a parent to help them get back to sleep).  Unless your infant or young child is neurologically challenged (think severe autism or anxiety) or is ill (think fever, vomiting, etc.) then would it be kind to teach them how to self console rather than be so helpless and dependent on us even for the simple act of falling asleep or getting themselves back to sleep?

Now the how of all this is the topic of many books, Ferber, the not cry sleep solution, and many more. I urge you to take it upon yourself as a parent to keep trying techniques until you succeed.  Be willing to concede that your chosen method is not working if that is the case.  The goal is not proving you have a “superior parenting sleep training” method, but rather that you have a method that works for your child. No method works on all kids. Some need a very gentle gradual movement away from parent comfort, while others will cling to parent contact at all costs until that parent makes the decision for that child. It is actually the parent involvement that is the problem.  Left to self console or get themselves back to sleep, almost all children will adapt and learn.

If I am insecure, and what I want most is to get back in the womb so to speak, the closest I can get to that is nursing and cuddling with my mommy.  If you let me do that until I am 2 or 3 or 4 years old, I will gladdly do that and in fact I would show you, (my mom), that without that I am a disaster.  Your maternal instinct that cuddles and nurtures and keeps me as close as I want to be, actually reinforces my fear of being on my own.  I thus know that the world is a scary place and the only place for me is in your bosom, and safe arms.  We inadvertently make our children more anxious by not helping them learn to separate and feel capable of self consoling.

I’m not advocating shoving them to the street, but I am suggesting you get this sleep training done by around 6 months. Smart insecure infants can become more insecure and dependent, which, as this study illustrates, may put them at greater risk for psychiatric and attention issues.

Parents, who have struggled with this, please share your tips on what worked best for you.

 

Dr. Paul

 

 

 

4 comments

  • morgan

    I follow your blog for medical advise not child behavior/sleeping/parenting style advise. Do you want to talk to us about what happens in a baby’s body when you leave them to “learn” how to sleep by crying till exhaustion? I would like to know. Please stick to medical advice that is in your field; not psychiatry.

  • Leenie

    Thank you for your excellent perspective on how mothering too much impairs rather than enables. My infant is 10 months and her sleep habits are getting more problematic and she is getting more dependent as I become more nurturing in response. I am starting to realize that attachment parenting may not be right for us. But it’s so painful to see her crying and shaking when I try to do even ten minutes of incremental “cry it out”. She has bad eczema and reflux (a bit improved after 8 months but still there) so I have had to do significant parental soothing. Now at 10 months the habits are there and she is so strong willed, but I need to keep trying to find a healthy way to help her learn to self sleep and self sooth to make a change for the betterment of her future.

  • M&A Pierce

    We found with our three that training them to sleep through the night was great for them in more ways than one. For one thing, we believe it contributed to their confidence and willingness to explore the world around them during their waking hours, as you suggested. We also found that it meant mommy and daddy got more sleep – which, believe it or not, wasn’t entirely a selfish move on our part! In fact, getting more sleep helped us have the energy we needed to focus on them even better during their waking hours – to spend more happy times playing together, and fewer groggy times just “surviving” together! I think many parents default to believing that their child is an exception, when actually they’ve just waited a bit past the optimal time to sleep train. As the child gets older, he or she figures out the parents’ “response buttons” and just does whatever it takes to get what they believe they want. And while they may want certain things (ie, to eat or cuddle at 2 AM), the parent is in a much better position to know what the infant actually *needs* – which is probably sleep! So long as they are eating and growing well and have no special medical needs (as you wisely mentioned), I believe most babies can learn to sleep… well, like a baby! In the process, they learn the necessary lesson that the world (and the family) does not automatically revolve around them, and the parents are able to focus their attention properly on all of their duties – which may include older children and their marriage. The concept that all other relationship priorities can and should be pushed to the side for twelve months so that an infant’s every want can be met, whether or not the parent believes that want represents an actual need – that concept seems to result in families (and bodies!) that struggle more than might otherwise be necessary. Thank you for addressing this challenging subject!

  • Not my intention to imply that mothering “impairs” – when you see thousands of mothering relationships there are times when a particular style may not be in that child’s best interest and that may be hard to see sometimes when you are in the middle of it.
    Trust your mom instinct- just sharing ideas here. Best to you and your little one.

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