Should you try to control your baby's sleep?

My seven-month-old baby still does not sleep through the night. She cries whenever I put her down to sleep. I have to hold her and often pick her up in the night so she won't cry. I try to give her what she needs and wants, but no sleep is driving me crazy! I want to try letting her "cry it out." Is it right to try to control her sleep patterns?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

You are the parent. Your child depends on you to be in charge of making decisions in her best interest and this includes sleep. Take some time to consider whether this approach is the right one for her and for your family.

Contrary to popular belief, the method developed by Richard Ferber does not simply advocate "crying it out." In her book, "The Sleep Book for Tired Parents", Rebecca Huntley describes the differences between Dr. Burton White's "cry it out" approach and Richard Ferber's "small steps" approach.

Regardless of which method you choose, success will largely be determined by your own comfort and confidence in the chosen approach and its fit with your child's temperament. Assuming you are reading your baby's needs, ( most parents are) your baby will respond to your calm and confident message that she can fall asleep on her own. Sounds good, right? But how do you get there when you are unsure yourself?

Consider the following guidelines that outline the philosophy and what is necessary to succeed in this approach. If these are a "fit" for you and your baby, there is no harm in trying it out.

1) Your baby needs encouragement to get to sleep. This does not include your "help" to achieve this process. This belief is the foundation for this method. Sounds tricky? Not really. Ferber believes that most babies over the age of six months can find their own way to sleep. Helping a child by lying down next to them or rocking them to sleep, is viewed as interfering with the child's ability to get to sleep by herself. It sends the message that the child is not capable of getting (or expected) to sleep on their own.

2) Encourage and reassure your child. This method requires you to give your child a clear message that they can go to sleep on their own. Checking on your baby, intermittently, calling out to them to reassure your child that you are there and giving your older baby a "cuddly" toy for comfort are ways to reassure without negating this message.

3) Create a soothing nighttime ritual. Ferber encourages bedtime rituals. Reading a story before bedtime, talking about your child's day (with older children) and a soft lullaby can encourage a child to wind down from the day's activities. A ritual brings the two of you together, before separating through sleep.

4) Determine your own tolerance for crying. Ferber's method requires that you are able to tolerate your baby's crying without undermining the approach. Parents are encouraged to set a time limit on the amount of crying you can accept. Five minutes is a suggested interval to start with, progressively increasing the time you are out of the room to 10 minutes and finally to 15 minutes the first night. This is followed by beginning at 10 minutes the second night and 15 minutes the third night. A parent comes into the room at these intervals, for one or two minutes, only to reassure a child with calm, steady words and a gentle pat, then leaves. Calling out from an adjacent room may also reassure a child and is recommended by some pediatricians as a modification to this approach.

Remember, that if you use this method, you should not be present when your child goes to sleep. Staying present until your baby is sleeping is a common way that parents undermine this approach. Keep in mind that much of the tension and guilt parents feel about how to get their children to sleep has to do with their beliefs and experience of separation. Like saying good-bye, saying "good night" can bring up a sense of departure. It is wise to reflect on your interpretations of your child's cries and separate any past abandonment in your life from your child's situation. This method will not work if you believe your child is suffering abandonment, rather than adjustment.

Babies, especially, cry in order to adapt. It is one of their normal responses to adjustments of all kinds. It is up to you to determine whether your baby's crying is one of adapting to changes that are in her best interests, or distress which requires you to adapt to your baby. Your job as a parent is to establish a healthy balance for meeting your needs, as well as your child's. Establishing sleeping patterns in the household that everyone can live with, is no exception. Your child's security depends on your leadership, as well as your love. Do not shy away from taking charge. Your baby will benefit more from a mother who is rested, than one that is exhausted.

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