Some Nights It Takes Forever To Get Our Baby To Fall Asleep

We rock our sweet baby Alyssa to sleep every night before we put her into his crib. When she was younger (she’s 5 months old now) it just took a few minutes but now it is oftena half hour before she falls asleep. During the night she wakes up three or four times times and wants to be rocked again. I don’t think she’s hungry—if I nurse her she just sucks for a minute and falls asleep. We've tried letting her cry but it goes on and on until we wind up going in anyway.   Why does she get so upset?

You are describing the typical pattern of a baby who has a "falling asleep habit."  Alyssa has learned to fall asleep in a certain way and now seems unable to fall asleep any other way.  When she wakes up during the night she needs your help to lull her back to sleep in the same way that you helped her at bedtime.  

Everyone, babies, children and adults, wakes up many times during the night.  Most of these times the arousal is so brief we aren't even aware that we have awakened.  We shift in bed, readjust our pillows to get comfortable, and go back to sleep. Sometimes parents think that their baby has a problem because she wakes up during the night, but the waking up times are normal.  The problem is that once Alyssa is awake, she can't fall back asleep until you come in and rock her again just as you did at bedtime, so she cries until you come in to help her.

When parents have to wake up several times every night to soothe a baby back to sleep, they usually get pretty tired.  It's hard to be a good parent during the day when you're not getting enough sleep.  If you feel that you would be a more responsive and attentive parent (or partner or worker) during the day if Alyssa slept through the night, it's time to change her nighttime sleep pattern.       

If you would like Alyssa to be able to fall asleep on her own and to be able to put herself back to sleep during the night without your help, you will have to change her current habit and pattern of falling asleep at bedtime.  DON’T try to change the middle of the night pattern without changing the bedtime pattern.  That hardly ever works and often causes babies and parents to suffer through hours of needless crying.

It's not easy to change falling asleep habits.  Most adults have sleep habits that they would have difficulty changing.  Suppose you are used to falling asleep under a fluffy comforter with two pillows under your head.  Then imagine if you were required to fall asleep in a different bed, with a thin blanket and no pillow at all.   Wouldn't that be difficult, even if you were sleepy? In fact, you might feel that you couldn't fall asleep at all that way.  You wouldn't be very happy. 

The only method that resolves bedtime sleep association habits is to use “gradual extinction”, meaning that you gradually withdraw the comfort you are giving Alyssa so that she can learn to comfort herself.  There are dozens of variations of this approach--I have a bookshelf filled with different experts advising their own method.  But what they all have in common is that at bedtime the parent does less so that the baby learns to do more.  Babies who are old enough to comfort themselves with thumbs and hands are ready for this approach.  However, many babies will still need a middle of the night feeding, even if they can fall asleep without rocking at bedtime. 

It's reasonable to expect a baby to be unhappy if you decide that she should change her nighttime falling sleep habit.  Unfortunately it is unlikely that you can avoid making your baby upset if you want her to learn to fall asleep without your help and when babies are upset, they cry.   Accepting that she will cry because she is upset is different, however, than expecting her to "cry it out."  Crying doesn't teach the baby how to fall asleep on her own.  It is simply an unavoidable part of the process, just as it is sometimes unavoidable if your baby cries when she is strapped in her car seat. A baby can’t say, “Gee, Mom and Dad, I really don’t like it that you used to be willing to rock me to sleep and now you don’t—that makes me angry.”  Instead, she cries.

Of course, no parent wants to hear a baby cry—thank goodness.  If you are going to do anything that may make your baby upset enough to cry, it’s important to do everything you can to minimize the stress.  So planning ahead, and being careful and consistent is important.  Please don’t think you can have variable bedtimes, nights out, vacations and house guests and expect your baby to adapt.  Once she’s sleeping well, maybe, but making a change requires a couple of weeks of being regular and predictable—otherwise your baby may be stressed and unhappy, and you still won’t accomplish what you want.

In order to help Alyssa learn to fall asleep without being rocked you will first have to choose a regular bedtime, ideally early enough so that she is a little sleepy, but not overtired.  By the time a baby is rubbing her eyes, she’s exhausted! You will have to begin your normal bedtime routine at least 15 minutes before this, longer if you want to have a bath or quiet playtime. There isn’t space here to describe the ideal sleep environment and bedtime routine, feeding pattern, and daytime approaches--this is just about the sleep association pattern!

The method I am describing here is a middle of the road gradual extinction plan.  Some books describe a much more gradual method, some a much quicker one.  If you talk to a hundred parents they will all advocate for what worked for them because many variations work!  You can modify the overall approach in any way that feels right to you--you can pat, shush, sing while your baby falls asleep, or you can leave the room for longer periods and that’s OK.  You can also decide that what you are doing now is much better than any type of gradual extinction method, and that’s OK, too!

Your goal is to put Alyssa in her crib after a brief ritual while she is still awake.  That means awake and aware of her surroundings, not half-asleep.  Tell Alyssa, "Good Night.  We love you.  It's time to go to sleep," in a calm, gentle tone.  Then move away from her crib.  Some parents move away by a few inches, others sit in a chair, and some leave the room, but it is unlikely to make a big difference in the long run, because the big difference for Alyssa is that she will not be held. She has every right to be distressed because you are changing the pattern she is used to.  Your job will be to stay calm yourself, and to accept her distress as a normal and reasonable reaction .  It would be pretty surprising if after all these months she just went to sleep easily as if to say, "Well, I really didn't need you to rock me anyway!"  

If you stay in the room, you can repeat gentle bedtime phrases in a calm voice.  If you leave the room, go back in every ten minutes and say the same words. If you go in too soon, Alyssa may become even more upset each time you leave.  You will have to sit quietly or keep returning regularly until she falls asleep. 

By staying in the room or by leaving and returning regularly, Alyssa will understand that you have not disappeared.  You may be out of her reach or out of her sight but you still exist.  After a while, she will fall asleep andwill then discover that she can fall asleep without you. 

If Alyssa awakens again during the night and cries, go in right away. Repeat what you said at bedtime and then sit in the chair or leave the room, just as you did before.  The middle of the night process of falling back to sleep usually will take less time than the bedtime process.  If you use this method, staying calm and matter-of-fact, Alyssa will learn to fall asleep at bedtime on her own and then be able to fall back asleep after each arousal during the night, unless she is hungry.  The whole process usually takes about a week but you will see improvements in just a couple of nights. If you don’t see even small improvements by the end of five days, stop--something else is going on.  Either Alyssa is not ready or there are factors beyond the rocking or hunger that you did not notice.

If you are going to try this method, be sure that you are comfortable with it.  You MUST plan to be home every night to do the bedtime routine the same way for several weeks, even once it is working.  It's really not fair for a baby to have you try this for a few nights and then skip a night or take her out until she's overtired and falls asleep in the car on the way home!

Some parents say, "I can't let my baby cry at bedtime. It seems cruel"  That is very understandable, but it's usually not possible to make a change without being willing to accept your baby's temporary distress.  I've never met a parent who liked listening to a baby cry, but I've talked to many parents who felt that a few nights of discomfort were better for everyone than the feelings of frustration and anger they had every night when their baby awakened them repeatedly.  But that is their decision and it might not be yours.

If you are the type of parents who don't need much sleep, you can continue the rocking pattern as long as you like.  However, if you feel that your ability to be good parents, good partners, or to do well at your work is being affected by lack of sleep, this is probably the time to think about getting Alyssa to sleep better on her own.