Child Caring

Getting the 13-month-old to sleep through the night

My 13 month old still won't sleep through the night. She wakes up every 3-5 hours or so and needs a bottle to go back to sleep. I really don't think she's actually hungry, I think it's just the only way she knows to get back to sleep when her normal sleep cycle wakes her up. How do I break the cycle and get her to soothe herself back to sleep? The lack of sleep is wrecking havoc on me. I haven't been able to get more than 3-5 hours of sleep at a time for 13 months now. Please help.

From: Sarah, J, Baltimore

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Dear Sarah J,

What was once called "Ferberizing" -- a method of gradually teaching your baby to learn to sleep alone and/or through the night that was popularized by pediatrician Richard Ferber -- is now more commonly known as "sleep training." Either way, it's what your daughter needs.

Step 1: Start by making sure she falls asleep under the same set of circumstances she will experience when she wakes up during the night. That means leaving her in her bed by herself and before she is fully asleep so that when she wakes up she's (a) not surprised to be alone; and (b) not surprised to be where she is.

Step 2: When she wakes up, go in to her but don't pick her up unless you think she is wet or hungry. Gently rub her back, tell her you know she can go back to sleep, and promise to come back to check on her in a few minutes. Wait between three and five minutes, whatever you can tolerate. Repeat if necessary, waiting a little bit longer each time. Once she sees that you really aren't going to do anything other than say soothing words, she likely will get the message. In one family I know -- twins! -- the babies got the message on the first night, after crying intermittently for an hour. In another, a reader reports it took four nights.

In the beginning, though, she will cry, possibly angrily. So here are important rules: 1. don't do this if you aren't prepared to tolerate her unhappiness. 2. Make sure you and your partner are on the same page. Because if one of you caves, you will have to wait a while and start the process all over again.

Caveat: some parents can't do this, some children make themselves sick. Ferber once told me in an interview that this strategy is not appropriate in all situations, or for all babies. Here's something else to keep in mind: how many caregivers are there in your daughter's life? If there are several, are they on the same page for putting her to sleep or does each one do something different? Differences can create problems with the mid-night awakenings, so get everyone on the same page.

An alternative to leaving the room while she cries is to sit next to the bed but not talking or touching her. Tell her, "I'll stay for three minutes, then I'm go back to my bed." After three to five nights, move the chair farther away and then farther still, until you are in the doorway. By that time, she won't really need your presence any more.