"She’s up crying every 3-4 hours each night," the distraught mother of my 11-month-old patient told me. "How can we remedy this so that our whole family can get a good night's sleep?"
Nighttime awakenings are very common in infancy so don't feel bad if your child is experiencing it too. There are two main reasons why children at this age wake up at night and cry. First of all, it could be a learned behavior. For example, when the child wakes up, her parent picks her up and rocks her to sleep. Believe me, it doesn’t take long for a child to learn to fall asleep only when being rocked! Consider another scenario: when a child wakes up, she is given a bottle and she learns to fall asleep while drinking milk.
It’s best to prevent these behaviors by teaching your child good sleep hygiene. Take the following steps to "extinguish" these learned behaviors:
When your child wakes up, wait a few minutes before you go in to check on her.
Check for safety first.
Tuck her in and reassure her in a calm, quiet voice.
Leave the room. Your child may cry but do not turn around.
Return to her room in 1-2 minutes if she still cries & repeat steps 1-4.
Gradually start to stretch the intervals between visits to your child’s room.
After a few days of following the above routine, your child should learn to fall asleep on her own, and at last you’ll be able to enjoy your deserved, good night’s sleep.
The second reason for waking up at night is your child’s developmental age. Around 9 months of age, children learn the so-called “object permanence." They become aware of the existence of people and objects when they are out of sight. Therefore, children might wake up at night crying for parents simply because they miss them.
The best thing to do is to establish a regular bedtime routine. For example: start to dim lights, give your child a bath or massage, read a book, etc. Having a routine teaches your child what to expect and creates a sense of security. Offer your child a security object, like a baby blanket or a plush toy, to ease the transition from day to night. When she wakes up at night calling for you, do not respond right away. If she still calls after a couple of minutes, check if she is safe, tuck her in, reassure in a soothing voice, and return to your bed.
Be consistent in your responses every night and before long your child, and the rest of the family, will enjoy restful nights.
Dr. Hillary is a pediatric nurse practitioner with a doctoral degree in health promotion and risk reduction. She has worked with children for well over a decade, and answers online pediatric questions at www.AskDoctorHillary.com. Before she became a pediatric clinician, Dr. Hillary taught high school. Her hobbies include gardening, cooking, and traveling.