Between the ages of 6 and 18 months, most babies can sleep for 10 to 11 hours at night, and for 3 to 4 hours during the day, usually in 2 or 3 naps. (Older babies often get all their daytime sleep in a single nap.) Keep in mind that even a baby who "sleeps through the night" will wake up briefly every 4 hours or so. Whether your child needs you with her to fall asleep at bedtime, or to get back to sleep when she wakes up during the night, can depend on how you help her get to sleep. A bedtime routine that depends on your being there—rocking your child to sleep or nursing her as she falls asleep—makes you part of the "falling asleep" routine and requires you to be part of the routine of falling back asleep every time she wakes during the night.
How you get your child to sleep at night is a very personal decision, and sometimes one that's difficult to make. All parents want to do what's best for their children and their families, but it's not always clear what that is.
Some parents prefer to respond to their child's need for comfort in the middle of the night. Their child's cries may be particularly distressing to them, they may believe that it is unreasonable to expect young children to sleep alone, and they are willing to live with interruptions of their own sleep. Other parents feel it is important to help their child learn to sleep by herself. They feel that a few nights of tears during the learning process are balanced by the longer-term benefit of better sleep for the whole family. Most parents strike a balance between their child's need for comfort at night and the whole family's need for uninterrupted sleep.
What follows is a strategy for teaching your child to get to sleep by herself. You might want to use it every time your child sleeps, or you might want to try it out for daytime naps first and work up to using it at bedtime and during the night. Whatever you decide, make a plan before bedtime (or nap time) and stick to it for at least a week.
• Separate feeding from sleeping. Try to time your older baby's bedtime feeding so she does not fall asleep while nursing or having a bottle. You might try feeding her a little earlier in the evening, maybe half an hour before bedtime, as a way to separate nursing from the bedtime routine. This can also give you a chance to change her wet diaper before she falls asleep.
• Ease into bedtime. Find a bedtime routine that helps your child wind down and understand that bedtime is approaching. A warm bath before changing into sleep clothes can be a good start to the routine. You might read a story or sing a soothing song. Dim the lights at the same stage in the routine every night.
• Try to be calm and relaxed yourself. Your baby will sense your tension if you try to hurry through the bedtime routine, or if you allow other worries to intrude on what should be a peaceful time. Your tension may actually make it harder for your baby to relax and get to sleep.
• Let her fall asleep on her own. Put your baby in her crib when she's sleepy but still awake.
• Give her a "comfort object" to hold—a safe, snuggly toy or soft blanket.
• Use touch. You might rub her back or gently massage her head for a minute to help her relax, but not to get her all the way to sleep. (You want her to learn to fall asleep by herself.)
• Let her know you're leaving. Once you've finished, say "goodnight" in a soft voice and leave the room.
• Keep to a bedtime and nap-time schedule, if possible. A child who isn't tired at bedtime because she had a late nap will resist the bedtime routine, and a child who is overtired can be hard to calm at bedtime. Ask your child care provider to help you by making sure your child is getting a good balance of rest and exercise during the day.
It may take some time to find a regular, predictable routine that works. It can be hard for babies to separate from an active, busy household and a loving parent. And it can be hard for them to change to a new bedtime routine. Most babies will cry as a way of objecting to an unfamiliar way of doing things. But most will adjust to the new routine quickly, usually within a few nights.
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