Why Won’t My Baby Sleep?

This is a question I often asked my son when he was 3 or 4 months old. I asked it in a sweet voice; I asked it in a pleading voice; I asked it in a sobbing voice, but no matter how many times I asked, he never gave me the answer.

I can remember the night— and some of you will know exactly what I’m talking about— when I felt like I could not take it anymore. My son was waking and crying 8-10 times a night, and not sleeping well at all. I had hit rock bottom, exhausted from waking up multiple times every night and having to soothe him back to sleep. As I carried him around my dark bedroom, bouncing him in spite of his screams, I cried too, and I knew that something had to give.

When our babies don’t sleep well, we tend to look for an explanation. We think it might be teething or gas. We worry that she’s too small and she needs to eat in the night, or he’s too big and he needs to eat more or he won’t feel full. The list goes on and on.

Are any of these explanations the real truth? Sometimes. But barring those times when your child has a burning fever or a new tooth coming in, the real reason most babies won’t sleep or stay asleep is that they just haven’t learned how.

We all have strategies that help us make the journey into sleep each night. We have bedtime routines that we tend to do without really thinking about it, and we do these things because they help us transition from the busy-ness of our day to a restful sleep.

Most of us have a favorite position on the bed that we turn to when we feel sleep about to come. Some of us need a glass of water beside the bed, some need white noise or music, others can’t sleep without the window open. Some need a cup of herbal tea, and some have to read for ten minutes. Whatever the differences might be, these are all sleep strategies, and without them we’d have trouble drifting off.

The same goes for babies. Many parents who haven’t developed a sleeping strategy for their babies will complain that their child can only fall asleep with the bottle, or while breastfeeding, or while being rocked or patted.

While this might be true, the trouble is, by offering these props, parents are creating a situation where their babies are dependent on something external to help them sleep. And that’s why they don’t sleep well. That’s why babies wake up every few hours.

Night waking is very common in babies who have not learned to sleep properly and are relying on a prop. When they wake up and the prop isn’t there to put them back to sleep, they have to wake up fully and cry in order to be soothed back to sleep. Of course, it’s not personal, Mom and Dad. Your babies don’t make it their personal mission to wake you up ten times a night. They just have no idea how to go to sleep without your help.

Luckily there is hope. There are lots of ways to give your child the tools she needs to be able to sleep independently, even from a very young age. Babies are capable of sleeping through the night, and learning those skills young will help make bedtimes and nighttimes relatively hassle-free.

A well-rested child is a happier, healthier child. And a well-rested parent is healthier and happier too.

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