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Nighttime Parenting: An Age-Old Concern

Anne Boyd
Homewood, Alabama, USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 35 No. 3, June-July 1999, pp. 62-63

It happens to all LLL Leaders at one time or another. The phone rings or a mother at a meeting asks,

"How do I get my baby to sleep through the night?" "When will my new baby sleep more than four hours at a stretch?" or "How can I get my toddler to sleep in his own bed?"

If you’ve been a mother for a while, these questions may sound familiar. After all, sometimes babies sleep and sometimes they're awake. Nonetheless, I do remember the questions I had with my older toddler. I got so tired of sleeping with her in my armpit. I felt trapped.

When a mother has questions about nighttime parenting, remember to think about what she may be feeling. She may be overwhelmed and confused. Possibly she is trying to sort out information, much of it conflicting. Meeting nighttime needs is a parenting concern that includes many points of view. The tools we use to help a mother depend on many factors: the age of the baby, the general health of the baby, the mother's wishes and to what extent the mother feels her nighttime situation affects her ability to function during the day.

Begin by truly listening to the mother. Reflect her statements, empathize with her feelings and identify with how difficult it can be. It is confusing when various "experts" offer different solutions for nighttime waking. Showing empathy for the mother can be as simple as saying.

"You were up with little Hannah who was awake for most of the night. You must be exhausted."

"By the end of the day you feel ‘touched out’ and just want to go to sleep.”

"It's hard to figure out what to expect.”

Human Relations Enrichment (HRE) sessions offered by LLLI remind Leaders that establishing rapport with a mother is crucial to information imparting. Often it’s nothing more than reassuring a mother that her baby fits a "normal" pattern and that responding to her baby's needs is the "right" thing.

After rapport is established and the mother has asked for information, a lot of what you offer will depend upon the age of the baby. For example, it is biologically normal for a fully breastfed six-week-old to awaken twice a night to nurse. If you had to double your weight in five months, you'd eat round the clock, too! Also, tiny infants have shorter sleep cycles than older babies and adults.

However, if a mother mentions that her 13-month-old is waking five to ten times a night, this can be another story. You might ask the mother if her pediatrician has ruled out physical problems. For example, some children with gastroesophageal reflux wake many times nightly because of physical discomfort. Other potential difficulties might include dairy or other food allergies, allergies to bedding material, room temperature, urinary tract infection, pinworms, teething pain, ear infection or stuffy nose.

In addition to suggesting possible physical causes of night waking, you might mention sleeping options that the may not have considered. Some babies sleep well in a crib in the baby’s room. However, a mother might find that she can reach baby before he is fully awake if she moves the baby's crib closer to her. For instance, she could try a "side car" arrangement with one side of the baby’s bed detached and the crib securely attached to the mother's bed, flush with no gaps. The parents might also be amenable to a discussion of the “family bed” idea. Perhaps they've never thought of this option in a serious light.

There is also the chance that the baby has gotten used to a particular routine. Sometimes older babies and toddlers who wake at night expect to be parented back to sleep in the same way they went to bed. For example, my toddler was accustomed to being put to sleep by taking a bath, brushing teeth and nursing in front of the television. She would awaken in the middle of the night and not be able to go back to sleep after nursing if these steps were not followed.

One solution to this problem is to create a new nighttime routine. The mother might want to let Dad "father the baby to sleep," by giving baby a relaxing bath and rocking or holding baby until sleep takes over. Or in the case of an older toddler, the mother may find that reading books and snuggling is a good way to ease the child into sleep.

When it seemed as though my toddler was nursing “all night, every night,” my shoulders hurt and my arm feel asleep. What I needed most was the knowledge that there were other nurturing options. I didn’t have to choose between nursing all night and letting my baby “cry it out.”

It is easy for parents to feel frustrated with night waking, even as they are bombarded with sleep advice. Most of all they need to know that it doesn't have to be an "either or" situation. Leaders can help parents by offering a listening ear and options that the parents may not have considered.

Maybe Mothers and Others Forget

Pat Kufeldt Burke, Virginia, USA

This article by Anne Boyd really jogged my memory. Even though my "baby" is 24 years old, I can still clearly remember the concerns I had about nighttime parenting. I was anxious, bewildered, ignorant and incredulous. I didn't know any babies and I labored under the myths that my dear mother passed on to me. She said, "Babies sleep a lot." I thought that meant they slept at night and I would be "off duty" until 6 AM or so. When I asked her about night waking, she said that her children slept through the night, in their own room, at an early age.

In addition, it seemed as though the first words on the lips of family, friends and strangers on the street were, "Does he sleep through the night yet?" I got the impression that this was a desirable goal of sorts, one that would mark me as a "good" mother. If my answer was "no," I got lots of suggestions about how to accomplish this objective with the added insight that it was easy or, if it was hard, it was worth it, or necessary lest I be "controlled” by the baby.

I think I must have driven my LLL Leader crazy. I often asked her when Kyle would sleep through the night. I asked her at meetings. I asked her on the phone. I don't remember what she said to me, but I remember that I always felt better after we spoke. She listened to me. She gave me information. She gave me options.

As I grew older—and I hope wiser—I became a Leader. As I talked to many mothers on the phone and at meetings, I realized just how common a worry night waking is. I also formulated several points that helped me to better understand how to help other mothers.

  • I really thought that parenting stopped at bedtime! What a revelation to find out that it was a 24-hour-a-day job. I suspect there are other new parents who are waiting to discover this truth.
  • Many mothers are just not aware of the range of sleep patterns that babies and toddlers exhibit. They are worried because they think that their baby is abnormal.
  • Other people really do attach undue importance to the sleep patterns of your baby and want to help. This is especially true if they think that you are unhappy.
  • Sometimes mothers and others seem to have selective memory. They actually don't remember the sleep patterns of their babies accurately.

For Further Reading

"The Art of Asking Questions and Imparting Information," LEAVEN, Jul/Aug 1993, page 62.

"Reaching the Burned-Out Mother," LEAVEN, Oct/Nov 1997, p. 105-6.

"Supporting the Mother with an Unfamiliar Problem," LEAVEN, Mar/Apr 1995, page 30.


The Baby Book by William Sears, MD.

Nighttime Parenting by William Sears, MD.

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