Why is my baby's sleep inconsistent?
September 29, 2006 6:19 AM   Subscribe

I have a 7 month old son. We love him to death, but he's currently driving us crazy with his wildly inconsistent sleeping habits. What should we do?

He'll go for several days sleeping through the night in his crib *and* multi-hour naps in his crib during the day. Then he'll suddenly, without apparent reason, stop doing one of those or both. When he does that, he will only sleep on either myself or my wife, and instantly wake up crying when placed in his crib or swing or whatever. When otherwise awake during the day he's happy and playful. This obviously means that when he's sleeping on us, we can't do anything else -- including sleep ourselves. This starts to take its toll -- does anyone have any solutions?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
When my tiny nephew went through this stage, my sister called on me and Mrs Flabdablet for help. We went and did sleep donor duty for a few nights; he was happy as long as he had a warm chest to sleep on. Have you some biddable relatives?
posted by flabdablet at 7:04 AM on September 29, 2006

We've had good luck with Jodi Mindell's Sleeping Through the Night. It's loosely in the "Ferberizing" vein but is a bit more lenient about attending to the baby when he cries. Among other things, Mindell recommends having a very precise bedtime routine, the same each day. Good luck! In our experience the sleep gets easier and easier with time.
posted by escabeche at 7:05 AM on September 29, 2006

Babies were around before the days of both parents having jobs, or one parent having lone child-rearing duties (a good reason for extended families), or most of the stuff that makes us civilized.

Know that every minute of time you spend with your child is a lot less of your total life span than it is of your child's lifetime, and is really important to your kid. Consider sleep-deprivation to be a bonding experience for the family. Remember that once these treasured times have passed, you can never get them back. Expect no sympathy from those who haven't had kids, and just a 'yup, good luck' from those who have.

More practically, you can probably read a book while he's nestled next to you.

Good luck.
posted by dragonsi55 at 7:07 AM on September 29, 2006

(This happened to a friend of mine several years ago. Her daughter would not sleep anywhere but on them, due to the fact that they reinforced the behavior. So, as a result, the kid could not go to sleep without one of her parents in bed with her. She was at least 9 or 10 before she'd sleep on her own.) I suggest you let the baby cry it out.
posted by cass at 7:19 AM on September 29, 2006

(That's 9 or 10 *years* old, btw.)
posted by cass at 7:20 AM on September 29, 2006

I have no babies, but my uber-mom coworker says it is important to get babies used to regimented sleeping habits. My co-worker would put her kid down to sleep at the same time every night and was very particular about when and how long he would nap for. Children get used to the structure. I'd check on him when he cries, but not let him sleep with you. You can do this for a few days to see if he gets used to it or not.

Re: cass: damn.
posted by chunking express at 7:26 AM on September 29, 2006

Is he on solid food? He might be eating something on those nights that gives him a bit of a bellyache. My oldest did what you're describing, and it turned out that she was occasionally a bit constipated. My doctor explained that because their digestive systems are still so immature, introducing a new food can sometimes traumatize the system.

If this sounds like it makes sense for your son, try to introduce new foods more slowly, and give him more fluids on those times that he has trouble sleeping.
posted by Flakypastry at 7:31 AM on September 29, 2006

My wife and I read a bunch of books on this and mostly gleaned that routine, especially a soothing pre-bedtime one, did the most to help our son sleep.

Some of it we let him direct ... by observation we learned when he was naturally getting tired most days and evenings ... and once we had a sense of what his natural cycle was we structured his bedtime routine around that, sticking to the same time each evening.

We got a baby massage book and started "bedtime" about 30 minutes before we put him down for the night. We'd do 15 minutes or so of massage, then we'd give him a quick warm bath. Then we'd swaddle him up and start his bottle in the living room, transitioning him to a rocking chair in his nursery when he was about 3/4 done with it. By the time he hit the bottom of the bottle, he was ready to go to sleep.

We were careful to put him in bed before he was completely asleep so he could adjust to the idea of being in bed on his own, without getting startled by falling asleep with one of us and waking up alone.

We ignored a lot of the advice we read about night-time feedings, so there was a night-time bottle for a few months. It wasn't a lot of fun, but it was always done with a minimum of fuss and he was pretty good about going back to sleep after it. There weren't any "let him cry it out" episodes to speak of.

We were very defensive of his sleep routine, too. We were lucky to have friends who were willing to accommodate our post-8 p.m. social lives by doing stuff like having "Firefly" parties and the like. I've since learned that one of them has taken to saying we didn't have a life his first year, but I guess what mattered to us was making sure Ben slept well and had a sense of routine.

He's almost three now, and just transitioned out of his crib. For the most part, though, his bedtime is around 7:30 or 8 at night, and he sleeps until around 7 a.m. most mornings. The move to a toddler bed involved a few bumps once he realized he could just get out of bed and run around, but nothing too bad.

He's also a pretty adaptable sleeper now. We took him camping last summer and this summer, and given a few familiar items and a pack-n-play, he just knows what to do.

That all worked really well for us, but on comparing notes with other parents and reading the wide and wildly varied advice in all the books, we kind of learned to stop saying "you should" and started saying "we had good luck with."
posted by mph at 7:49 AM on September 29, 2006 [1 favorite]

We had the pretty much the same situation with our son except we didn't have the good nights. So it could be worse :)

Our (meaning my wife's) solution:

- bedtime routine (bath, pj's, book, turning off light, bed)
- making sure he had warm pj's on
- making sure he had a scheduled naps
- gently ferberizing him. letting him scream but being around and telling him it was ok and that he needed to go "night night" and patting his back once in a while. I think this approach worked because he eventually got old enough to comprehend what he was supposed to do and also that we weren't going to be flexible with him.

Now at 13 months he actually asks to go to bed when he is tired! It's bliss!
posted by rdurbin at 8:11 AM on September 29, 2006

Oh, yea, putting him to bed earlier helped to. He went from 9:00 to 7:30 and he has been much better.
posted by rdurbin at 8:13 AM on September 29, 2006

Consider sleep-deprivation to be a bonding experience for the family.
Huh? Going to have to disagree there. Sleep deprivation can make the infant months almost unbearable. It's totally OK to want a good night's sleep!

That being said, rdurbin already wrote down everything I wanted to say--especially the part about "gently Ferberizing." It's what worked for us and five years later, our kid is a great sleeper.
posted by jrossi4r at 8:55 AM on September 29, 2006

I had a baby like this. He loved to sleep on my chest or in my arms. Before you transfer him to his crib or your mattress, make sure he is in a very deep sleep. You can tell if he is in very deep sleep if his limbs are flacid. Also, don't be afraid to place your baby on his tummy in the crib or bed. He may sleep better this way. I don't know if you are against this or not, but I found my babies slept better prone.

I agree with the being present and patting on the back and telling him it is night night time while letting him cry a bit, etc. but he is only 7 months. I would try that trick when he was older.

Soon, this will all be a distant memory. He will sleep through the night eventually. Good luck with your baby boy.
posted by LoriFLA at 9:12 AM on September 29, 2006

Would he settle for sleeping in your bed, but not on you? That's what we do with our baby. She nurses to sleep and wakes up a few times during the night for a quick nurse, but there are no tears or fussing and it's all quite cosy.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:35 AM on September 29, 2006

Just another vote for Ferber - He's often (unfairly) grouped with the "cry-it-out" advocates, but when we finally realized the "attachment parenting" styles we'd started with weren't working, we gave his system a try and it was a near-miracle for us.

Our daughter had been an erratic sleeper (much of it our fault, in retrospect) and frequently ended up in bed with us, constantly nursing, waking and thrashing around for most of the night, and only falling asleep draped on my wife or I. After several months of this we were really at the end of our ropes and with much trepidation we started Ferber - By the third evening she was sleeping through the night in her crib, and the first two nights it only took 40 and 20 minutes respectively.

Again, that's what worked for us - as noted, everyone's got a unique situation, but I'd recommend you at least check out the book. Good luck.
posted by jalexei at 9:39 AM on September 29, 2006

Not to turn this into The Tired-old Debate, but how is Ferber unfairly grouped with cry-it-out advocates? Isn't that exactly what he is?
The part of the Ferber book that freaked me out the most was when he said (paraphrasing) "If the child is crying and vomits, enter the room and clean the child up but do not hold the child...put them back in bed and leave quietly." Sorry, but if your kid is crying so hard that he BARFS, I think a little comforting is in order.
We certainly weren't perfect and it was definitely a trying time but after three kids, my experience is that each kid is different and requires adapting to their specific needs. We were somewhere in between the Sears (attatchment) method and Ferber. Our first kid slept in our bed for a year. Our second wanted nothing to do with our bed and yet we ended up having to go into her room every 20 minutes or so to calm her down, several times. At the beginning I slept in a cot beside her bed just to get her used to her crib. It took a while. Our third kid was somewhere in the middle. So, as I say, it's different for every child and I don't think it's a great thing to try and distill it down to a precise system.
This idea that you can have a child sleeping quietly in three days is more to appease the parents, isn't it? Crying kids are a big drag, but it takes a lot of effort to make them sleep comfortably with good habits. A seven month old is crying for a reason, he's not trying to trick or manipulate you.

As mentioned above, I think structure and routine is important to. But be careful not to be too rigid. I have a friend right now who has a one year-old, and they have to leave any function they're at, even if their daughter is perfectly happy, so they can be home by 7.30 to start the routine of bedtime with wave-music on cd players. He says it works great because she freaks out on the rare occasions they miss the deadline...which sort of says to me that they are going to be in big trouble if they ever want a babysitter or daycare. I think you want your kid to be a bit flexible and adaptable in their sleeping habits, along with that structure, if that makes any sense.

So, to try and answer your question, in your shoes I would (and did) maybe make him feel a bit more comfortable in his room by staying in there with him for a bit at the beginning, then leaving him to cry for brief periods, always showing him that you will come back if he's upset to comfort him. You might want to limit the daytime naps, too. Shorten them and don't have them too late in the day.
Good luck. It seems like this period goes on forever and it really does suck at times but it does end eventually.
posted by chococat at 10:38 AM on September 29, 2006

If you can load a webpage and you like graphs, look at The Trixie Update, a blog where Trixie's parents recorded her sleep patterns meticulously for the first year and change, and then put the output into lovely graphs that will make you cry with recognition. (Actually, I'm guessing, since you're sleep-deprived, that even just trying to open a can of soup might make you cry. Sorry - it will pass.)
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:59 AM on September 29, 2006

I had the problem with my first child and never rectified it and it almost rect my marriage. With child number two we learned from our mistakes and got into a very strict regiment. Morning nap, afternoon nap and bedtime at strict hours - no exceptions. I got lucky and bought a cheap Honeywell fan at Target that resembled the hum of an aircraft engine - it had the added effect of creating a wall of sound in his room so no discordant noise would awake him, I recommend getting some kind of constant sound that will sooth him to sleep and have him put it on at night when you put him to sleep as sort of a ritual that gives him contol over his environment. Then I would put him in his crib - he'd immediately get up and cry pointing to the door. I would just sit in a chair and point to the crib and say "night night" sometimes for 45 minutes until he went to sleep. Eventually the ritual of him putting on the fan and me sitting in the room with him until he went to sleep took less time. Now it's down to about 10 minutes - and he sleeps through the night and that has made a world of difference in our quality of life. You are going to have to try numerous things because as most people will so frustratingly tell you - all children are different. What works for one doesn't always work for another but just understand you will get through it - we all have. You'll never get used to getting so little sleep but you can soothe yourself with the knowledge of one day they'll grow up and a whole new set of problems will present itself :)
posted by any major dude at 11:32 AM on September 29, 2006

I second LobsterMitten's reccomendation of the charts on the Trixie Update, but Trixie slept through the night by and large. (I know this all too well because my son, whose blog has no sleep charts, slept like the OP's child, except less, and I envied Trixie's parents.)

So, yes, my son had similar sleep issues. We did not get a lot of sleep for nearly 2 years. He had to be held to sleep at all until he was about 8 or 9 months old, and only just recently began sleeping through the night (he's 3 now).

The "Cry it out" method didn't work on him -- what did work was something similiar to mph's method. But it was a slow process.

The thing is, children are not interchangable. For varying reasons, some kids sleep well righr away and some don't. Some of those reasons are parental, but many of them have to do with the child's temprerament or medical conditions (like, say allergies). What we found with our son is that hius sleeplesness seems to come from the fact that he was too interested in things to settle down. So we created a bedtime routine for him that begins with his bath and ends with some books. An hour before bedtime we put on calming music (like Brian Eno's Music for Airports or solo piano stuff by Linford Detwieler). Until very recently, the routine included being rocked for a while in a rocking chair.
Whatever you do, you'll need to find what works best for your child by experimentation. I don't reccomend the cry it out method, but at some point you will need to firmly and gently teach your child to sleep on his own, and that will be disappointing to the child, and that will involve tears. But you'll know when it's time for that.

It gets better. And you and your spouse can handle it. But it does get frustrating, and I feel your pain. I even wrote a poem about my son not going to sleep, it got so bad.
posted by eustacescrubb at 5:37 PM on September 29, 2006

Ferber worked well for us. (We have two children, aged 4 and 2.)

Ferber does a good job of describing what happens when you sleep. Apparently everyone wakes up in the middle of the night. The key thing is that you need to learn how to get back to sleep on your own.

As Ferber describes it: if you're accustomed to going to sleep with your favorite pillow, and then you wake up in the middle of the night and find that your pillow is gone--someone's taken it!--you're probably going to be somewhat confused and upset. If you're acting as your child's pillow, they're not going to be able to go to sleep without you around, and when they wake up they'll need you to go back to sleep.
posted by russilwvong at 5:50 PM on September 29, 2006

Except that they are not crying for their pillow, they are crying for their parent. My problem with the Ferber method is that it teaches your child that if they cry, their parents won't come. So they should just shut up.
posted by chococat at 6:07 PM on September 29, 2006

I'm posting this intentionally late, hoping to avoid all the call outs it could potentially inspire, but wanting to pass on a possible quick fix to parents who may need their sleep.

Thirty-five years ago, when my older son got into early hour crying jags, waking his little brother, and getting us all up, my wife happened upon a suggestion to try rubbing his face with an ice cube. The minor shock of it stimulated his diving reflex, broke his crying pattern, made him take deep breaths, and a subsequent quick drying of his face was apparently soothing enough to get him to accept being rolled over, and patted for a minute, after which he'd go to sleep on his stomach, like a stuffed toy plopped down and forgotten.
posted by paulsc at 12:28 PM on September 30, 2006

Our first son was an angel, slept through the night starting at four months. His aunt told us the next one would be a "real" baby, and she was right.

The second one was a preemie (about 7 weeks) and it literally took years for him to settle into a good sleep routine. We were quite amazed (and mortified) to discover at one point he was hungry and all he wanted was a few Cheerios. Other nights we took him on the road, because the motion of the car did wonders. He was never one who needed to come in to bed with us; it just took a lot of patience.

The rest of his sleep problems were a combination of night terrors (regularly, about 10:30 pm, until he was nearly 5) and late-diagnosed lactose intolerance, which he's now grown out of.
posted by lhauser at 7:33 PM on September 30, 2006

Not to turn this into The Tired-old Debate, but how is Ferber unfairly grouped with cry-it-out advocates? Isn't that exactly what he is?

I differentiate him from Gina Ford, Weisbluth and others who advocate putting them in the crib and not returning until the morning, regardless of if they cry all night - that's pretty dramatically different than timed visits that continue until the child falls asleep.

My problem with the Ferber method is that it teaches your child that if they cry, their parents won't come.

But they do, frequently, until their child is asleep. Have you read any other part of it than the vomit bit?

This idea that you can have a child sleeping quietly in three days is more to appease the parents, isn't it? Crying kids are a big drag, but it takes a lot of effort to make them sleep comfortably with good habits.

An idea? To appease us? We spent many months with various techniques that didn't work, Ferber did. We didn't set out to have it happen over a given time frame. It so happened that it took 3 nights. I'm terribly sorry our experience wasn't a "drag" for even longer.

I was pretty careful to point out that the best plan is the one that works for, and feels comfortable to, you. If you don't like Ferber that's fine. But please don't misrepresent him and imply that my wife and I are some sort of lazy vanity parents looking for quick fixes.
posted by jalexei at 6:21 PM on October 1, 2006

Yup, I read the whole book. The "vomit bit" was kind of a clincher for me, though...I could never do that.
Wasn't implying anything about you personally, sorry you took offence and glad it worked for you.
posted by chococat at 8:53 PM on October 1, 2006

No worries - we cringed at that part too, fortunately never was an issue.

And apologies for getting snippy - I think I'm sensitive as I've had so many peers with similarly aged kids who ask us about sleep, and we mention Ferber, and they say something like "Oh we could never let XXXX cry all night" and when I tell them how the process works they say "Oh, well that's what we did."

And it took us a long time to get there. We really, really hated to have our daughter cry for any length of time (true of any parent, I suppose?) and resisted Ferber for months. But when we just weren't making any progress with other methods, the whole idea of the "teach them they have to put themselves to sleep but appear frequently to reassure" finally began to make sense in our situation. We were frankly stunned she responded so quickly, but it really was like flipping a switch. Number Two is due in early April, I'm really curious to see differences and similarities....

I think even if you don't use his process, he's got a lot of interesting things to say about the hows and whys of infant/toddler sleep, and I'd hate for someone just to dimiss the book out of hand based on things they've heard.
posted by jalexei at 9:02 AM on October 2, 2006

And apologies for getting snippy

No problem. It's a sensitive topic, for sure. The one thing you'll notice being a parent (if you haven't already) is that people are way quick to criticize and tell you what they did (myself included, clearly.)

I guess my main problem with Ferber was the way that it's an exact, rigid theory or philosophy. But I have that problem with "attachment parenting" too.
Like I mentioned before, we did the crying time too, but we mixed it up with other stuff and kind of found a balance that worked for us.
But that was us.
Good luck with number #2.
posted by chococat at 1:11 PM on October 2, 2006

« Older How do you verify the broker you are dealing with...   |   Regex assistance for htaccess puzzle. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.