When I see babies and infants for their checkups, parents will often ask me when they will start sleeping through the night.
The answer I always give them is “before their wedding day”. What I mean by that is that every baby/child is different and every parent/parenting couple is different. Sometimes it’s the baby’s personality, sometimes it’s the parenting technique and most of the time it will be a combination of both. I have three children myself and I still remember how difficult sleep was for the first kid as compared to the other two. In this article, I will try to summarize when you should consider seeking help for a possible medical cause for the crying versus what you can try to do yourself.
It is important to bear in mind that whatever you chose to do as a parent regarding your child’s crying, there is very little that you can do to cause any harm. Different people will give you different advise on the same topic. You may hear opinions from your own parents, siblings, the community nurse, lactation consultant, La Leche League, your family doctor, your pediatrician, the internet, etc. There will be many, many opinions out there, most of which will be conflicting. My philosophy is that you should choose whatever works best for you and your child and ignore the other opinions. I know it sounds like a cliche, but you DO know your kid best.
Nevertheless, here’s my 2 cents on this topic. Maybe my advice will work for your child, maybe it won’t. If you read it and it does not suit your parenting style, then it’s okay to try something that you feel would be more suitable. My suggestions are not the only right ones.
The cause of crying at night
Crying at night can be a sign of so many things for a baby. If only THEY could tell us what’s wrong. (Secretly, I’m hoping that one day we will all be able to hear baby’s thoughts, much like in that movie “Look Who’s Talking”). Here are some possibilities:
- The obvious one is that your baby may be hungry. Certainly up to 6 months of age, your child may need a night-feeding. However, after 6 months, most experts agree they do not need the extra feed. Then one is always left to wonder, what’s the chicken, what’s the egg. Is the baby waking up to feed because he/she is hungry or because they are used to it?
- If you are breastfeeding, your baby could be crying due to something that you ate or drank that day. Certain foods are more notorious than other, but here is a list of some items that may cause cramps: spicy foods, foods that can give us gas like beans, lentils, cauliflower, broccoli, onions, garlic, caffeine, chocolate. I am not saying you should avoid all those foods, as that would make a very bland diet. I am merely suggesting that you think back on those nights where it is particularly bad as to what you had for dinner or drink earlier in the day.
- Sometimes your baby/child could be crying because of intestinal cramps due to constipation. If your baby has trouble with bowel movements, you may try an old trick that often works to get things moving along: 2 oz of water with 1 teaspoon of brown sugar once a day. If that helps, but you need to use it more than 3 consecutive days, please consult your child’s physician. If it does not help at all and your child is still straining with his/her bowel movements, please consult your child’s physician.
- If your baby’s crying is accompanied with arching of the back, and the crying tends to be crying in pain, it might be a sign of gastro-intestinal reflux disease (“heartburn”). This is a common problem in babies under 6 months. It is not always accompanied with spit-ups or vomiting, but it could be. If you think your baby may be suffering from this, please consult your child’s physician. They may be able to help out by prescribing an antacid medication.
- If your baby does not only cry at night, but also cries a lot during the day it could be a sign of something else. It could be that your baby enjoys being held, for example. Other things your child’s doctor may consider is the possiblity of the excessive crying being a sign of cow milk protein allergy (again, only with excessive crying day and night).
- When your child is around 18 months or older, they could have night terrors that wake them up screaming. Often it’s best to soothe either with voice or gently stroking their hair. Often, when trying to pick them up, they will start kicking as they are not fully awake and not realizing they are dreaming.
I would like to sleep-train my child, but when and how?
My suggestion is not to try to sleep-train under the age of 6 months. From 6 months on you could try to sleep-train your child if you so choose.
There are two primary ways of trying to get your child to sleep-train:
a. Let them “cry it out”. Many experts say this is the fastest way to sleep-train. However, in my opinion, it only works if a few factors are working in your favour: both parents can bear it and you are truly willing to let them cry it out. If you go in after two hours of crying, all your baby has learned is that if they cry hard and loud enough, somebody will come to them. Some babies will start vomiting if they are really upset, so that may be a reason not to try it. I am not a personal fan of this method, but it does work if all the other factors mentioned are in your favour.
b. The “Ferber method” which can be explained as follows: first night you go in every 5 minutes, 2nd night every 10 minutes, 3rd night every 15 minutes, etc. You can go in and soothe the baby with your voice, but do not pick baby up and do not feed. There are lots of books on different kinds of sleep-training that use variations on this method. If you would like to do try the Ferber method, find a book that fits your parenting style. One that fits my own parenting style, which uses a practical and no-nonsense approach, is “The Sleep Lady’s Good Night, Sleep Tight” by Kim West.
- Beware of what you are eating and drinking when breastfeeding, as particularly spicy foods and gas-producing foods can contribute to crying.
- Reasons to go see your child’s physician: if you suspect reflux, cow milk protein allergy or constipation as cause for the crying. Sometimes you can’t put your finger on it, but your intuition tells you, “something is just not right”. Seek your physician’s help/reassurance at that time as well.
- Dr. Sharon’s favorite sleep-training book is “The Sleep Lady’s Good Night, Sleep Tight” book by Kim West.