Sleep & Nap Issues: My Baby Keeps Waking Up

Dear BabyShrink, My 8-month-old Lehua is going through a real burst right now, and among other things has just figured out how to get herself up to a sitting position. This is great, but it's really messing with her naps. Previously, she would fuss for 5 or 10 minutes, and then fall asleep. But now, she'll push herself up to sit and then seem to get "stuck" there. Fussing turns into sobbing and screaming, and she never gets to sleep. This morning she stayed like that the full hour until we went to get her. This afternoon she dozed off for about 20 minutes and then woke up very fussy but wouldn't go back down because of the sitting thing. What to do? My instinct is that she needs to learn how to do it herself and we should just tough it out a few days until she gets it. But I don't know. My mom disagrees of course.

Related question: what to do when she wakes up after only 20 minutes of a nap and is still fussy? Go and get her even though she hasn't gotten enough rest, or leave her in there fussing until she goes back to sleep? She is taking short naps lately and it is clear she's not rested. In my experience, it is just so much easier to create good habits than to break bad ones. I think our sleep situation is an example of this, because from the beginning I was super militant about laying down good nighttime habits -- never taking her out of her room once we put her down, keeping a regular bedtime, putting her down awake and letting her fall asleep on her own. The goal was for her to be independent in her sleep habits. But I think I dropped the ball on naptime -- I'd often let her sleep in the car, in my arms, or in the stroller. Anyway, I'm sure there are other reasons she has more trouble sleeping during the day, but I can't help believe that was a factor.

Still, it's good to be reminded of the need to be flexible and have a little "grace period" in times of upset. I'm kind of an uptight person, so when things are getting shook up, I tend to cling even harder to my routines and "good habits." I agree that, while moving in the direction of good habits, you still need to "go with the flow."

I guess the real answer here is what you’ve talked about before -- trusting your instincts about what your own baby needs. But it's hard when you're not sure what your instincts are telling you!

Ilima Maui, Hawaii

Dear Ilima,

Wow! I can really relate. Once you have the routine down pat, they go and change on you. I wish I had "the answer". But since this is sort of an unavoidable part of development, all I can do is give you some general information, and you can use your Mommy sense to see what might work for Lehua.

First, yes, sleep is super important. BUT, a few days' disruption does not make for a "bad habit". I know she's cranky, but your goal is to gently nudge her back in the direction of sleeping through. In the meantime, one of the things she's looking for is some comforting through all the wild and wacky changes she's experiencing. That's one of the reasons she is look for you. She is entering a phase where she will be more aware of you, and when you're gone. Separation anxiety will crop up during sleep, when she is away from you. That's part of it.

So: what to do when she awakens after 20 minutes, and you know she's still tired? There are not really a lot a great choices. I say, be guided by practicality. See how you're feeling that day, and see how she sounds. Is she just a little cranky? Then let her fuss a bit. Is she just way over the limit? Hold her awhile and see if she might go back down. If not....that's OK. Perhaps an earlier bedtime later that evening is called for. All is not lost. Pick her up and go on with your day, albeit with a cranky girl.

You will also be letting her know that flexibility and adaptation is one important way you will be helping her cope with difficult times. (Lots of my readers have asked about this, and it has been a discussion online here. Can you be flexible....and still have good limits? Yes. Absolutely. More on that topic soon.)

Also, she's not too young to start talking to her about what's going on. "Lehua, I know you know how to sleep nicely in your crib. You're tired! Mommy's tired! Let's sleep MORE today, ok? I know you'll feel so much better when you sleep. Mommy will be here when you wake up today. I know you miss me. You're safe, we're here." Just a short little pep-talk is enough. She may not understand 100% of your words, but she'll start to get the gist, over time. And it will condition you to start talking to her about these developmental challenges, and how you are going to help her get through them.

So much of young babies' sleep is constitution and temperament, not the environment. That's a concern I have with some of the popular baby sleep books; the shrinks who wrote them mostly dealt with really severe sleep problems in their practices, and developed their approaches based on those cases. The "run of the mill" cases like yours and mine would just never present to a sleep clinic at a major university. If we generalize to the normal, general public, you get worried and educated parents like you and me thinking that our kids are under-sleeping, developing bad habits, etc.

It doesn't take much to provide a generally "good enough" environment for sleep for your baby. Anything beyond that is likely to make you nuts, and waste your precious parental energy. And when baby #2 (or #4) comes along? Forget about it! You won't be able to control the environment very well at all. But those babies still tend to sleep fine. In our house, our third is the best sleeper of the group, and let me tell ya, this house is not a quiet, predictable place!

Your point about independence is well-taken, though, as that certainly is our ultimate goal in child-rearing. But there are developmental capacities that need to be considered. How much independence can be tolerated by the child at each particular age and stage? And how do we allow for the normal, needed regressions in independence that occur regularly? True independence comes out of a solid bedrock sense that one has a strong foundation, and that strong foundation can only be established though reliable dependence in early childhood. Your baby depends on and "borrows" your care, love and strength until those feelings become internalized. That's the beginning of true independence.

Good luck, and keep us posted!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink