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Sleep Struggles – Why Do Children Cry As They Learn How To Sleep

Seeing your baby cry is perhaps the most heartbreaking moment of all. You don’t want him to cry. You want him happy. And of course, you want him healthy. But for all that to happen, he needs to sleep properly.

It would be nice if your child could learn how to sleep without any crying or frustration whatsoever. Every parent would sign up for that. Unfortunately, the truth is that all children, regardless of the method you use to help them sleep, inevitably do shed some tears in the process. Let’s see why.

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First and foremost, children cry when learning to sleep because they are protesting – they don’t like change. In fact, they hate change. Just think about it.

Do you remember what your favorite book was as a kid? Do you remember wanting to read that book over and over again, even though you knew every word of it?

We all resist change, children and adults alike. It’s normal to do so, and it’s normal for your child to express his resistance by crying. After all, crying comes before words – not the other way around.

Second, as children begin to learn how to sleep but haven’t yet figured out how to do so, they are understandably frustrated. They no longer have Mom and Dad on their side to help them get to sleep, and they don’t yet know what to do differently. They will eventually.

What’s really interesting about falling asleep is that although each of us is born with the inherent ability to do so, it is considered a learned behavior. And yet you can’t teach anyone else how to do it – you can’t simply say to your child to close his eyes and sleep. Instead, each of us has to learn for ourselves what to do to settle into sleep.

Of course, there are children who seem to learn how to sleep almost magically, with very little effort on the parent’s part. However, children are different. Everyone is unique.

Your child, along with many others, hasn’t learned this essential skill yet, which is why he needs you to take a step back, so he has the opportunity to achieve that on his own.

How will he do it?  He might kick his legs around a bit, he might gently rock his head from side to side, or he might grab his lovey. Or maybe he’ll suck on his thumb. If he’s a bit older, maybe he’ll play with his hair.

The truth is, each of us has different things we do to soothe ourselves into sleep, and your child will surely find a way that’s perfect for him. But he won’t discover those things nearly as easily with you standing right next to him or picking him up – he won’t have the motivation to do so.

Simply put, if you “help” him, he will cry even harder because the touching feels like a tease that serves to reinforce the crying.

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Sleep Problems And Nighttime Feedings

Although your baby may give up regular nighttime feedings on his own by the time he’s three months old, do not expect – or insist – that such a young infant give them up altogether, all of a sudden.

But if your child is at least three months old, still nurses or requires a bottle at bedtime, and needs to eat again several more times during the night, then the extra feedings may well be causing the extra wakings. If that is the case, you may be able to help him sleep better by decreasing the number of these feedings.

However, if your baby takes in a substantial amount of food – from extended feedings at the breast, or bottles adding up to more than eight ounces over the course of the night – then he has learned that certain times of night are mealtimes. To eliminate these feedings suddenly wouldn’t be wise or nice.

The amount of milk or juice your child drinks during the night may be considerable. If he finishes four full eight-ounce bottles, that is a large amount for even an adult to consume overnight.

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Solving The Problem

If you have concluded that excessive and unnecessary feedings at night are disrupting your child’s sleep, you will be relieved to learn that although such feedings can lead to severe sleep disturbances, the problem is also one of the easiest to fix.

Two things need to be addressed. The first is to reduce or eliminate the nighttime feedings to avoid their various sleep-disrupting effects. The second is to teach your child new sleep associations so that he can fall asleep without being held, without eating, and without sucking on the breast or bottle. You can do these things at the same time, or one at a time.

To fix the problems caused by the feedings, start by gradually decreasing the number of nighttime feedings, their size, or both. Just don’t stop the feedings suddenly. A program designed to allow new patterns to develop will be easier for him to follow.

Your goal is to gradually move your child’s feelings of hunger out of the nighttime and into the daytime. Once there is only a single remaining nighttime feeding left, you can choose to stop that feeding right away – instead of gradually – if you prefer, since the total amount of ingested food during the night is now fairly small.

If you are working on sleep associations and hunger patterns simultaneously, put your child in bed as soon as each feeding is over, even if he wakes and begins to cry. If you nurse him and he sleeps next to you, move him off of you when the feeding is done so that he can learn to fall asleep without using your breast as a pacifier. You’ve just fed him, so he is not hungry – now you are only changing his expectation of what happens while he falls asleep.

Within a week, if all goes well, you will have finished cutting down or even eliminating the nighttime feedings. After that, continue applying the technique of progressive waiting at any waking at night (except for feeding times) until the wakings stop. It should not take more than another few days.

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