Children's Hospital Colorado

Sleep Problem from Holding Until Asleep

How do I know if my baby is a trained night crier?

The definition of a baby who develops a sleep problem from being held until they are asleep is: 

  • A baby over 4 months old who can't sleep through the night (at least 7 straight hours)
  • Wakes up and cries one or more times a night to be held
  • Can only return to sleep if you hold him
  • Doesn't need to be fed in the middle of the night
  • Sometimes called a trained night crier

What causes a trained night crier?

  • The main cause is being held, rocked or walked until asleep at bedtime and for naps.
  • All children normally have 4 or 5 brief awakenings per night at the end of each sleep cycle. Most can put themselves back to sleep. However, children who have not learned how to self-comfort, cry for a parent.
  • If your custom at naps and bedtime is to hold, rock, or lie down with your baby until asleep, your child will not learn how to go back to sleep on his own.
  • This is called poor sleep-onset association.

How can I help my child sleep through the night?

  1. Put your baby in the crib drowsy but awake:
    • At naptime and bedtime, place your baby in the crib drowsy but awake.
    • This is when you need to re-train your child to be a good sleeper.
    • Start with a pleasant bedtime ritual. But when your baby starts to look drowsy, place him in the crib.
    • Your child's last waking memory needs to be of the crib and mattress, not of you.
    • If your baby is very fussy, rock him until he settles down or is calm, but stop before he's fully asleep.
    • He needs to learn to put himself to sleep. Your baby needs to develop this skill so he can put himself back to sleep when he normally wakes up at night.
  2. Visit your baby for crying:
    • If your baby is crying, visit him as often as needed until asleep. This is part of sleep training.
    • Make the visits loving but brief.
    • Don't stay in your child's room longer than 1 minute.
    • Act sleepy. Whisper, "Shhh, everyone's sleeping." Add something positive, such as "You're a wonderful baby," or "You're almost asleep."
    • Do all of this in a loving way with a calm, soft voice.
    • Try not to show any normal anger or frustration during these visits.
    • Return every 5-15 minutes. Gradually lengthen the time between your visits.
  3. Once placed in the crib, do not take out again:
    • Naptime and bedtime are the best times for sleep training.
    • Do not give in. Do not play with your baby or bring him to your bed.
    • Even with your visits, most young babies cry 30 to 90 minutes before they fall asleep.
  4. For crying during the middle of the night, temporarily hold your baby until asleep:
    • Until your child learns how to put himself to sleep at naps and bedtime, make the middle-of-the night awakenings as easy as possible for everyone.
    • If he fusses for more than 5 or 10 minutes, go in briefly and reassure him.
    • If he cries longer, take your child out of the crib and hold him until asleep. You don't have to do sleep training in the middle of the night.
    • But don't take him out of the room, entertain him or talk to him very much.
  5. Last step - phase out middle of the night contact with you:
    • After your child can put herself to sleep at bedtime and naptime without being held, it's time to phase out all rocking to sleep during the night.
    • For fussing, don't go in at all.
    • For crying over a few minutes, go in and make some comforting comments in a soft voice.
    • Then leave.
  6. Separate the bedtime feeding from falling asleep:
    • Feed your baby as the first step in the bedtime ritual, rather than the last step.
    • Also, feed him in a different room with the lights on.
    • Feed, play, sleep is an even better sequence.
    • This will make it easier for you to put him in the crib drowsy but awake.
  7. What to expect:
    • Be consistent and you will see improvement within a week.
    • Expect some crying during the transition.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

  • Crying becomes worse after 4 nights of this program
  • Your child is not sleeping longer after you try this program for 2 weeks
  • You have other questions or concerns

Learn more about the Sleep Center at Children's Hospital Colorado.

Written by Barton D. Schmitt, MD, pediatrician at Children's Hospital Colorado.

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