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Mr. Dad: Restless toddler must learn to self-soothe

Mon., May 10, 2010

Dear Mr. Dad: My 16-month-old daughter still wakes up at least three or four times every night. My husband and I take turns getting up with her but we’re exhausted. How can we get her to sleep through the night?

A: Welcome to the wonderful nighttime world of toddlers, all of whom get up a few dozen times every night. Usually, they just look around and go right back to sleep. Sometimes, they don’t. When that happens, there are a lot of ways to get children back to sleep in the short term, and, long term, to get them to sleep for longer stretches at night.

But the first step is to figure out why she’s waking up so many times.

Is she hungry, cold, or uncomfortable? Could she be in the midst of a developmental transition, such as teething or learning to run?

Does she want to be rocked or cuddled? Is she adjusting to major changes in her life, like moving to a “big kid” bed or adjusting to life with a new sibling?

At 16 months, your daughter is perfectly capable of sleeping through the night without eating. If she’s waking up for milk, it’s probably more out of habit than hunger.

Make sure she eats enough during the day, has a sippy cup of milk before bed (or that your wife breastfeeds her), and explain to her that nighttime is for sleeping, not eating.

Check on her a few times during the night. Toddlers are notorious for kicking off their covers, so she may be waking up because she’s chilly. If that’s the case, dress her in something warmer for bed.

Your ultimate goal is to teach your daughter to fall back asleep by herself. For example, if she’s used to being rocked to sleep or drifting off with a bottle, she may have trouble getting down without them.

It’s important in these situations to teach your daughter to self-soothe.

Start by making sure she has a consistent sleep schedule, including regular naps and bedtime. Try to follow a bedtime routine every night, such as a bath, book, a little massage, a song (but no TV at this age), and down to bed.

After a while, the routine itself will make her eyes start fluttering closed.

Put your daughter in her crib when she’s drowsy, but not completely asleep. If she has a favorite stuffie, be sure she’s got it. If she needs a pacifier, be sure she has one (or two or three) within easy reach. There are also “crib soothers,” which play music, heart sounds, or even gently vibrate.

Find whatever helps her be calm and happy in her crib so she can doze off on her own. At the same time, start easing yourself out of the picture.

Once it’s officially bed time, don’t talk with her, and spend less and less time with her each night until she doesn’t need you there anymore.

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