When he was seven to ten months old, my son used to sleep from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m., waking up only once around 4 or 5 to nurse and falling right back to sleep. We were very smug about it. Now, suddenly, at ten-and-a-half months, he goes to sleep at 8 or 9, wakes up at 4 or 5, nurses and . . . STAYS AWAKE. We tried letting him fuss for while but he wound up just crying for half an hour until we went in and got him. We tried bringing him into bed to cuddle, but he just crawled around on our heads babbling. We tried putting him in his crib with toys and a bottle of juice and that only worked for ten minutes. Is this how it’s going to be from here on out – waking up at the crack of dawn? We usually get work done after he goes to sleep, so going to bed at 10 ourselves every night isn’t so feasible. We jinxed ourselves, didn’t we, bragging about what a good sleeper he was? – Early Riser
Dear Early Riser,
There have been no randomized controlled trials studying the impact of proud (bragging) parents on future baby sleep habits. But it’s honorable for you to feel so humbled by your social sins.
Our first thought is: Wait, it might pass! Lots of babies go through early a.m. phases and they suck. But it may not even be a real habit or problem unless it goes on for longer than a couple of weeks. Terrible spurts of sleep problems can come and go. Of course, they can completely ruin your life for those few weeks. But since the process of changing them is no picnic either, it may be worth waiting to see if the problem passes on its own before taking further action.
Are there any clues that might suggest this is a phase? Is he suddenly mobile? Or learning to walk? Skill acquisition is thrilling during the day but can wreak havoc at night – the kid has to get up at the crack to practice his new moves! Perhaps his expanding universe (the coffee table, the oven door) is freaking him out and making him cling to the things he knows (you). Nine to twelve months is a notoriously heavy time for separation anxiety, so that may be part of it.
If it turns out not to be a short-lived hell (or you can’t handle any phase, no matter how short), here are some suggestions:
One of us had incredible personal success with early morning co-sleeping starting around this age – it was based on a firm breastfeeding/sleep association and enabled some extraordinary a.m. slumber. But if the baby sees your bed as a place to play, it won’t get you any extra sleep. If you want to try to encourage morning co-sleeping, you can try nursing the baby to sleep in your bed at other times of the day (maybe naps when you’re around) to get the soporific message across. But know that the baby in the bed habit comes with its own complications, and it’s not always easy to turn back.
Try adjusting his bedtime. The sleep-begets-sleep concept pimped out by Dr. Weissbluth suggests that earlier is better. He says 8 is the absolute latest at this age. We’ve written about this before and we’re not entirely swayed. But people believe in it for a reason. And maybe it’ll work for you (and you’ll get more time for work). Alternately, you can try shifting the bedtime later and see if he sleeps in a bit later. But you’ll miss out on baby-free time at night if you try this option.
You could take a hard line and let him cry until you decide it’s time to get up. This is a lot more difficult in a small city apartment than in a sprawling suburban house where the baby’s shrieks are mere echoes down the hall, but it can be a pretty effective way of communicating that the day doesn’t start at 4:30 a.m.
You could keep going back in, for brief reassurances of the verbal/back rubbing/transitional-object-handing kind until whatever time you decide the day should officially begin. This method allows you to send a message without letting him shriek continually. It’s basically a labor-intensive compromise between crying-it-out and comforting him.
Wake him up for a feeding before 4-5 a.m. He may go back to sleep if you feed at 3 a.m. This is obviously not something that could work for everyone (or appeal to anyone, since it seems a step backwards and involves waking up in the middle of the night!), but we’ve known real-life mothers who have succeeded with this when all else failed.
Of course, you may try any or all of these ideas and find that none work: you may simply have a baby who gets up ridiculously early. We hope for your sake that this isn’t true, but if it is, you’ll have to find a way to deal. If you discover that the baby wakes up at 5 a.m. regardless of bedtime, you can try putting him to bed at 6 or 7 sometimes to allow you more evening hours to work and to ensure a well-rested kid. You and your partner could switch off hours of evening QT, late-night productivity and bleary-eyed morning care. You could childproof your bedroom and learn to sleep through babbling and head-smacking. But whatever happens, just think, it won’t be long before you’re dragging your early-bird baby out of bed for his SAT prep class, and these fifteen years of brutal sleep deprivation will seem like a sweet, fleeting memory. Right?
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