Q&A: early nighttime wakings

In the past few days I've gotten four separate emails from four separate moms who are at the ends of their respective ropes with their babies' sleep. The babies range in age from 4 1/2 to 7 months, and they're all sleeping decently (one or occasionally two wakeups) from around 11 to 6 or 7 am.

The problem is that first stretch, from 8ish to 11. All of them report that the babies are waking up every 30 to 45 minutes during that time and crying hysterically.

The moms are at their wits' ends about this. Firstly, because they feel like it's somehow their faults (or at least that they could be doing something they're not doing), and secondly because they're spending 3 hours every night repeatedly getting their babies back to sleep.

I just want to thank all of you who email me for being so honest and funny and poignant win your emails. This was a particularly bittersweet run for me to read, because they were all so funny and desperate at the same time. One mom said all she wanted to do was be able to have sex with her partner in the living room some night without having to go get the baby in the middle of it. Another mom signed off "Yours Truly,StaysUpLateToAvoidBeingWokenUp20Times". (I sooooo remember that phase with my older one.)

It makes me really, really sad that our first reflex is to blame ourselves when our kids don't sleep the way they're "supposed to." Most of the moms reported trying to let their kids cry it out, with horrendous results (two hours of crying! stick a fork in the whole household), rocking, nursing, bottles, no bottles or nursing, pacifiers, swaddling, white noise, etc. etc. The only things I don't think anyone mentioned trying were opiates and reading the babies constitutional law textbooks.

I think sometimes babies just can't sleep. Remember back when this was the witching hour when the babies were 6 weeks old? I wonder if it isn't just some developmental reprise of that.

[Hey--in the time it's taken me to type this I just got another email with this exact same theme! The older newborns of the world are in sleep rebellion!]

I also wonder if it isn't what happens sometimes when the babies are switching from three naps to two, or are going through that combo of movement stuff and developmental stuff that happens at those ages. I wonder if they're just so overstimulated from being inside their own bodies that they're tired and can get to sleep initially, but then can't stay asleep unless there's someone else right there with them the whole time (and sometimes not even then).

I'm not sure we can know the answer. (I know Weissbluth has his theories, but he also tells people just to let their kids cry it out as if that works for every kid and you're an incompetent dumbass if you don't, so I can't really get behind him.) What I do know is that it doesn't last forever. And that if you've tried the things that seem reasonable to you, given your normal lifestyle and your child's personality (like moving bedtime earlier or later, messing with nap times if you can, providing white noise, a full tummy, and a soothing routine), then you should just switch to trying to figure out how to let it bother you less until your baby grows out of it (which will happen--the commenters with older babies and I promise you).

It can be as simple as knowing it happens and it'll pass and it's not your fault. It could mean getting one of those reading light headbands and sitting in the room doing crossword puzzles or reading Lucky magazine or constitutional law textbooks while the baby sleeps. Or it could be a more formal plan to get past it, like switching off 8-11 duty with your partner on alternate nights, or trying to hire a babysitter if you can afford it for one or two nights to get yourself away from the situation mentally. (If you have relatives nearby, this would be the perfect time to ask for help! A few nights of not having to deal with the 8-11 hours could change your whole worldview.)

Anyone have any tales to tell of your own kids doing the wake-up repeatedly thing during that first stretch? Do you think anything you tried worked, or was it just the child growing out of that phase? (I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that people with kids who release tension by crying don't even realize that this sometimes happens, because it seems like the kids who do this waking thing are also tension-increasers. I know my first--a tension-increaser--did it, but my second--who had to cry a little to get to sleep--never did.)