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Can I Help My Grandbaby
Sleep Through the Night?

QUESTION: We watch our eight-month-old granddaughter on a regular basis. She spends one or two nights a week with us. How can we get her to sleep for more than three or four hours? She never sleeps through the night. I have heard there are methods that help a baby sleep through the night. Any advice on how to do this?

ANSWER: Your first course of action should be to have a discussion with your granddaughter's parents in establishing an approach to this dilemma.

Babies, especially, cry in order to adapt. It is one of their normal responses to adjustments of all kinds. It is up to you to determine whether your grandbaby's crying is a sign of her adapting to changes that are in her best interest, or a signal of distress that requires you to adapt to your grandbaby. Your job as a grandparent is to follow the lead of the parents in establishing a healthy balance for meeting your needs, as well as your grandchild's.

There are many schools of thought regarding how best to get a baby to sleep through the night. Regardless of which method you and your grandchild's parents choose, it must be consistent to succeed. Success will also be determined by your own comfort and confidence in the chosen approach and its fit with your grandchild's temperament. Assuming you are in tune with your grandbaby's needs, she will respond to your calm and confident message that she can fall asleep on her own. Sounds good, right? But how do you get there?

In The Sleep Book for Tired Parents, Rebecca Huntley describes the differences between Dr. Burton White's "cry it out" approach and Richard Ferber's "small steps" approach. Consider the following guidelines that outline the Ferber philosophy and what is necessary to succeed in this approach. If these are a "fit" for you and your grandchild, and you and her parents are on the same page, there is no harm in trying it out.

  1. Your grandbaby needs your encouragement to get to sleep, but not your "help." This belief is the foundation for using this approach. Sounds tricky? Not really. Ferber believes that most babies over the age of six months can find their own way to sleep. Helping a child by lying down next to her or rocking her to sleep is viewed as interfering with the child's ability to get to sleep by herself. It sends the message that the child is not able (or expected) to fall asleep on her own.

  2. Encourage and reassure your grandchild. Checking on your grandbaby intermittently, calling out to reassure your grandchild that you are there and giving a her a cuddly toy for comfort are viewed as appropriate ways to reassure. Soothing music may also help.

  3. Create a soothing nighttime ritual. A nighttime ritual brings the family together before separating through sleep. Consider reading a nursery rhyme before bedtime, singing a soft lullaby, and rubbing her back for a few minutes after you put her down for sleep. Repeating the same rhyme and song can encourage a baby to wind down from the day's activities. Over time, she will learn to recognize and be soothed by the familiar routine.

  4. Determine your own tolerance for crying. Ferber's method requires that you are able to tolerate your grandbaby's crying without undermining the approach. Set a time limit on the amount of crying you can accept. Five minutes is a suggested interval to start with, progressively increasing the time you are out of the room to 10 minutes and finally to 15 minutes the first night. This is followed by beginning at 10 minutes the second night and 15 minutes the third night. At these intervals, a parent (or grandparent) comes into the room for one or two minutes, reassures the child with calm, steady words and a gentle pat, then leaves. Calling out from an adjacent room may also reassure a child and is recommended by some pediatricians as a modification to this approach.

Remember, that if you use this method, you should not be present when your grandchild goes to sleep. Staying present until the baby is asleep is a common way that parents undermine this approach.

A word of caution, however: It is possible that your eight-month-old grandbaby needs the reassurance of a gentle back rub or soft voice in the middle of the night to help her sleep in a different setting. And at eight months, she could also be showing insecurity due to stranger anxiety that surfaces at this age. During this period, or through times of teething or illness, she may need extra comforting to help reassure her. This time will pass as she is able to understand more of what is going on around her and as she learns to talk.

Have patience. Rest assured, your granddaughter will sleep more soundly as she feels secure in her weekly routine of staying overnight with her grandparents who love and care for her. Adopting a consistent approach to bedtime can help establish this security.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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