Desperate to Help Your Baby Fall Asleep?

Elizabeth Salkoff is living every parent's dream: Her 5-month-old daughter, Dani, is already sleeping through the night.

She knows she's lucky, and she chalks it up to simply having a cooperative baby. However, Salkoff also has done her research -- she owns more than half a dozen books on infant sleep.

"In the interest of just being proactive," said Salkoff, a Brooklyn, N.Y., resident.

Infant sleep is a hot parenting topic, and theories abound on how best to help a baby fall asleep peacefully. Some parents practice the "Ferber Method" -- named after Dr. Richard Ferber, a Boston pediatrician and author who believes that babies should be trained to fall asleep on their own, even if it means enduring lots of crying. There are also parents who follow the "co-sleeping" and "attachment parenting" methods, which both emphasize more physical contact than Ferber's.

But a recent Wall Street Journal article noted that Ferber and several other top parenting authors are softening their stances on infant sleep, saying parents themselves are probably the best ones at finding what works.

This is welcome news to Jodi A. Mindell, the associate director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and author of "Sleeping Through the Night: How Infants, Toddlers, and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night's Sleep." Her book is known for taking a "middle ground" on the issue.

"Parents are going to be overwhelmed by the different opinions [on infant sleep]," Mindell said. "Parents have to decide by themselves what is right and what fits."

Research has shown that babies wake up the same amount each night regardless of whether they are sleeping in a crib or in their parents' bed. However, "independent sleepers" are less fussy when they wake up.

Some parents take this tidbit and decide that crib-sleeping is better for their child. Others see this as abandonment and decide to respond each time their child wakes and cries, noted Dr. Barbara Felt, an associate professor in the Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics Department at the University of Michigan.

Neither decision is wrong, Felt said. Cultural studies have shown that babies grow up healthy and happy in either situation.

"A happy parent and a happy baby -- that's really the bottom line," she said. "There are as many different ways to get there as there are babies, parents and doctors."

Pick a Routine and Stick With It

What's important is the "sleep routine," Mindell said.

"It's a set schedule. Having babies go to bed around the same time every night, waking up and having a nap schedule. Having that consistently throughout the day sets the baby's internal clock," Mindell said. "Also, making sure a baby is going to bed at an appropriate time, not when the parents do at 11 o'clock. Babies need much more sleep than adults."

She also recommends a bedtime routine, or a series of quiet activities done with the child before he or she is put to bed.

Pediatrician Ari Brown, of Austin, Texas, said that parents need to understand how babies' brains and sleep patterns change as they age.

For example, newborns aren't able to self-soothe themselves to sleep, so "you gotta do what you gotta do," said Brown, author of "Baby 411."

But as babies get older, they learn to ways to adapt. At 5 months of age, many babies are able to "self-soothe." Still, the time it takes to fall asleep will vary widely for each child, she said.

So she has some simple advice.

"Lower your expectations," Brown said, explaining that a child who sleeps through the night is not a sign of a healthier or smarter child. "If you have some reasonable expectations, you're less frustrated."

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