Reader’s question: What can we do to maintain good sleep habits during transitions?

Here's an interesting set of questions that resonates with several that I've received. The crux of the concerns revolve around what happens when previously great sleep habits start falling apart during developmental transitions. If the idea is to try to AVOID sleep training during these transitions, what do you do when everything that USED to work doesn't work anymore? There's no magic bullet here, but I'm going to try to address this question in parts so we can think about it more clearly.

Now our Little "J-Bird" is nearly 10 months old.  All the things I read
about are happening & are affecting her sleep:  she definitely
understands object permanence, she's cutting a 3rd tooth, pulls to
stand everywhere & is just about to cruise. And her good sleep
habits are starting to fall apart, one by one. 

Here are my questions:
If about 8-11 months is a sleep training "blackout": period, what do I
do to MAINTAIN the good habits she's already got?  For example, she
consistently wakes to feed once during the night, typically after 7 or
even 9 hours of sleep.  She nurses for nearly a full feed, then I rock
her for 2 mins TOPS, then it's back into the crib & right to
sleep.  This week, though, she has been demanding that I rock her for
longer & longer.  A few nights ago, the entire production took
1:40, where it would normally take about 20 mins.  How do I not do any
NEW sleep training but avoid letting what good I do have slip away?? 
Needless to say, I was a WRECK after that 1:40 starting at 2 am &
shudder to imagine what will happen if this is a new pattern I must
live with for 2 more months.

Unfortunately, I think what most of us do to maintain good habits is keep up the routine we have going, that was working, to the extent that we can. So, same book, songs, bathtime, whatever every night. But as your case easily demonstrates, the same sleep routines can start meaning vastly different things to kids during developmental transitions and so they may stop "working." Recall what I outlined were the main features of this transition: separation distress peaks, object permanence comes on line, and the baby is all about social referencing. So, it's no wonder that your 2 min rocking session has become this protracted experience and you are NOT the only one this has happened to. For so many of us, we would have loved to rock our babies to sleep for years (I would happily do it even now if my 3.5 year olds would let me), but when that peaceful 5 min rocking session turns into a 2-hour battle of wills in the middle of the night… not so much. MANY, many parents report co-sleeping beautifully before this transition and then suddenly, it stops working (Of course, many families co-sleep without any problems for years and years, I'm just referring to those that start having difficulties, and often these difficulties fall around the 9-month mark). And that's because in both the rocking or the co-sleeping case, the baby has some new-found obsessions: to keep you NEAR her (to avoid separations), to LOOK for you constantly (because you being out of sight no longer means you're out of her mind) and to "reference" or check with you that everything is ok, that all is well with the world. So, you may HATE to hear this (and I don't blame you), but there IS no way to maintain EXACTLY the same routine you've establish and NOT sleep train again. Because all that sleep training really entails is CHANGING habits/associations that are linked to sleep. And if rocking now entails lots and lots of pleas to remain with your baby, then it's not working for you anymore (and probably not for her too, because she's probably not happy during those protests).

From my perspective, you are in the middle of this transition and riding it out is one of the only options. It WILL get better, probably in a month at most. Until then, you can do what you've already figured out yourself: (a) resign yourself to rocking for over an hour or more (maybe putting on a good podcast or some good music on for yourself will just help ease the crazies a little for you), (b) try your favourite sleep-training method for 3 days and if you don't see any improvement, go back to (a), or (c) try some gentle night-weaning techniques that may be less aversive to you than outright sleep training. The problem might just go away if she's not waking up to be fed anymore.

2)  What do you think about the
idea of scheduled awakenings to eliminate night feedings?  Some of the
descriptions of the practice include progressively reducing the amount
of time or amount the baby feeds during the night, others do not. 
There's even a 1988 study in Pediatrics that (according to the PubMed
abstract) found the method to be as effective as controlled crying. 
The practice is alluring to me, since any kind of CIO does not work for
our family.  However, it seems to be rarely suggested in any sleep
books (I think I've read ALL of the "biggies").  The only one that
includes it is The SleepEasy Solution, but that's in conjunction with a

My answer to ALMOST any of these sleep training technique questions is: sure, give it a try. Really. If it feels right to you, if you think you can give it a go for a few days without it driving you or your partner nuts, and if you are at your wits end, then give it a try. Be consistent with it for at least 3 days (outside of transitions, I'd give it a week) and if there's no measurable improvement, you haven't lost much. But I have to interject the final caution: it may not work NOT because it's the wrong technique for your family, but because of the timing. If you DO try it and it DOESN'T work, I'd recommend you give it another go when you're out of the worst of this developmental phase (around 11 or 12 months).

The bottom line is that the end of this blackout period
seems really far away to me.  Not only am I terrified that I'll lose
the good practices we created when the last sleep window was open, but
I also dread continuing the night nursing for at least 2 more months. 
I thought I could live with the fractured sleep when I had a 7
month-old, but it now seems to be destroying me.  So, might scheduled
awakenings be worth a try?  If so, how do you suggest we implement it? 
If not, is there ANYTHING else I can do during this time to get more
continuous sleep?  (BTW, J-Bird is breastfed, won't take a bottle &
barely takes a sippy cup; I tried dream feeds at about 5 months but
they seemed to stimulate her & she fed MORE during the nights I
dream fed.)

It ALWAYS seems so far away, doesn't it, the end of these transition periods? I'm in the middle of one now and I'm FREAKING OUT that OMG I have to wait MONTHS for this to taper off (because, dear me, this CANNOT be my boy's new personality. CAN'T. BE.). But it DOES end. That's really all I can tell you. That and try the above suggestions if you're dying and if they don't work, then don't, don't, DON'T give up entirely. Re-try after the transition period. I think this is one of the things that's had the biggest impact on me when I read emails and hear other parents' stories. So many of them tried so very, very hard to implement a sleep-training technique and it didn't work for them so they gave up entirely for the rest of their son or daughter's early childhood. In so many of these cases, I think that if the same  techniques were tried again during a stable developmental window, things COULD HAVE work out.

Of course, I can coulda-shoulda all I want. These kinds of data DON'T exist. So tell me, readers, is there anyone out there who tried sleep training during a transition period, found it difficult or even completely useless, then re-tried during a stable window with success? Can we give this reader at least some rays of hope that her child's hard-won, previously-established sleep habits may return after this phase, even without much sleep training?

6 thoughts on “Reader’s question: What can we do to maintain good sleep habits during transitions?

  1. In my experience with my daughter (whose sleep has been a roller coaster ride for 2 1/2 years), after each sleep disturbance she has essentially returned to her previous good habits without much intervention.
    The two primary backslides we have experienced are with bedtime and waking at 3am. When bedtime is bad (9 months, 12.5 months, 18 months) she can want to rock for 30-90 minutes. When the disturbance passes, she asks to get into her crib after 5 minutes of rocking.
    When overnight waking was occuring, whether due to development, teeth or illness, our response is to cosleep. When the disturbance passes, she stops waking and thus we don’t have to cosleep.
    Even when a little sleep training has been required (for stalling at bedtime – “Mommy needs to leave now. You have water, stuffed turtle, pacifier, blanket, etc. It’s time to sleep now.”) It seems to take less and less time as she gets older to get over the hump.
    I know that two months (or even two weeks) seems really far away when you’re exhausted. But it definitely WILL get better.

  2. @Amy: that’s been my exact experience. WHen there are sleep disruptions due to developmental timing, it can be a few rough weeks, but both my boys have gone back to sleeping through the night and needing relatively little intervention at bedtime after the sensitive window passes. I’ve heard this from countless parents.
    The tough thing is that if you’re rocking or nursing or providing your own physical intervention as part of the regular bedtime routine (or back-to-sleep-in-the-middle-of-the- night routine), those things may have to change a bit as kids develop and that change can be rough for a while…

  3. My daughter started off as a fantastic sleeper ( not great napper though) who started sleping 12 hour nights withut waking up at 6 weeks. This went on until the 16 week regression so I got a good 2.5 months of solid uninterrupted sleep. My expectation was that she would eventually go back to this pattern. HA!!!
    We finished sleep training her at 7 months and that ‘held’ until she was 19 months. There was a gradual downhill spiral between 19 and 24 months, then some decent sleep for a while, then back to some pretty bad sleep at around 2.5 ( she is now 32 months old). The classic pendulum that Isabela describes. During good periods she did sleep a good 10 hours, plus a early morning wake up to nurse then back to sleep, which is the closest I have gotten to how she was at 6 weeks old. And I’m not complaining!!
    Currently she is going thru a regression in a transition phase. She will do anything not to sleep(although surprisingly her naps are the best they have ever been). She wakes up 5 times a night after I go to sleep and the last couple of nights she has resisted falling back to sleep and cried for an hour and a half. And to think just 2 weeks ago when we were away in the mountains, she was sleeping beautifully with one wake up a night. As a side note, she has had a couple of ‘accidents’ recently too, which makes me think she is indeed going thru some mini crisis which is effecting everything.
    I have come to my wit’s end, frankly. I started a new dose of sleep training last night, which actully worked quite well ‘cos after she FINALLY fell asleep, she woke up only once around 10 and then slept until 7.30. We all did. Basically, the first time she got out of bed after the usual bedtime rituals I told her ‘time for bed sweetheart’ and gave her a kiss and tucked her in. She was up 2 seconds later, I said ‘time for bed’ a little firmer and covered and tucked. NO kiss. After 3 seconds she was up again and this time I didn’t engage her in any way. No ‘time for bed’, NO kiss. She tried in every way to ‘engage’ me: ‘I want water”10 kisses”tummyache”clean my snot”I need tigerbalm ( for her mosquito bites). This went on a hour, with her hopping out of bed and me leading her back with wails and foot stomping. Eventully she fell asleep. After an hour or so, she started up again, but I was able to get her back down on the second request ( Water, I think). And then peace until this morning. I plan to continue tonight. Wish me luck.

  4. @paola: Yeah, well, I never even considered sleep patterns at SIX WEEKS (?!?!?!) to be the fabulous baseline you’d want to return to… They’re just totally different little creatures at that age. When your child DOES return to sleeping 10 hours straight, I still wouldn’t consider it “going back” to her great sleep habits of 6 weeks, just learning new ones, if that makes any sense.
    I SO remember the transition you’re going through. The first month of it or so I felt SO guilty saying “no” to “more hugs, more kisses, more cuddles, I’m thirsty, I have to pee, I have to poo, one more story, etc. etc.” Then I got over it and did exactly what you’re doing. What made me convinced that I was doing the right thing in the end is that they actually seemed to be feeling LESS anxiety once they realized I really wasn’t going to give in to ANY request after the initial hugs and kisses and stories. When I was still letting them convince me to give them yet one more hug or whatever, I could almost physically FEEL in the air their anxious, freaked out searching for the RIGHT thing, the ONE thing, that would get me back. When they realized that REALLY, NOTHING would get me back, they were so much more relaxed at bedtime (it took about a week or so of doing this consistently until I no longer felt guilty and they were falling asleep and staying asleep SO MUCH easier).
    So, long story to say many of us have been there, it’s hard, but GOOD LUCK!!! Keep us posted too…

  5. @Isabela
    You know it took me over a year to get over the fact that she wasn’t going to go back to sleeping the way she slept at 6 weeks!! I felt so hard done by it wasn’t funny. I’m sure it was because her older brother started sleeping thru at 10 weeks (I know. Please don’t think I’m bragging!!!) and so I thought, ‘hey, it must be genetic. They both must be programmed for sleepiness’
    Anyway, I’m glad to hear you did the exact same thing. I have more faith it what I’m doing now. I’m curious to see if she ‘gets’ it though. She is such a little brigh spark, but terribly terribly stubborn.

  6. Thank you all so much for the feedback & stories! Of course, I wrote my first email in a moment of great dispair & when the next one hits, I’ll be coming back to this website to reread all the comments & get some perspective back. @Amy: I’m really holding your experience to heart right now. 2 1/2 years of the pendulum swinging back the other way sounds good to me.
    Isabela, I’m glad to know that even YOU wonder if a transitional period will ever end, even though all your data says it will. Makes me feel less insane somehow.
    I’m counting down the minutes ’till J-Bird reaches the next “green zone” for sleep training/reinforcement. Meanwhile, I’ve decided to just ride it out. We’ll get there. Eventually. Thank God for iPods & husbands who do the dishes — they make rocking for 1.5 hours manageable.
    However, if there are cases of successful sleep training during transitions, believe me, I want to hear them even MORE than Isabela does! And if there are more stories about how this will all get better one day, please keep ‘em coming! I’ll be rereading them all many times at 2 am again soon. ;)

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