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Perchance to Dream

With your consistent care, your baby will learn to sleep through the Sarah H. Springer, M.D.

All parents long for a peaceful bedtime routine: Read your child a story, kiss her goodnight, and don’t see her again until morning. If you understand how children learn to sleep all night, you can help your child manage her sleep and security needs, as you promote her attachment to you.

Newborns learn to sleep for extended periods through both neurologic maturation and consistent nurturing. You’ll be up with your newborn many times during the night. After meeting her needs, let her drift off to sleep in her crib by herself. By about 6 months of age, she should be able to fall asleep on her own and sleep for 10 to 12 hours, feeling safe in the knowledge that you’re there if she needs you.

A child adopted as an older infant or toddler may come to you with poor sleep skills. Also, children are challenged by changes in environment—new sights, smells, and sounds feel strange and disturb sleep patterns. She may not have slept alone before, or may have experienced traumas during the night—when abuse or sudden changes to a new location frequently occur—before she was adopted.

To sleep through the night in her new home, your child needs to feel secure. This will happen only after her needs are met repeatedly by the same person. Think of your child as a newborn in a toddler’s body. If her needs are related to conditions, such as pain, hunger, or sensory aversions, each cause must be handled appropriately.

The Way to Sleep

Be wary of advice from well-meaning friends and relatives to “let her cry it out.” For a child who is not certain that a parent is nearby if needed, this will only reinforce the notion that nighttime is scary and lonely.

Does this mean you must forever be at your child’s beck and call at night? Of course not. A good rule of thumb: Be as physically and emotionally present as she needs you to be, but keep that presence as limited as she’ll tolerate. You may need to sleep in her bed for the first few weeks, then in her room, then just outside her door. Wean yourself from her sleep routine as she learns that you’ll be there when she needs you.

This process may take months, but your early efforts will pay off. Your child will soon be sleeping peacefully through the entire night, and you’ll have formed an attachment that will last a lifetime.

Dr. Sarah Springer is the chair of the AAP Section on Adoption and Foster Care and medical director of International Adoption Health Services of Western Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh.

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