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A Good Night's Sleep

How to Respond to Your Child's Night Wakings and Help Her Sleep Through the Night

All parents long for a peaceful bedtime routine: Read your child a story, kiss her goodnight, and don't see her again until morning. By understanding how children learn to sleep through the night, you can help your child sleep, as you promote her attachment to you.

Newborns learn to sleep through the night by consistent nurturing and neurologic maturation. Initially, you'll respond to your newborn many times during the night. After providing food or comfort, 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 not have slept alone before, and, fearful of the strange sights, sounds, and smells of her new home, may wake up crying repeatedly in the night. To sleep through the night, she needs the consolation of having her needs met consistently by the same person. Think of your child as a newborn in a toddler's body. Meet each of her needs, such as pain, hunger, fear, or sensory aversions, in the appropriate way.

See a sleep specialist if your child snores persistently, has difficulty breathing, or exhibits unusual movements during sleep.

Be wary of advice from well-meaning friends and relatives to "let her cry it out." For a scared and uncertain child, this will only reinforce the notion that nighttime is scary and lonely.

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 the same bed for the first few weeks, then on a mattress 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. It may take months, but your 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.

Sarah Springer, M.D., 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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