"My son has always been a good sleeper. He started sleeping through the night at about 1 month. He’s almost 10 months now and for the last few weeks he has woken up at least twice a night!"
"My daughter is going to be 4 months on Sunday. She has been sleeping through the night since about 2 months. All the sudden this week she is fighting going to sleep and is waking up in the middle of the night!"
"My son has always been the best sleeper -- falling asleep on his own and sleeping through the night since he was 9 weeks old! But he randomly started waking up several times each night, and I just can't handle waking up with TWO babies every night! (we have a newborn) Help!"
These are questions that I get asked all the time -- questions along the lines of, "My child was sleeping well, and now she's not! What do I do?!"
First, try to figure out if Baby's sleep needs are changing, and if so, meet those needs!
And second, remain consistent.
Are Baby's Sleep Needs Changing?
Sleep needs rapidly change over the course of the first few years of life. Most often, the ways to meet these changing needs include cutting a nap shorter, dropping a nap completely, and/or increasing the waketime between the final nap and bedtime.
An easy way to figure out whether Baby's needs are changing is to familiarize yourself with averages. For instance, babies typically drop from three naps to two anytime between 7 and 9 months old, and babies typically drop from two naps to one sometime between 15 and 20 months old.
So let's walk through a little scenario: Baby is 12 months old. Her morning nap is nice and long, so she's definitely capable of good naps; however, she's recently started skipping her afternoon nap! Is this a sign that she's ready to drop to just one nap?
Most likely the answer is no. Since babies don't typically drop that nap until at least 15 months old (mind you, my 21-month-old is just barely solidly on one nap!), this likely just means an adjustment needs to be made; in this case, I recommend cutting off the morning nap a bit early (there are reasons to wake a sleeping baby!) in order to preserve the afternoon nap. This way, Baby still gets two chunks of sleeping time to help her make it through the day instead of being asked to zombie her way through waketimes that are much too long for such a young baby.
Always try to find the WHY behind the change in behavior, and if you find that the answer is changing sleep needs, adjust the schedule accordingly.
For a baby or young child, there is always something trying to interfere with sleep. Growth spurts, teething, sickness, vacations, a new sibling, moving -- all of these things and more can throw off sleep for your little one.
As parents, it is our job to set up the expectations surrounding sleep. We can't force our children to fall asleep, but we can set boundaries around naptime and bedtime and enforce those boundaries. Any of the items I mentioned above may swoop in to try to throw off the sleep schedule, but if you are firm with your sleep boundaries, things will return to normal fairly quickly. The trap that many parents fall into, though, is catering too much to these sleep intruders, which reinforces those habits that the intruders tried to bring.
Let's take a look at another scenario: Baby is 2.5 years old and has been sleeping through the night like a champ for nearly two years now. However, when baby brother is born, Baby starts waking up around midnight every night and calling out for Mom and Dad to come lay by her. It makes sense that Baby would ask for that; after all, Baby's whole world has just been turned upside down, and she is no longer the only child in the house--it makes sense that she wants more time with Mom and Dad. And besides, baby brother gets attention from Mom and Dad all night long, so shouldn't [older] Baby get some night attention, too? This whole thought process is so logical, in fact, that Mom and Dad often accept the logic, too.
But here's the thing: When Baby's whole world is being turned upside down, YOU need to be the constant. You need to show Baby that although many things are changing, some things are staying the same, including sleep routines. If you start allowing Baby to dictate how things are going to go when it comes to sleep or anything else, the whole system will dissolve into chaos because babies aren't meant to be in charge!
So if Baby calls out for you in the middle of the night, by all means, go to her and offer some comfort; she is, after all, going through something difficult! But before it becomes a nightly routine, talk to Baby in the daytime -- outline your expectations and follow through. Assure her that you love her, and tell her how proud you are of her for being so great at sleeping through the night; tell her that you hope her baby brother will learn this amazing skill from her example. And then tell her that because you know she's so capable of sleeping through the night, you won't be coming in to her room in the middle of the night anymore because nighttime is for sleeping. Set the standard, and then stick to it.
She might still wake up for a few nights, but if you establish how you are going to treat this issue (not going into her room) and follow through with your plan, she'll quickly learn the expectations and return to her good habits. However, if you go into her room night after night after night giving her reassurance after reassurance after reassurance, you will reinforce this habit, which will then take more time and more tears to break later on.
Establishing sleep boundaries includes other things like enforcing Crib 60/90, leaving Baby in bed until an appropriate wakeup time, and sticking to a set bedtime routine rather than giving in to extra stories every night.
So if your good sleeper turns bad, try not to reinforce the bad sleep behavior by catering to it too much. Quickly discern whether you need to make an adjustment to the schedule, and then follow through with your established sleep boundaries.