Q: My 21-month-old daughter has established a pattern of waking up between 2 and 4 times every night. When she cries I bring her to bed with me, nurse her and then put her back in her bed. And if that's not bad enough, she now resists being put back into her own crib.
It's so easy to nurse her when she wakes up that I prefer to do that than let her cry. But I wonder if I'm just encouraging her to wake up frequently.
I'm getting a lot of pressure to stop nursing her but she seems to enjoy it so much I hate to stop. I worry, however, that the patterns we're establishing now will become increasingly difficult to break.
A: Yes, you have let your little girl set a bad pattern. If it isn't broken soon, it will just get worse.
It isn't the nursing that makes your daughter wake up at night. She doesn't need a nightime feeding at 21 months, and certainly not two, three or four of them. If it weren't mother's milk she wanted, it would be water, juice or a game of tiddlywinks. At this age she wants anything that can get attention and especially a snooze in your bed.
Your daughter is simply showing her power. Now that she has reached the miraculous stage when she can make her arms and legs obey her, she's ready for everything and everybody to obey her too. That doesn't mean you should.
It won't be easy to undo the habit. You know how hard it is to sleep late when you're used to an early wakeup. It's the same for your child: Her body clock is programmed to ring at these new times.
Your child needs more food and exercise after her nap, so she will sleep more soundly, and a certain amount of hardheartedness at night. Expect the correction to take from one to three weeks, unless you give in occasionally. Then it will take much longer.
Begin by giving your child only a light snack, like an orange wedge, when she awakes from her nap -- so she will be hungrier for dinner -- and then take her swimming or play under the hose with her. Outdoor water play is exciting and exhausting.
You can kick a beach ball together, play ring-around-the-rosie, put on some records and dance with her. Let her climb on anything she can, indoors or out -- stairs are fine -- and let her march around with a pot and a spoon to beat it like a drum. The more she uses her arms and legs, the more tired she will be, and that's just what you want.
If she's worn out, you may have to feed her a little early, so she won't fall asleep in her high chair. Serve an extra amount of carbohydrate, such as mashed potatoes, and a protein like eggs or chicken, which is easier to digest than beef. There's no point in giving your child another reason to be wakeful.
Nurse her if she wants and put her to bed: Your work is done.
Since there is no such thing as a nursing father, your husband wins the night shift.
When she cries (and she will), he goes to her with a kiss and a hug and if she screams to be fed (and she will), he says that you're asleep. He'll say that the dog is also sleeping; Mrs. Jones next door is sleeping; the whole world is sleeping. He sympathizes, but it is not a negotiable point.
He also can give her a cup of water -- in her crib -- but not juice or milk, since they can coat her teeth and cause cavities and because it's time for her to learn that a bed is for sleeping; a high chair for eating.
When she keeps shrieking, your husband can quiet her a little by speaking in a whisper -- an old, odd trick that will make her lower her voice too. It also reminds her that it is, after all, the middle of the night. Even if it's only 10:30, it's still the middle of the night to your child.
He also can hold her in front of her mirror while she cries. Although he won't call attention to it, she will be so intrigued by her image that she will stop. It's almost impossible for anyone to watch herself cry, but while an adult might look away, a child can't resist peeking.
Your daughter will, of course, cry again when she's returned to her crib, but she's quickly changed, given the last sip of water, hugged, kissed -- and left, with the night light burning. This visit doesn't last more than 10 minutes -- although the crying will surely last longer -- and all the while there isn't a sound out of you or a trip to your bed. If she can climb out of her crib and get there on her own, her doorway should be blocked by a gate, but not a locked door. That could terrify a child.
Your husband goes to her each time she wakes -- a crying child should always be checked -- and each time he follows the same routine, but he slowly cuts back on the time and the kisses. However, he always leaves with the same reminder: 'Mommy will be here when it's time to get up.'
And go to her early, before she cries, if possible, or even wake her, whether she has had enough sleep or not. You want her to follow your schedule, not hers.
When you go to her room in the morning, tell her what a good night's sleep you've had and how glad you are to see her.
Give her plenty of smiles and kisses during the day -- when she's good -- but don't tell her that's the reason. She'll get the message anyway.
And if she gets less and less attention when she cries at night, she will get that message too. In the meantime your husband won't get much sleep. Sorry.