It’s 7 p.m. and I’m readying, mentally, for what promises to be a long night. Luke, at 6 months, is still waking up every two or three hours, so my husband and I have agreed to begin the agonizing process of sleep training.

Our guide is a book several mothers recommended after they saw the dark circles under my eyes: “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child” (Fawcett, $14.95) by sleep expert Marc Weissbluth, a professor of clinical pediatrics at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “It’s not easy, but it works,” said my friend Gail, handing me her old copy. “Just stick with it.”

Essentially, the Weissbluth method entails putting children to sleep before they are overtired – as early as 5:30 p.m., even if that means you don’t see them after work. It’s also crucial to preserve naptime. If the child wakes and cries at night, parents must resist the urge to cuddle or feed unless there is a problem.

The baby’s angry protest rallies – which can get even uglier the second and third night – should stop by the fourth evening, though the timing varies. It’s a heartbreaking process, but advocates say it ultimately should teach the infant to be a self-soother and results in better quality sleep.

What often happens, Weissbluth said in a phone consultation, is that parents come home from work and overlook the baby’s subtle signs of sleepiness – quieting behavior, drooping eyes, less focus and decreased motor activity – because they want time together.

But an overtired child is an unhealthy one. Studies show that some children who are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder are actually just sleep deprived. “Impaired sleep, at any age, degrades attention, mood and performance,” Weissbluth said. In addition, if infants never learn to sleep properly, the poor sleep habits from childhood can persist into adulthood.

“Your life will be so much easier if you put him to bed earlier, 6 p.m. or 6:30 p.m.,” Weissbluth promised. “No bedtime battles, no night-time waking.”

We’ve tried the gradual, gentle approach with no success. In fact, he’s waking up even more frequently. So tonight, we’re not to go to Luke before midnight, even if he cries. My stomach is in knots, but I also can’t cope with his cat-naps any longer.

10:30 p.m.

Luke has been shrieking for the last 10 minutes, an unbearable noise that cycles between a wail and a whimper. Because we’ve responded erratically at night – sometimes we come immediately, sometimes we wait – he is learning to cry louder and longer.

“It’s called intermittent reinforcement, and it’s the most powerful way to teach someone to continue the behavior,” Weissbluth said.

10:52 p.m.

He quiets on his own, but I can still hear him kicking his little legs and scrunching his favorite caterpillar toy. “Remember we’re doing what we think is right,” my weary husband says during the lull. “There will be lots of times when we have to do what we think is best, even though he doesn’t.” I just hope we’re not laying the groundwork for future psychotherapy.

12:40 a.m.

Luke wakes and we decide this is the one time we will feed him during the night. He nurses and falls asleep in my arms. It’s a bad habit, but I’m certainly not waking him up to put him back to sleep.

4:32 a.m.

Luke erupts again and, though I’m thrilled he slept for almost four hours, it’s too early to go to him. For comfort, I reread the section of “Baby 411” (Windsor Peak Press, $11.95) that lists reasons why parents can’t cope with a crying baby. Among them:

“You feel like you are helpless and not “doing anything for your baby’ (not true).”

“You think you will cause your baby to have long-term emotional scars (you won’t).”

“You are a working parent and feel guilty (don’t).”

“You think something must be wrong with your baby (probably not).”

4:45 a.m.

We suddenly realize the house is strangely quiet. We both run over to check on him. His eyes are shut and his arms are over his head in the classic surrender pose.

6 a.m.

He wakes. I drag myself out of bed. But this time, he’s not crying – just babbling. I’m sure he hates me, and I tentatively peek into the crib. He’s bright-eyed and gives me a big, toothless smile.

10 a.m.

Dr. Weissbluth sends an e-mail, asking how things went. Tonight, he warns, there may be even more crying, but in a day or so, Luke should be sleeping through the night. I’m optimistic, but I also know sleep will be an ongoing challenge. Travel, illness and teething are just around the corner.

Julie Deardorff is a columnist with the Chicago Tribune. Write to her at jdeardorfftribune.com. on the Internet at http://www.chicagotribune.com


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