Parents, don’t suffer … or how Oliver finally got to sleep

Oliver sleeping

Oliver Grieb today is an adorable 14-month-old boy. But two months ago, he was refusing to nap and waking two, three, sometimes even four times a night.

“There was nothing physically wrong with him,” says his mother Svenja. “He just had a really bad habit of waking up and knowing mom and dad would come hang out with him.”

“If I make a big enough fuss for a long enough time,” Oliver seemed to be thinking, “I’ll eventually get my way."

Are you lookin’ at me?

Sleep might seem like a small problem, but there was a big impact on the family’s life. Oliver was grumpy all day, and his parents were exhausted.

“We tried to let him cry it out,” says Svenja. “Even though we checked on him at least every 15 minutes, he could wail forever. It just breaks your heart listening to him cry.”

They tried everything they could think of.

“If he had a bottle, he might fall asleep for a few hours in my arms,” Svenja recounts. “We tried a sleep sound machine, but it would turn off after 45 minutes, and that would disturb him even more. Everything would work to get him to sleep, but then he’d wake up, and we’d be back to square one.”

Naps were just as bad as nighttime. “He’d only sleep if he had a bottle, and I lay next to him for the duration of the nap.”

It was clear: The Griebs needed an intervention.

Their pediatrician told them, “Oh, babies don’t sleep. He’ll grow out of it.”

Oliver visits the Sleep Center

“Pediatricians are busy,” explains Jennifer Gingrasfield, PNP, a pediatric nurse practitioner in the Sleep Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. “They might have 20 things to cover in a 15-minute well-child appointment. Many parents feel they just have to live with their child’s sleep problems, but the problems usually don’t just go away — I see many older children with the same patterns and habits they had as babies.”

The Griebs brought Oliver to see Gingrasfield just after his first birthday. She met with them, and they talked through the sleep problems.

Oliver last Halloween, when he still ruled the night

“I try to teach families about sleep on a physiologic level,” Gingrasfield says. “Understanding how sleep works helps with the advice I provide. We then work together on a step-by-step personalized plan that fits the family’s situation and preferences, going at a pace that feels right for each family.”

This was Oliver’s sleep plan:

1. An age-appropriate sleep schedule. This meant putting Oliver to bed later (at 8 rather than 7 p.m.), keeping naps to one hour and sometimes waking him up from naps, counterintuitive as that felt. “The naps we had been doing were haphazard,” Svenja confesses. “Sometimes twice a day, sometimes once, sometimes never. We had no idea about strict schedules.”
2. Weaning off the overnight feeding. “We had no idea that he shouldn’t be getting a middle-of-the-night bottle after six months. That was the first thing we cut, and he stopped waking up with a wet diaper.”
3. Quick reassurances at night. Rather than hang out with Oliver when he woke up, the Griebs kept the encounters brief. “We’d just go in the room, check his diaper, make sure he was warm, reassure him, and walk right out,” Svenja reports. “We went in every five minutes, then worked up to 15 minutes and got to the point where he would just go back to sleep.”
4. Consistency. Sticking faithfully to one approach and schedule made all the difference. “Where many parents get hung up is in trying to take a little piece of this advice, a little piece of that,” says Gingrasfield. “Addressing sleep problems in the proper order is an important part of every plan.”

The results surprised the Griebs.

Oliver GriebA happy camper

“Within two days, he was sleeping through the night,” says Svenja. “I never thought I’d see the day.” It took a couple of weeks to get Oliver’s nap schedule on track.

Now, whether it’s bedtime or naptime, Oliver is good about going down after a routine of getting changed, listening to music and being “flown” into his crib. “He’s a happy little guy now. It’s like night and day … literally!” Svenja says.

Oliver did especially well, needing only two visits to the Sleep Center. Most sleep problems in healthy children can be resolved in two to four visits, Gingrasfield says. Typically, she sees families every three to five weeks and makes herself available between visits by phone if needed.

The Sleep Center treats children of all ages, from infants to young adults, and its services are typically covered by health insurance. “We help children who have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, waking on time for school, persistent sleep walking or night terrors, obstructive sleep apnea and many other sleep issues,” says Gingrasfield.