By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. My 9-week-old son cannot get to sleep. He only sleeps for two- to three-hour spans before crying and feeding at night. During the day he hardly naps unless we go for a drive.

I also can’t seem to get him to fall asleep without my nursing him or rocking him. He has fallen asleep on me a lot lately and when I put him down he wakes up and cries.I am beyond exhaustion and I worry that I am teaching him bad techniques for sleep by letting him fall asleep on my breast and rocking him.

A. At 9 weeks, many infants wake up every two to three hours – a major strain on parents. Until four months, most babies’ brains aren’t ready to organize their sleep cycles to sleep through the night.

But even by 12 weeks, your baby’s schedule should begin to follow a more predictable day-night routine. You are doing the right thing by rocking him, holding him and putting him to the breast.

Your husband can help by taking turns with you to get the baby at night. For now, he may feel he can’t do much. But you might fall back to sleep more easily if he got up to bring the baby to you and returned him to the crib after feeding. (On occasion a sleepover relative or friend can spell you, too.)

You might consider pumping some breast milk so that your husband could use it at night in a bottle to feed the baby. At 9 weeks, your baby may be comfortable enough with the breast that he won’t to give it up because of a few nighttime bottles.

You may not yet feel you know what your baby is telling you with his cries and other behavior. Sometimes you may think he is saying he is hungry when instead he is sleepy, and vice versa, which may explain why he’s falling asleep when you feed him.

Babies show they’re hungry in several ways before bursting into tears. They become alert and begin to root around, bobbing their head, thrusting it forward or turning it from side to side as if looking for the breast. They may even begin to flail with their hands.

Little by little, you will “read” your baby’s behavior. You’ll both feel less exhausted.You needn’t worry that you are teaching him “bad techniques for sleep.” Sooner or later he will no longer need to fall asleep on your breast.

Meanwhile you can help him learn to soothe himself. When he fusses during the day, don’t rush to pick him up. Wait for a short while, then go to him and talk gently to him.If he is still fussing, of course you can pick him up and hug him. You can bring his hand to his mouth and help him learn to comfort himself by sucking his thumb. He will learn to put himself to sleep and to wait until it is time for his next feeding.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.