Most parents of small children know all too well about the torture of sleep deprivation. Whether your offspring keep you awake by shrieking for a back-rub, bottle or another Postman Pat tape, continuous broken nights lead to days spent in a blur of weariness and irritability. The problem doesn't always disappear with babyhood: research has shown that up to a third of pre-schoolers still have sleep difficulties.

In the past, a drop of gin or laudanum on the bottle teat was often the solution. In the Fifties and Sixties, the tip was to leave the child to cry, although research has shown that more than 50 per cent of parents find this too brutal. More recently, Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems (Dorling Kindersley pounds 6.99) by Dr Richard Ferber became the bible for bleary-eyed parents. It argues that methods used to put babies to sleep - rocking, feeding, dummies, switching on TV - mean they never learn how to go to sleep by themselves. The result is that when the child wakes in the night and is no longer being rocked, fed, etc, everything feels "wrong", rather like an adult waking to find the pillow gone.

A book published this week claims that provided parents don't interfere, babies can be programmed to sleep throughwithin a few weeks of birth. Beatrice Hollyer, a journalist, and health visitor Lucy Smith argue in Sleep: the Secret of Problem-free Nights (Ward Lock pounds 8.99) that parents' belief that it's "not safe" to leave a baby to sleep (some even prod it to make sure it's still alive) often interferes with the child's natural inclination to adapt to sleeping through. The secret, says Hollyer, is to recognise, and build on the "core night" - the hours which babies start to sleep through without feeding at about four weeks.

So what is the right approach? Despite masses of research, there are few guaranteed treatments; most parents muddle through using whatever method works at the time. The experts agree on a few simple rules - make sure the baby isn't hot, cold, hungry or soiled; discourage falling asleep on bottle or breast; don't continue night feeds beyond when a child physically needs them; establish a relaxing bedtime routine: warm baths and stories; and be reassuring but firm. Bringing a child into bed with you is not the cardinal sin it once was, if you feel comfortable with it.

When things get really bad, console yourself with the certain knowledge that they will, eventually, grow out of it.

Cherrill Hicks

Cry-sis helpline for sleepless babies: 0171-404 5011