Sleep Strategies for Babies, Children, and Parents

Our son is six-and-a-half years old now, and while we’ve sometimes had trouble with his sleeping habits, in general we feel that the plans we made before he was born, influenced in part by the amazing books The Continuum Concept and The Family Bed, have worked out pretty well.

Disclaimer: We have only one child.  These are strategies that have worked for us.  They may work differently with different children or different parents.  If your goals are different from those described in the next paragraph, these strategies may not be useful to you.

The first step is to figure out the most important goals, and the most important things you want to avoid, regarding your child’s sleeping habits.  I’m not talking here about how your baby will sleep as a newborn–that’s really hard to predict; you are going to have to roll with some punches pretty much regardless of your baby’s inborn temperament–but about what you want to establish over your child’s first three years.  Daniel and I wanted our child to be part of the family, able to participate in most of our activities while still getting enough sleep; we wanted him to feel secure, loved, and well-connected to us; we wanted him to develop a healthy metabolism so he doesn’t become obese.  We wanted to avoid having our family life revolve around his sleep schedule, shutting him in his room to “cry it out” while we tried to ignore him, or causing him any real fear about bedtime.

We chose to set up a family bed in the kid’s room.  This allowed for gradual transitions from both parents sleeping with the baby, to just Mama sleeping with the baby, to Mama nursing the baby to sleep and then leaving him alone most of the night, to a parent lying next to the kid until he fell asleep, to a parent lying next to him for about ten minutes after lights out . . . and we expect that in the next year or so we’ll stop staying with him after stories, and then sometime in his teens we’ll stop reading him bedtime stories.  (I got a bedtime story every night until I was 14 and started staying up later than my parents!  Thanks, Dad, for sharing all those books with me!)

Here are some notes on each stage so far, including some that I wrote at the time.

The first month

Nicholas showed no sense of day vs. night.  He also had no tolerance for discomfort and could go from sweetly sleeping to shrieking like a fire alarm in less than one minute.  This was a rough time!!  The best preparation we had for it was our experience as students at a very demanding university–we recalled that bizarre energy that comes from averaging about 4 hours’ sleep per 24 and being up all night pounding your brain against some apparently impossible task, and we found that odd things became hilarious, little impositions on each other became enormous dramas (look out for that!), we could be weirdly clever in the middle of the night, and we could in fact survive more than we thought we could.  The most important thing to know about this stage is that it is short; things will change in a matter of weeks, so hang in there!

Our top goals for the first month were to show Nicholas that we would meet his needs, and to teach him that night is sleeping time.  We would all lie down on the bed in the dark, demonstrating that this is What We Do.  We got up only if Nicholas needed to nurse, needed a diaper change, or was absolutely not tolerating the boredom (full screaming, not just grumbling).  In that first month, he wasn’t able to nurse while I was lying down, so each time he woke, I sat up in bed and grabbed the Boppy pillow.  He nursed every 1-2 hours, needed a change every 3-4 hours, and was awake and fussy for a period in the middle of almost every night.  If he fussed after nursing, I tried burping him, then checked his diaper.  If I couldn’t get him to burp and the diaper was okay, I asked Daniel to burp him.  (I never mastered his special technique.)  If the diaper needed changing, I asked Daniel to help, and I set up the clean diaper and dampened the washcloth while waiting for him to get up; I did the actual changing because he wasn’t alert enough, while he held Nicholas still and then comforted Nicholas in bed while I washed my hands and took that opportunity to use the bathroom, drink water, or anything else I needed.  (It is much too easy as a new mother to feel like there’s no time to take care of yourself!  But your baby needs you to keep yourself in working order!  So make use of these opportunities when you have them, and resist feeling guilty about leaving Daddy or someone else to be the POD for a few minutes.)  If Nicholas still wouldn’t calm down, we took turns holding him in the rocking chair and singing to him, in the dark, while the other parent tried to sleep.

Within the first week, we saw that Nicholas tended to have a longer sleeping period at a predictable time each day–about 6 to 9pm.  That wasn’t when we wanted him to sleep, and our mothers (each of whom stayed with us for a while) both encouraged us to wake him then “so he’ll sleep at night,” but when we did this we saw no effect.  After we were on our own, we decided to let him sleep and use that time to care for ourselves: napping, eating, showering, snuggling, etc.  That helped to refresh us for the long night ahead!

1-4 months old

On his one-month birthday, Nicholas learned to nurse while I was lying on my side.  This was a big advance because it meant I didn’t have to be fully conscious and could stay warm under the covers while he was nursing!  He nursed every 2-3 hours, needed a diaper change about once a night, and was awake and fussy for a period in the middle of the night about twice a week.  Daniel began sleeping in the master bedroom at this point, but I could wake him if I needed his help.

The main reason I was the one to stay with the baby all night was, of course, that I’m the one with the breasts.  Another reason was that Daniel returned to work 2 weeks after Nicholas was born, while I was off for 12 weeks and could nap during the day.  Also, even when hormones aren’t involved, I am much less affected by sleep disruption and deprivation than Daniel is–in couples that are the other way around, it may make sense for Mama to pump some milk during the day so that Daddy can do a night feeding.

However, once I went back to work, I was working a fixed schedule whereas Daniel had flextime, so at times when I felt dangerously exhausted and Nicholas just would not sleep, I could ask Daniel to take him downstairs for a while.  Daniel would then sleep late in the morning and go to work later.

During this stage, I learned that Nicholas generally would be calmer and happier if I took him places.  Often I’d just go for a walk, with him in a carrier, and when he fell asleep then I’d go to the nearest coffeehouse and relax with coffee and a muffin.:-) We took him to parties, restaurants, church, museums, and all other places we normally go that aren’t actually dangerous to a baby–even if nobody else brings babies or children there.  Nicholas would quietly observe the activities of bigger people until he fell asleep.  Noise, light, and activity didn’t bother him; he’d just sleep when sleepy and wake when rested.  So convenient!  Seeing that he could fall asleep in distracting situations, I made sure he had plenty of opportunities to keep doing that so he would not lose the ability.  If he was asleep on the bed when it was time to go somewhere, I simply picked him up and put him in the carrier; this might wake him (in which case he might have to nurse before we could leave–I allowed time for that), or he might wake later and look surprised at the change of scene!

The other advance in this stage was that Nicholas began to stay asleep even if there was nobody in the room.  Earlier, I could get up while he was napping, but then I or someone else needed to be nearby at least every few minutes, or he’d wake and PANIC.  It was annoying, but it’s really a very sensible instinct–in the cave-dwelling days, if your parents left you lying around alone, BEARS could get you!!  So it makes sense that babies arrive with an alarm system to notify you if you’ve left them alone, and it just takes a couple months to adjust the alarm triggers to suit our low-risk modern environment.

During the hours when I hoped to sleep, I nursed him lying on the bed, and then if he fell asleep I’d go to sleep too; if he didn’t fall asleep nursing, we’d continue lying quietly on the bed for a while, and sometimes he’d go to sleep.  At other times, I nursed sitting up, and if he fell asleep I’d hold him and read my book (I’m a big fan of reading while nursing!) until he was out cold and then put him on the bed or in his infant seat and go do something else.

5-12 months old

Nicholas typically slept a 5-hour stretch sometime during the night and nursed every 2-3 hours the rest of the night, rarely staying awake once he was done nursing.  At this point I felt like I was basically getting a full night’s sleep.  He napped for about an hour around 10am, napped for about 2 hours around 2pm, and napped for about an hour around 5pm.  Three naps, one starting on the way home from childcare or shortly after we got home so that I could eat dinner!  I was thrilled.

When he was 7 months old, I wrote this list of what I did at times when he did stay awake after nursing during the night:

  1. I check to make sure he doesn’t need a diaper change.
  2. I hold him upright for a few minutes and see if he burps.
  3. I look for any other things making him uncomfortable, like being tangled in the sheet.
  4. I lie down at the outer edge of the bed, close my eyes, and ignore him. Often he will play for a while (making enough noise to keep me awake, but I try to model sleeping) and then go to sleep.
  5. If he begins a “pain” cry or sounds really miserable, I turn on the light and check for injury. If I find something like a scratch from his fingernail, I clean it and soothe him. If I don’t find anything, I give him a half-dose of baby ibuprofen. I figure maybe he’s teething, or he “slept wrong” and has a painful kink somewhere. At any rate, he often conks out right after that.
  6. If all else fails, we go downstairs, and I stand around bouncing him in time to music. This is not a “reward” for his “bad” behavior.  This is an acknowledgement that we can’t sleep right now and are going to try something else for a little while, and we’re going to do it downstairs so we don’t disturb Daddy or the neighbors.  (We live in a rowhouse; all bedrooms are upstairs.)  Interestingly, it seems to help if I have something else to think about–if I don’t have anything on my mind, I get one of my books of house-plans or something like that to stare at hands-free.  I’m not sure if that helps because it calms my irritation with his crankiness, or because when I’m paying less attention I bounce him in a more repetitive way instead of “dancing”. Anyway, the real trick is not to set him down too soon; he needs to be really zonked out or he’ll wake up when laid down.  We stay downstairs until he’s been asleep in my arms for 10 minutes, and then we go back to bed.

Once Nicholas learned to crawl, if he woke and found himself alone in the room, he no longer cried until someone came.  Instead, he would climb down from his bed and come looking for us.  We usually heard the pitter-patter of little knees on the hardwood floor, but if we didn’t we’d soon see him, or if we were in the basement he’d knock on the latched door at the top of the stairs.  He never once decided to go unsupervised and wreak havoc in some other room; we really appreciated that!

When he was 9 months old, I wrote:

We parents do our best to follow a routine that works for us, while filling the needs of our baby as they become apparent.   We never did anything to “put him on a schedule” except following our own schedule (for sleeping, eating, going to work, and going other places)–yet he now sleeps and eats at predictable times.

This is not “his schedule” that we designed and taught to him.  This is “our schedule” formed by adjusting the parental schedules to make time for filling baby’s needs.  What we adults do during the day is not all that different than it used to be.  We’re adjusting to him (it’s a constant process as his needs change) but mostly we’re showing him what we do and bringing him along.

1-3 years old

Nicholas became less likely to stay asleep if we moved him while he was sleeping.  (I mean picking him up from one place and putting him down in another.  He still slept well in the sling, even if I was moving a lot.)  This probably was because he was getting so big and heavy that it was difficult to move him without an arm or leg flopping off and bumping into something!  I started to nurse him on the bed most of the time so that if he fell asleep, he was already there.

When he was 15 months old, I wrote:

Now he rarely takes the evening nap but often goes to sleep an hour or two earlier than I do, waking to nurse when I come to bed and once in the early morning hours.  It’s still not a strict schedule–he goes down for the night sometime between 8:30 and 11:30 and gets up for the day sometime between 7:00 and 9:30, and some days he takes one long nap instead of two–but his habits work pretty well with ours.

One thing that’s surprised me is that if I tell Nicholas the plans for the day, mentioning how his naptime will affect what we do, he’ll nearly always “arrange” to be awake at the times when things are happening!  His babysitter has noticed this too. I don’t know how he does it–seeing as he has no sense of what “4:30” means–but it’s cool!

He was 18 months old when listening to stories became really interesting to him.  This was the point at which we first started having a “bedtime routine” that involved anything more than nursing!  (Before that, we brushed his teeth after dinner or his last solid food of the day, and we put extra layers in his diaper at every change after 8pm.)  Now we changed him into pajamas and brushed his teeth before beginning a long story time in the evening.  If Daniel was reading the stories, I could do something else until Nicholas wanted to nurse; then Daniel would hang around because Nicholas typically wanted another story before another nursing during which he’d drift off to sleep.  The whole routine took 1-2 hours…but, heck, we’d gotten through his first 18 months spending hardly any time on bedtime, we like sharing stories with him, and we loved the peaceful, happy way in which he generally went down for the night.

He was 21 months old the first time I was away from him all night.  I went to camp with my Girl Scout troop while Nicholas stayed home with Daniel.  He went to sleep pretty easily without nursing, but then he woke every hour or two all night, crying, “Nursie!!” and finding all other comforts lacking.  But he survived!  I didn’t leave him overnight again until after he weaned at 28 months.  He didn’t have a bedtime away from both parents until he was three-and-a-half years old (and we went to a concert; we were there when he got up in the morning).  We’ve still never had a night when both parents were away from him all night.  It’s okay.  We can have privacy in another room, and we never went on a lot of fancy dates even before he was born.

He dropped the morning nap shortly before he turned 2 years old.

3-6 years old

Nicholas still wants someone to stay with him until he’s asleep or at least very drowsy.  He’d like us to stay with him all night, but he accepts knowing that we get up and do chores for a while before we go to bed in our own room.  There are a few things we’ve done to make it easier for him and reduce his demands on us.

The major issue of this stage has been his ability to delay sleep on purpose!  It’s infuriating to me as a parent, even though I remember vividly from my own childhood the feeling that it’s not fair how grown-ups get to stay up later doing interesting things!  As Nicholas gave up napping (a very long process, including more than a year when he reliably napped at school but strongly resisted naps on weekends), he became more irritable, annoying, and defiant, so of course we worried that he was tired and not getting enough sleep.  But you can’t make anybody sleep!  This is the time when we’ve had to impose stricter routines and trust our judgment more than our child’s expression of his own needs–and I don’t at all believe that we caused problems now by not being stricter with him as an infant.  The kid’s brain is leaping way ahead of him; he feels more like an equal to us now that he’s less obviously dependent; he wants to show us the way he usually does it more than he wants to follow our instructions; he’s got so many exciting things he wants to do that it’s hard to slow down at the end of the day!

Limiting the number of stories has helped a lot.  Instead of just reading however many it takes until he’s asleep, we made a rule that we would read 3 picture books or one Ladybug magazine.  These days, we read one chapter of a book followed by the daily devotional reading from Forward Day By Day.  Occasionally I will decide to read to him from the Bible for a while, but he’s learned not to expect it every time.  (I do it when he’s gotten ready early and behaved well, or when I sense that reading is soothing him rather than keeping him awake.)

We’ve also established that delaying getting into bed means less story time in bed.  “You’re using up story time,” serves as an effective warning (although he’s now heard it so many times that it aggravates him, too) when he’s disregarding our instructions to stop playing/dancing/drawing/building a robot and get ready for bed.  He likes us to read to him while he’s in the bath, but if he gets a late start on the bath or delays getting out or delays brushing teeth and getting into bed afterward, he finds that the bathtime story was the bedtime story rather than an extra chapter.

Sometimes Nicholas decides he needs something else to eat when it’s already time for bed.  This is a difficult issue because he might just be manipulating us so he can stay up later, or he might actually be hungry–after all, we did build that healthy rapid metabolism by nursing on demand, and both parents often eat a substantial snack between dinner and bedtime.  We try to allow for Nicholas to eat two meals between my return from work and his bedtime, even though that’s less than 3 hours, because he does seem to do better eating twice than eating once.  If we pressure him to eat more at dinner, usually he refuses–and if he does eat more, he may throw up or complain of stomach pain–so that doesn’t work.  When he’s still eating at 8:00, we start his story at the dining table.

The parent lying in bed waiting for Nicholas to fall asleep used to leave the bedside lamp on and read silently.  When he was 4, though, he began having trouble falling asleep with a light on–gradually outgrowing his infant ability to sleep through anything.  We now turn out the light after storytime.  This created a problem for us parents, though: Lying there in the dark, sometimes we would fall asleep or get very drowsy before Nicholas was out cold, but we had things that had to get done in the evening!  I became so resentful and agitated about this that we finally decided Daniel would need to do bedtime for a while!  Then when he went camping with a friend so I was doing bedtime for a week, I started a new policy: When I turn out the light, I tell Nicholas the time I’m going to get up–I make it about 10 minutes later–and then I faithfully stay until that time even if I think he’s asleep.  Even if he isn’t, he’s very drowsy by then and will only mumble, “G’night, Mama,” instead of flipping out as he would if he expected me to stay until he’s completely asleep.

[UPDATE: The summer he was 7, I changed to a policy of turning out the light, hugging him and saying good night, and then leaving the room.  He doesn’t like it, but he has accepted it.  He occasionally gets up because he has remembered something he wants to do next day and wants to write himself a note to put on his placemat to remind him; we allow this because he isn’t abusing it.  Despite his threats to stay awake all night if I don’t stay with him, he is always asleep within 15 minutes and rarely wakes in the night.]

When he started kindergarten last fall, all of us had to get onto an earlier and stricter schedule because school starts at 8:00 and there are penalties for tardiness.  None of us wants to be getting up so early, so it’s a daily struggle to resist pressing the snooze button again and again!  My solution is to set my alarm 20 minutes before Nicholas’s and get up, drink some water, and then go back to sleep in his bed.  That way he gets to wake up with Mama (which makes him a bit less grouchy), and I get to awaken gradually without falling into a button-pressing stupor.

This earlier schedule means we can’t do as many evening activities as we used to, and we can’t stay out as late.  We make the occasional exception, but for the most part we strive to be home and into the bedtime routine by 8:00 every night, including weekends.  It’s a drag!  I miss those carefree baby days!  But that’s the reality of going to this great school–and I do enjoy getting to work earlier and therefore getting home earlier.

We’ve made use of his increasing comprehension of time to help him get ready for bed promptly (“If you get your pajamas on, brush and floss, and are in bed by 8:15, we can read another chapter.”) and stay in bed if he wakes in the night.

Recently, Nicholas decided he is afraid of the handles on his dresser; they look like eyes to him.  So we agreed to loop the corners of two baby blankets through the handles each night to block them.  It’s annoying to do, the blankets hanging by one corner during the day look sloppy, and it seems silly–but I remember when I was little and certain things looked terrifying in the darkA few minutes’ effort that completely vanquishes his fear is worthwhile.

We’ve spent a lot of time getting our kid to sleep, and ironically, it’s gotten more difficult as he’s gotten older!  But this is a short season in our lives.  Someday soon he won’t want us to lie next to him, “cover me and cuddle me,” read him stories, or give “just one more hug.”  We get very tired and have trouble keeping up with all our responsibilities, but really it’s pretty amazing being so important to a small person.

Read about other families’ sleep strategies at This Is How We Go to Sleep.  Read about lots of subjects of interest to parents at Mom’s Library.

About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

25 Responses to Sleep Strategies for Babies, Children, and Parents

  1. I think it’s so important to have a plan. So many people think things are going to just work out, but it’s like everything else in parenting. We’re guiding these little ones. Great topic!

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  3. Dave W. says:

    It’s great to see important ideas from a few sources pulled together, and this is a topic that I’ve heard frustrates many parents. I forget how many books we checked out of the library on sleep issues, but ended up doing a hybrid of Ferber, No Cry Sleep Solution, and my own prior knowledge of behavioral psych. for our infant foster daughter. There’s certainly not any one size fits all method!

    • 'Becca says:

      It must be very different with a foster child or in any other situation where neither parent can feed the baby without getting out of bed!:-) And you are also dealing with whatever your foster daughter had learned about sleeping and nighttime care before she came to you, rather than getting to teach her your ways right from the start.

      I read Ferber’s book before parenthood and was appalled, but I know many parents have taken SOME of his ideas and applied them lovingly and sensibly. It’s not as horrifying a method as Babywise, at least, because Ferber is working from the assumption that a child who’s not sleeping well has some kind of sleep disorder that can be straightened out with behavioral training, whereas Babywise is working from the assumption that a child who’s not asleep when its parents order it to be asleep is sinful and disobedient!

  4. Dave W. says:

    What makes it more interesting is that some of the models, like Ferber, have undergone revisions over the years, but there are different versions in circulation. We were exposed to the somewhat gentler version, initially through foster parent training before doing more research on or own. Hadn’t previously heard of Babywise. Shortly after we started parenting, I put a question out on Facebook re: baby sleep books, and it provoked some pretty spirited debate!

    Yes, having a child who has already established habits from a different household is an interesting challenge.

    Haven’t had a chance to practice it yet, but for older kids, Alan Kazdin has done some very empirically tested work combining behaviorism with a compassionate approach (not for sleeping, but other areas).

  5. Interesting to read. Having a plan is important. Not sure that I would (and I haven’t) nurse my kiddos as long as you have, but that is a choice each parent makes themselves. Sleeping is the most individual aspect of children it seems.
    ~Kimberlee

    • 'Becca says:

      Just to clarify, I didn’t nurse him until he was 3 (as it may appear from the section headings); he quit at 2 years 4 months after very gradually nursing less and less. It was really a choice he made rather than one I made, although at SOME point I would have decided he was too old for it!

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  7. LaVonne says:

    Great article, Becca. Thanks. Sleep issues abound here in our home. We all have shared a family bed since we brought our Princess home. Now she is 3 and I am ready for her to be in her own bed, but she is not. Of course.

  8. Do you have a Facebook page or Twitter? Would love to follow you there, I’m on my iPhone and love reading your stuff!

    • 'Becca says:

      I’ve explained in other articles why I don’t do Facebook and why I don’t do Twitter. I guess I’m kind of a non-conformist and/or curmudgeon! But you can follow The Earthling’s Handbook by doing any of these things:

      • click the Follow button in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen
      • enter your e-mail address under “Subscribe!” in the right sidebar
      • click on the orange RSS button in the black bar at the top.
  9. Nice advice. The objective is very important to be able to choose what to do. We don’t have an objective on sleep, except that the four kids get enough of it. We don’t think it’s particularly important for the kids to sleep on their own or not get up or whatever they want. As such, they have a bedroom, but a lot of times they also “camp out” in the parent’s room. They all sleep together in the same room for now, two in bunk beds and one on the floor. All except the newborn read themselves to sleep, including the 2 year old though he can’t really read yet. Nighttime routine is just “in bed by 8”. We usually do some parent-child reading before then, where the child reads to the parent for about half an hour and then they can continue reading by themselves to their little nightlights.

    As far as trying to get babies to sleep through the night, first off they’re eventually going to do it anyway. Second, it was guess and test environmentally. Swaddling them tight was good. The temperature was also key. One loved a cool room, while another love a warm room. Keeping them up during the day as much as is reasonable is also important. Although it is convenient to have a baby sleep most of the day, predictably, this makes them less likely to sleep through the night.

    • 'Becca says:

      I forgot to mention swaddling! That worked wonders with Nicholas. We had seen the DVD “The Happiest Baby on the Block” before he was born, and we found its advice pretty helpful, especially the detailed instructions on how to fold up a baby tightly in a 36″ square flannel blanket. My mom made us some nice blankets by cutting up and hemming an old flannel sheet.

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  12. Tulip says:

    A very detailed account. I think every parent should post their experiences so that new mothers can get a feel for what it is going to be like. Just like you, as my child gets older it has become a lot harder because she does the same thing and purposely keeps herself up by playing and talking in bed. We don’t worry as much because she isn’t getting up or doing anything bad. Thanks for sharing at Mom’s Library!

    • 'Becca says:

      I agree, hearing/reading individual experiences is a very good way to learn what to expect from a baby–both what is common to most babies and what MIGHT happen, and how to deal with both kinds of issues. I did a lot of reading about sleep habits on the mothering.com discussion boards before Nicholas was born that was very helpful.

      A child who is awake but not bothering you or getting into trouble isn’t a problem, unless she is tired the next day because she isn’t getting to sleep early enough for the time she needs to get up. With Nicholas, we’ve had some problems both with the early wake-up time and with his feeling that when he’s awake, somebody ought to be with him. It’s getting a lot better now, though!

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  17. jellibeanjournals says:

    Wow, you’re so thorough! I wish I’d kept a monthly journal of my daughter’s sleep habits like this. Now with a second child I’ve really gotten behind on journaling, so here’s hoping you’ve inspired me to get with it again. I liked your description of how you use the family bed to slowly wean your baby off needing both parents in bed with him to get to sleep. I’ve never read that method before- makes perfect sense! It’s awesome that your son could sleep in any environment during the day. That’s something that my daughter could never figure out. My son hasn’t had too many opportunities to try it, but I know he doesn’t sleep in the nursery for me at church. Thank you so much for sharing your own sleep experiences. I’ve definitely learned some new things here and I’m sure other parents will too!

    • 'Becca says:

      Thanks! I compiled a lot of this article from posts I made to discussion boards at the time–I found that they were all still archived! I had no idea my habit of jabbering about motherhood online was putting together such a comprehensive record.

      I did find some time to write in my diary, too, when I was pregnant with him and when he was a baby. I am pregnant again now and trying to remember when I found that time!! I don’t want my second child to feel less important….

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