As I sat down to write a series on sleep (The Wonderful World of Sleep & Schedules, Routines, Transitions, Oh My!) I really wanted to make sure I spent some extra special time on the topic that all parents love to talk about: Sleep Training.
When do we begin?
A question I am often asked by new parents is “when do we begin sleep training?”. And honestly, the answer is of course different for everyone. I’ll be honest (and please don’t immediately hate me or judge me) but we never really had to sleep train my children when they were infants. They were pretty good sleepers. Of course, this all changed when Tyler moved to a big boy bed. Suddenly Kip and I were sleep training our 2 ½ year old…definitely more challenging then sleep training an infant. 😉
Sleep training usually begins around 4-6 months of age and involves teaching your child to fall asleep without help or assistance from you. The goal is to provide your child with the strategies they need to be able to fall asleep without being rocked, cuddled, nursed or shushed by an adult. You also want them to learn how to fall back to sleep on their own, without needing you, in the middle of the night.
What is the purpose of sleep training?
I’m glad you asked. There are several benefits of sleep training including:
- Allowing your baby the opportunity to learn to self soothe
- Introducing your child to positive sleep habits
- Beginning to create a schedule and routine of bedtime
Remember, sleep is a super important component of your child’s development. It is during sleep that their brains process what has been learned throughout the day. And growth occurs during sleep. So, ensuring that your child is getting enough restorative sleep is crucial.
Is it healthy to sleep train?
Let me answer this first…YES. Sleep training does not increase the risk of behavioral or emotional problems later in life. In fact, it is safe and healthy for your child’s development. And it’s healthy for your family. Because when babies sleep for longer stretches of time, everyone gets to sleep for longer stretches of time.
But as always, I will defer to your pediatrician on this. You can discuss with them whether your child is ready to begin sleep training.
What about the dream feed?
If your child still needs it, you can still dream feed your child while sleep training. Remember, the dream feed is not about brining your child to an awake state, engaging with them, bonding with them. Dream feeds are about filling up their tank in hopes they will sleep for a bit of a longer stretch, while they are DREAMING. If your child still needs these feeds to make it through the night, that’s ok.
How to sleep train
There are a number of methods out there. There is no 1 way to do it…as always, you need to find what works for you and your family. Here are some methods used and a brief description of what each one entails.
Cry It Out Method:
This one is harder on you than it is on your child. For this extinction method, as always, consistency is key. The baby should begin falling asleep on their own within the first 3-4 nights. As long as the baby is fed, dry and in a safe sleep environment, you don’t go back into the room until the next feed or the next morning…even if the baby is crying.
This method involves gradual extinction; here you check and console. You allow your child to cry for a certain period of time before you go in. Gradually, you increase the timed intervals until your baby falls asleep. Over the first few nights you increase the length of time before you enter the room (if needed) as you decrease your presence in the room. (The consolation period becomes shorter each night until they no longer need you to console them).
Fading / Chair Method:
For this method you sit in a chair in your child’s room next to their crib until the baby falls asleep. You don’t engage with them, you simply sit there, allowing them to feel your presence. Each night you move the chair further away from the crib, closer to the door until you are eventually out of the room.
Pick Up, Put Down Method:
This method begins by putting the baby down when they are drowsy but awake. If they cry, wait a few minutes to see if they can settle. If not, pick them up, soothe and then put them down again when calm, but still awake. Repeat until the baby is able to fall asleep in their crib/bassinet/bed. This method can take a long time and a lot of patience.
No Tears / Gentle Method:
Consistent bedtime routines are required for this method. It combines the fading method with the Ferber method but uses physical touch as well such as patting your child’s back or shushing to reassure them. The trick is to lay them back down before they fall asleep, so they learn to feel comfortable and confident falling asleep somewhere other than in your arms. This method is less emotionally stressful but can take a longer period of time to be successful.
(Click here for a Resource Handout on Sleep Training.)
Tips for Making it through
The first tip I want to offer is to BREATH and be CONSISTENT. You’ve got this, no matter which method you choose – or even if you develop your own method. Consistency is key. You need to do whatever works for you, your baby, and your family. So don’t let anyone tell you you’re doing it wrong or that the way your family is going about it is incorrect.
There will be rough patches. It’s going to happen. You are going to need to give whichever method you try at least 1 week before you can determine if it’s working or not. Even if it “works” after the first night, there will inevitably be a hiccup in the road…remember to continue to do what you did in the beginning as your child will remember this and become accustomed to it.
Don’t hate me for this…
But you’re going to have to do some form of ‘sleep training’ throughout your child’s life. As your child develops and moves through different stages, they will need ‘re-training’. Some reminders of the way bedtime works.
As I stated before, we never really needed to sleep train my kids, they just naturally enjoyed sleeping through the night. Suddenly when Tyler hit 2 ½ he went through a bit of sleep regression (I’ll talk about these in the final sleep series post). He was in a big boy bed and having a hard time both falling asleep and staying asleep. We now needed to sleep train, and sleep training a toddler is definitely more difficult then sleep training an infant.
Some food for thought
I have known many parents that lay in bed with their children until they fall asleep. Snuggling them. Cuddling them. They just love it. Who doesn’t love it? But the parents then get upset when in the middle of the night the child comes to find them, suddenly wanting to sleep in their bed.
I once heard a sleep neurologist comment about this. He said that all humans wake up in the several times a night, to check our ‘homeostasis’, our stability. Most of the time everything is as it was when you fell asleep, so you don’t even remember waking in the first place.
In the situation where a child has fallen asleep with the parent lying next to them, when they awake in the middle of the night to check their homeostasis, their stability is off kilter. Their parent is no longer lying next to them. So, what is this child most likely to do? Go find that parent…thus ending up in their parents’ room/bed in the middle of the night. Waking everyone else.
An evergreen tool
Sleep training is an evergreen tool…one that will keep on giving, and one that you inevitably will need to fall back on throughout your child’s life. It becomes a bit harder once your kid is in their own bed that they know how to get out of! One night you’ll find yourself on the couch thinking the kids are all asleep…then you hear the footsteps…they’re not only out of bed, but now as a bigger kid, they’re harder to get back in bed! Ah parenting.
Just remember that if you are consistent in doing what works for your family, you will be successful. I know it’s hard. We’re all there with you. But you’ve got this! 😊