After you bring your new baby home, sleep becomes one of life’s most precious commodities. When the baby doesn’t sleep, one or both parents also don’t sleep. Some babies are naturally great sleepers while others require hours of bouncing, rocking, and soothing, just for a short nap. To make things even harder, there are so many precautions and recommendations about safe sleep for babies.
SIDS danger. Back is best. No loose blankets. No stuffed animals. Nothing in the crib. Flat, firm surface only. Sleep in the same room until 6 months. Don’t co-sleep. Avoid sleeping in car seats, swings, bouncers, etc. Make sure the baby is not overheated.
This can be extremely overwhelming, particularly when a desperate and exhausted parent is trying to get the baby to sleep by any means necessary.
‘The baby will only fall asleep in the swing. Does this make me a bad parent?’
In the first three months, you’re in pure survival mode. Don’t worry about bad habits, spoiling the baby, or holding the baby too much. Do whatever needs to be done to keep the baby thriving and happy. But after the baby gets to be 4-6 months old and is still waking up 6 times a night, the idea of sleep training starts to get tossed around.
What exactly is sleep training?
It refers to helping a baby learn how to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night without assistance. This is done by taking away sleeping aids (rocking, patting, shushing, feeding, pacifier) that the baby depends on to fall asleep and letting the baby fall asleep on his/her own by learning to self-soothe. The belief is that if the baby is used to having these aids to fall asleep and wakes up in the middle of the night without them, falling asleep again will be much harder to do. Successful sleep training would ideally result in better rest and less stress for both the baby and the parents.
Critics claim that allowing the baby to be in distress for prolonged periods of time could be detrimental to development and cause learned helplessness. However, there is not yet any evidence that support these claims. A study that examined the differences in children who had and had not been sleep trained five years earlier found no significant differences in traits such as sleep problems, behavioral problems, mental health, and attachment issues.
Studies do show that sleep deprivation has long-term negative consequences and can lead to depression-like symptoms and attention issues. This would not only affect the health of the parents but also their ability to care for their child effectively. Sleep deprivation of the baby also affects the baby’s mood and can inhibit attention and learning.
Sleep Training Methods
It is agreed upon across the board that newborns should NOT be sleep trained. They have not yet developed the ability to self-soothe and cannot form good sleeping habits at that age. Four to six months is the most common age range that sleep training experts believe a baby to be ready for sleep training. There are a wide range of methods that are commonly utilized. The five most well-known methods are listed below:
- No Cry Sleep Solution – Uses gentle techniques such as fading (using a preferred sleep association less and less each night) or substitution (substitute a sleep association with a different sleep association; easier to eliminate since it is not as preferred by the baby)
- Sleep Lady Shuffle (Gradual Withdrawal) – Sit in a chair next to the crib and verbally soothe and shush baby. Move the chair further away from the crib every night until you are out of the room.
- Pick Up Put Down (PUPD) – Put baby to bed awake and check on baby at graduated intervals (i.e. 3, 5, 7 minutes) if baby is still crying hard. Pick up baby to soothe and then put down.
- Graduated Extinction (Ferber) – Put baby to bed awake and check on baby at graduated intervals (i.e. 3, 5, 7 minutes) if baby is still crying hard. Verbally soothe or pat baby to comfort.
- Weissbluth (Cry It Out, Full Extinction) – After the bedtime routine, put the baby in the room and do not return until the next morning (except for feedings).
Elijah’s Sleep Training Story
We decided to start sleep training Elijah when he was around four and a half months old. He has never been a terrible sleeper but was constantly waking up three to four times a night, and it was really taking a toll on my sleep. His primary soothing mechanisms were feeding and the pacifier, so the goal was to eliminate both of these sleep associations. For the bedtime routine, he had a bottle before bath time, in order to separate any feeding associations. Because he was still relatively young, I did not cut out night feeds entirely, but I did not feed him until it had been at least four hours since the last feeding to make sure that he was actually hungry and not looking to eat for comfort. I also took away the pacifier at night time.
My original intention was to use the Ferber Graduated Extinction method for sleep training. I purchased and read the book, “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems,” in order to prepare. Once we began training, however, I quickly realized that checks at intervals did not soothe Elijah but rather prolonged his distress. So I stopped going in, and I watched him on the baby monitor to make sure he was okay. The first night was the longest stretch of crying (~25 minutes) before falling asleep. He also woke up a few times during the night and cried around 10-15 minutes each time. He adjusted quickly and after a few days, there was no crying at all at bedtime before he fell asleep – just some grumbling. It also helps that he’s not a crier by nature, so I can typically tell when he’s just fussing and when he actually needs something.
Just because a baby is “trained” does not mean they will be a good sleeper from that point on. Regressions can happen when the baby is sick, teething, or for seemingly no reason at all. He does still have nights where he wakes up more often, but this is not the norm. I try to stay consistent with my techniques, and he typically goes back to his normal sleep patterns after a day or two.
A baby’s personality is very important to consider when deciding whether or not to sleep train. Only you know your baby best and whether or not he/she is ready for sleep training and what method will work the best. Some babies respond to training faster than others and methods can be adjusted accordingly.
Sleep training is not necessarily a requirement to foster good sleeping habits. Some babies are able to develop good sleeping habits naturally over time, but in other cases, bad sleep habits are carried into toddler-hood, preschool, and beyond, when bad habits become much harder to change.
Sleep training is not for everyone, but it did work for us.
Featured image by Alison Wong of New Mom Comics