Sleep training is a tough part of being a parent. In order to help your child learn to self-soothe, there are going to be moments that are difficult and unpleasant. But in the end, it will result in better sleep for both your child and you.
Once you have decided that you are going to try sleep training your child, there are a few things that are must-haves to give you the best chance at success.
A Bedtime Routine
As soon as you can (as early as 6-8 weeks old!), establish a bedtime routine so that your baby recognizes the cues that it is time to sleep. Incorporate things into your routine like a bath, reading a book, singing a song, playing soft music, or saying a certain good night phrase. Start your routine at the same time every night so that your baby becomes familiar with the nightly ritual.
If your child is older (between 12 and 24 months), a sleep routine is still a very important part of creating healthy sleep habits. Thinkbaby.org has some great suggestions on this topic. Check it out here!
There are a number of different sleep training methods that you can use to help your child develop better sleeping skills. Some approaches are more gentle and take longer to work while and others are more hands-off but usually require less training time. Choosing the right method for you and your child depends on your parenting style, your child’s temperament, and some trial and error. You don’t have to stick to the plan that you choose if it doesn’t seem to be working for your child.
When I first decided to sleep train my son, I chose the Ferber method, with checks at intervals. I quickly realized, after the first night, that the intermittent checks caused my son to have false hope rather than comfort him. Every time I went into the room to check on him, it was like a reset button was hit, causing him to have more perseverance to keep crying. I shifted my plan to the Weissbluth method, which was much more effective. He cried for only 25 minutes on the worst night.
If you are sleeping training at a younger age (4-6 months), you may want to implement a maximum crying time (such as 1 hour) to determine whether your baby is ready to learn self-soothing skills. Each child is different and there is no plan or schedule that is right for everyone.
A Baby Monitor
Some parents opt not to invest in a baby monitor because they live in an apartment or are in close proximity to the baby’s bedroom. However, when sleep training, having a baby monitor (with video), is an invaluable tool.
Most of the time, when babies are crying during sleep training, it is because they are unhappy with the changes they are experiencing and having to go to sleep without the comforts they are used to. They express their discontent through crying. However, it is possible that they are crying because they have a real need, such as getting their leg stuck in the crib bars or spitting up all over the sheets.
Being able to see on the baby monitor that your baby is indeed okay and not in pain can give parents some peace of mind during this learning process.
You can introduce a lovey (comfort object) to your child when you begin sleep training. The lovey is meant to act as a substitute for mom. Choose an item that is not too bulky and doesn’t make any noise. A small stuffed animal or blanket animal like this one generally work well. Buy two of the same lovey so there is a backup for laundry day. Swap them out regularly so they become similarly worn.
Place the lovey in the crib with your baby, even if he/she does not show any interest at first. It can take weeks or months before your baby begins to feel attached to the lovey. To emulate the experience of snuggling with mom, try wearing the lovey in your bra to soak up your scent. Use the lovey only for sleep time, not for play time.
Consistency is Key
This is the hardest part of sleep training for many parents. After numerous nights of seemingly no progress, it can be hard for parents to want to keep going. The constant crying can start to feel like neglect, and parents start to seriously doubt if sleep training will work for their child.
Consistency plays a huge role in the effectiveness of sleep training. Parents must respond to their babies’ cries the same way every time, so babies can learn that crying and fussing will not result in the comfort of a parent. When a parent’s resolve is weak, giving in and soothing at times and waiting it out at other times, or different parents respond to the baby in different ways, it will delay the baby’s ability to self-soothe. This will make the process longer and more difficult for both parent and baby.
Extinction bursts are something that parents who are planning on sleep training should become familiar with. This is when, after a few days of less crying and sleep training progress, your baby seems to cry even more than before. This is your baby’s final attempt to try to get what he/she wants, comfort and sleep assistance from you. It may seem like everything you have done so far has been for nothing, but stay the course! Hang in there for a few days, and it will get better. Otherwise, you will have to start over from Day 1.
Sleep training usually works between 3-7 days in younger children. If more than 7 days have passed, and you still don’t see evidence that your child is beginning to develop self-soothing skills, it may be time to re-evaluate and seek the advice of a professional.