Getting a good night's sleep - teaching your baby how to sleep
Whoever came up with the saying “sleep like a baby” didn’t have babies! All new parents have suffered through sleepless nights at some stage of early infancy and or all the way into childhood. Sleep deprivation can be truly trying for the caregiver and the entire family.
Sleep training is a welcome tool to give the family some much-needed relief. However, the amount of advice, books and methods out there can be overwhelming.
What is sleep training?
Sleep training is defined as teaching your baby to go to sleep independently, or “self-settle”, without parental support, sleep associations/crutches such as being fed, rocked or patted to sleep. Most people associate sleep-training with the “crying it out” method and its variations (such as Ferberizing), while actually the term refers to a wide range of approaches that don’t necessarily involve tears.
Should you sleep train your baby?
Sleep consultants recommend you wait until your baby is at least 6 months old before venturing into sleep training. Before that your baby is likely to still be going through too much development to have any consistent sleep patterns. You should also always check with your pediatrician if your baby is ready for any form of sleep training.
What method should you use?
There are as many sleep training methods as there are anecdotes from well-meaning friends on how they overcame sleep problems with their babies. The most common methods are known as “Cry it out/Extinction”, “Ferberizing” (a gentler version of cry it out), “verbal reassurance”, “camping out”, “pick-up put-down” etc. We would need a few issues of BAMBI magazine if we tried to talk about them all, so let it suffice to say: there is a lid for every pot. And with that I mean: there is a sleep training method for every family, a method that respects your wishes and matches your needs.
How to set your child up for a good night’s sleep Don’t sleep train before 6 months
As we said above, newborns don’t have a circadian rhythm and it takes them quite some time to develop it. Most sleep consultants and sleep training methods recommend waiting until at least 6 months of age before starting any training. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t set yourself up for success before 6 months. Healthy and positive sleep associations and behavior can be instilled from early on. Routines, schedules and a healthy sleep environment will help your baby learn when it’s time to sleep.
Address one problem at a time
Focus on nighttime sleep training first. Trying to train for naps and nighttime together can be daunting and also demotivating. Once the nights have improved, you can start working on the day naps. A well-rested family is also much better equipped to handle nap refusals too.
Pick the method you can be consistent with
Find a method that respects your beliefs and a consultant that builds a sleep plan around your family’s needs and requirements. Consistency is key in sleep training and if you can’t be consistent with a certain method, that method isn’t for you.
Have a plan in place
If you are going to start a sleep training method, be sure to have a plan in place on how you will handle any setbacks. This will make it easier to not have to decide on the spur of the moment, but you can refer back to something you agreed on doing before the training started, which will help you remain consistent in your approach.
Schedules and routines
Make sure you follow age-appropriate waking and sleeping schedules. Know how many hours your baby should be sleeping during the day and at night and try to follow these as best as possible. Catch the signs of tiredness early and try to follow your baby’s cues.
Consider starting a bedtime routine as early as two weeks of age, for example bath, bottle, book, and bed. Your baby will remember the sequence very quickly and know when it’s time for “the big sleep”.
Ensure that the baby’s bedroom is dark even for daytime naps. Remove all toys that could distract the baby and also ensure there are no loud noises that could startle him or her. Consider using a white noise machine or app to provide a constant noise background if required. The room should also not be too hot or cold, and of course the sleep space should be safe too (no toys, lovies, blankets or pillows in the bed for babies under 18 months).
If your baby needs a sleep “crutch” to fall asleep, make sure it is one that he or she can replace without your help. For e.g. if it’s a pacifier that you need to replace for them, then you should remove it during sleep training. If the sleep association is white noise that can keep running without your intervention, then you can keep using it during training as well.
Prevention is the best cure
Studies have shown that early parental education on infant sleep leads to improved infant sleep and decreases the prevalence of sleep issues. Did you take childbirth education classes? Probably yes, because you don’t know anything about childbirth. Why would it be any different with baby sleep? Set yourself up for success by educating yourself on the right tools and sleep associations right from the start.
Did you know? Newborns don’t have a circadian rhythm. That means they can’t tell the difference between day and night and need to be taught that there is a time for sleep and a time for play. A daytime pattern, with greater sleep at night is usually not established until 12 to 16 weeks.
Babies don’t know how to fall asleep. We need to teach them. This seems hard to imagine for many, but think of having to learn something you don’t know how to do, like dancing. It takes time and practice to master the new skill, just like it takes time and practice for a baby to learn how to fall asleep. One of the best ways to teach them to understand when it’s time to sleep is to give them a consistent and predictable routine.
About the Author Sheena is a full time working mother of two and a DONA certified postpartum doula. In March this year, she embarked on her journey to becoming a certified sleep consultant and has since been working with families to help them find much-needed sleep. She volunteers with Bambi Bumps & Babies. Find her online at www.facebook.com/bangkokbabies
As published in BAMBI Magazine, October 2020