Updated: Oct 11, 2019
‘Sleep training’ is the term often used to refer to helping our babies and children learn how to sleep independently.
Sleep training, though, sounds harsh and cold to me and more to do with animals than with humans. I don’t like using that terminology.
On the other hand, I totally believe in supporting our babies in the best way possible, and in taking care of everyone’s needs in the family.
I’m also big on healthy boundaries for the sake of the family’s mental health and for establishing positive life-long habits.
After helping both my sons to sleep by themselves when they were babies and talking to hundreds of parents, plus seeing other parents deal with sleeping situations, I have come to the conclusion that some babies sleep more than others and some like or need it more than others.
This is not to say that there is nothing we can do as parents to support our babies and children to sleep well.
In fact, sleep is super important for the development of our baby and children's brain, so it is worth giving it our attention and making it a priority.
So, how can we help our baby learn how to sleep, independently?
First of all, it is important to recognise that just like us, babies form habits.
If the boundaries are not clear nor consistent, we can’t expect our baby to sleep in the cot/crib one day, and then on our bed the next, for instance, without them needing some adjustment. Imagine you having to change beds every night and, not by choice!
SLEEP PRINCIPLE #1
At the beginning it is us, parents and carers, who are helping create those first habits for our children.
Once you are ready for your baby to learn how to sleep independently, you can follow these four steps - My sleep recipe:
1. Start by explaining to your baby about the changes you want to make/start.
For example, if you’ve been co-sleeping, explaining that s/he will now be sleeping in their own cot/crib/mattress.
'[Charlie], I need you to sleep in your cot for all your naps and nights so you can get some sleep and me too [insert your reason for the transition]. I know you have been sleeping with me and that you like it. I love it too and now, we all need to get some good night sleep’
SLEEP PRINCIPLE #2
Don’t underestimate your baby.
While it may seem your baby is not understanding your words if they are very young, babies do understand a lot more than we think and in so many ways.
Also honest, clear, genuine communication with our babies is crucial from day 1.
2. Once you've communicated the change, follow with your nap/night routine and narrate as you go.
‘I’m going to read you a story and after that, I am going to feed you' [insert your own routine]
If you don’t have a set routine I recommend you create one. This could be as simple as singing a song or reading a book, then changing to PJ’s, closing the blinds etc.
HOT TIP: In my experience, it is super important to separate feeding from sleeping. Linking them is creating a habit.
And we can’t blame our babies later on, from getting used to the habit we have helped create :)
At home, I would feed, then change to PJ’s and read a book before putting my babies to bed. Nine years later, this routine has stood the test of time, just added more things (dinner, independent play, brush teeth, PJ's, book, debrief of the day, bedtime).
3. Time to place your baby down in her cot/crib/bed/mattress. Narrate that for your baby, in your own, regular voice. For example:
‘It’s time to sleep now. I am going to place you in your [cot]’.
Wait a second, then place your baby in/on their sleeping place.
4. If baby starts crying/getting distressed pick him/her up straight away and hug him/her and say:
Once s/he is calmed, tell her/him again:
‘I’m going to place you in your [cot]'
...and follow through.
if s/he starts crying pick him/her up again and hold and say:
'I’m here. It’s time to sleep now’. (You can say what comes to you. I would often tell my babies I love them, as well).
When s/he calms down, do it again.
I think you are getting the gist. Repeat steps 3 and 4 until your baby is calm when you place him/her in [cot] and falls asleep there, by him/herself.
The first night I did this with my first son, I put him down 50 times (yes, I counted!). The second night, 28 times, the third, three or four. And the following day, as soon as I placed him down, he closed his eyes and fell asleep. No sign of distress.
It took us two weeks for our first son to learn how to sleep on his own for both naps and night time (That is, for him to go down in his cot, from the first time we place him in his cot, with no crying).
He was six months. Once he 'got it', he slept happily in his cot for 2 years straight.
SLEEP PRINCIPLE #3
Remember each child is different.
When he woke up I was there (if I knew when he would wake up), or I would make my way as soon as I would hear him. For me this was a super important part of the process to build trust.
In my view, this is a most respectful way to support our babies in learning how to sleep, without the harsh, cold connotation of 'sleep training', but at the same time we are taking care of their, and our, need to sleep.
Note: Crying is how our babies communicate.
But I can understand how some parents can’t bear leaving their baby to cry to sleep. I didn’t like it either for long periods at a time, but I needed them to learn how to sleep on their own so this was my win-win situation.
I know of co-sleeping parents who follow these steps, but instead of placing baby in a cot they do it on the bed were they all be co-sleeping.
HOT TIP: The same way we separate sleeping and feeding, I recommend separating the connection of parent and bed for co-sleeping.
That is to say that, if you would like to continue co-sleeping but not have your baby depend on you to lie there with them for hours on end, especially if you are not ready for bed at that time, this could be a good solution too.
Note: I do not subscribe to using a dummy/pacifier.
If you are feeling the urge to introduce it, I invite you to look at what may be behind this.
Could something may be triggering you?
Is it listening to your baby cry, perhaps?
Also, remember that as their parent you are learning your baby's cues and their language and you are there to support them in learning emotional intelligence.
And again, what habits are we helping create?
Getting rid of dummies/pacifiers in the future (once child has been used to it for months, years) can also be very hard.
I’ve seen it with plenty of parents, and in my experience, the ways some parents go about 'getting rid' of it, is not respectful most times (e.g they hide it or throw it away then lie to their child about it).
A baby might learn to self-soothe by putting their thumb/fingers in their mouth. I see this as a positive. It means they are not being dependant on any artificial ‘props’.
A lot of parents fear their child will suck their thumb for years to come if they encourage self-soothing though, and may think ‘oh, the dummy will be easier to get rid of!’
But I’ve seen 4+ year old kids still using the pacifier, not being able to speak properly, and even trying to speak through the dummy.
If your baby keeps on sucking their thumb past a few months after learning how to sleep by themselves, I recommend seeing a holistic chiropractor and check about retained reflexes. There might other issues at play too, which can be brought to the surface early on.
SLEEP PRINCIPLE #4
Know that your baby might not like the new change and that’s OK. Acknowledge feelings without the need to fix.
‘I can hear you don’t like this change. Dad and I are helping you sleep on your own so we can all have a good rest, every night’ [insert your own reason]
SLEEP PRINCIPLE #5
It’d be ideal that whomever looks after your baby/will be with your baby when they need to sleep, follow the same steps you’ve been following.
Otherwise it could be a bit confusing for baby.
This consistency goes for your nap/night routine too.
Note: We want our babies to sleep independently, without the need of an external prop.
Besides not using a dummy/pacifier, I don’t recommend putting baby to sleep on the pram/stroller nor on the baby carrier/sling as the main way to sleep.
But of course there will be times when we are out and about and kids will fall asleep in the car or the pram. Not the end of the world. (Though sometimes it felt like it to me!).
As long as you consistently follow the steps when it is time to place your baby to sleep in their home-sleep space, sleeping somewhere else in the odd occasion shouldn’t be a problem.
It’s like when we travel interstate or overseas and we need to sleep in different beds with different pillows, for instance.
SLEEP PRINCIPLE #6
You can always break a habit, just remember that it will take time and transition periods. How long does it take you to break habits?
To summarise, here are some important questions to ask yourself whenever you are hesitant about establishing boundaries (for sleep, or anything else):
- What are the habits we, as parents, are helping create?
- How am I creating connections/links? (E.g Linking breastfeeding/nursing with sleep; Baby falling asleep in pram/stroller for every nap)
⁃ Am I involving my baby in the process, their own development? (Are you explaining to your baby what is happening? Are you listening to their point of view? This is very much about their life too)
⁃ Are everyone’s needs being considered? (E.g When your baby cries, as you are placing them down to sleep, you pick him/her up, but are you also taking care of your need for sleep and space?)
SLEEP PRINCIPLE #7
Remember learning how to sleep on our own is a great LIFE SKILL.