Sleep Training from A to Zzzzs
For the first few months of our baby’s life, sleep was the least of our worries. He was like a narcoleptic, who could nod off anytime, anywhere, and stay asleep for hours on end. As a family, we continued to live a busy and eventful life, reveling in this freedom to tote him everywhere—from restaurants and parties, to baseball games and outdoor concerts. Little did we know that all this was about to change.
For all babies, sleep patterns shift and evolve as the brain develops, and soon outside factors can adversely impact a baby’s ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and achieve consolidated (uninterrupted) sleep. As parents, we face the daunting task of shaping healthy sleep habits for our children. When our bubble finally burst, and our son no longer “slept like a baby”, it was time to think about sleep training, a task not for the faint of heart.
Parents will be surprised to discover that sleep is one of the most hotly debated and controversial topics among new parents. There are countless sleep experts out there advocating a wide range of sleep methods, from cry-it-out methods to gentle-to-sleep methods, the two extremes being those of Dr. Richard Ferber, and Dr. William Sears.
Dr. Richard Ferber
The Ferber method is a structured training program based on the theory that babies need to learn to soothe themselves to sleep. Many parents swear by this method, as it has been found to drastically reduce nighttime waking in children. However, its biggest drawback is for parents who are not comfortable with a method that requires baby to cry-it-out.
Dr. William Sears
Keeping in line with the philosophy of attachment parenting, Dr. Sears is an advocate of a “gentle-to-sleep” method, which encourages parents to make sleep a warm and comforting experience for baby. This is accomplished by always keeping baby close, in a sling during naps, and in a family bed or bassinet at night. Attachment parents respond to every nighttime waking by soothing and comforting baby until she falls back to sleep. The biggest drawback to this method is that it requires more nighttime parenting and will result in less sleep for the entire family.
For parents wishing to learn more about infant sleep patterns, and sleep training, we suggest you research many methods, and adopt one that feels right and in keeping with your philosophy of parenting. We’ve listed several useful resources below, and a book list to check out. Whichever method you choose, the following are some helpful tips that we’ve gleaned from personal experience. From our household to yours, we hope it can help you get a good night’s sleep!
Develop soothing rituals.
In the half hour before bedtime, it’s important to ease the transition to sleep by introducing a soothing ritual. We give our son a bath, read a bedtime story, and nurse for a little while in a comfy chair. When we finally put him down in his crib, he is calm, and most importantly—ready. Other soothing activities could include singing a lullaby, gentle massage, or rocking. Just like adults, babies need time to unwind before bed. With consistency of our soothing ritual, our baby quickly learned to recognize these cues, and embrace bedtime as a calming and comforting time with Mum and Dad.
Create optimum sleeping conditions for your child.
This may seem like a no-brainer but you’d be surprised how many people argue with me on this point. Some believe there is nothing wrong with taking naps in the car, or on the go. Others urge me to make noise while my baby is napping so that he will be able to “sleep through anything”. While there is nothing wrong with the occasional nap in the car, take a moment to consider how you sleep best. I know for myself, it’s not slumped over with a seat belt digging into my face.
After four months of age, we found that our baby benefited most from regular naps in the familiar surroundings of his own room. With the room quiet and darkened, he was also able to achieve a deeper and more restorative sleep. Before naps, we always change him into a fresh diaper and make sure he’s wearing comfy and loose-fitting clothes. Don’t forget Blanky and Teddy!
Stick to a schedule, but be a little flexible.
Establishing a routine is key because you are recognizing your baby’s essential need (and right) to sleep. Consistency also helps your baby to learn and adapt quickly. Having a sleep schedule helps our family to better organize our day, but we also recognize the importance of flexibility. If, for example, our son wakes up earlier in the morning, we shift the nap forward by a half hour. Likewise, we put him to bed early if he naps poorly in the day. However, it’s a fine balancing act. You can’t shift the nap too much because you have to safeguard the next one!
Put your child down before he’s tired.
I’ve come to observe that if my son is overtired, it takes him much longer to fall asleep (and with quite a stink at that!). It seems rather illogical, but true. Sleep begets sleep, and the better rested our baby, the easier he falls asleep. To make the transition to sleep as easy as possible, we try to put our son down just before he’s tired. The analogy I like to borrow is that of a wave crashing. If my baby is all snuggled down in his bed when the wave of tiredness comes over him, he’ll ride that wave smoothly into Dreamland. If, however, I wait too long—after the wave has crashed, he becomes frustrated and takes extra time to fall asleep.
Don’t rush in at the first peep.
Infants may partially awake during the night as they shift through deep sleep and light sleep cycles. When my son wakes in the night (or mid-way through a nap), I try to give him at least 5 minutes before I go in to soothe him. If I rush in and scoop him up, chances are he’ll wake up fully. This disrupts the continuity of sleep and makes it more difficult to return to sleep. In most cases, my son falls back to sleep on his own—and that means more sleep for all of us!
Share in the task of putting baby to sleep.
As a nursing mama, I fell into the trap of always nursing my baby to sleep. This created a lot of stress for me, as I was solely responsible for putting our baby down for naps and at bedtime. If possible, share in this task. You’ll be surprised how well your baby can adapt! In fact, my husband is more adept at putting our son to bed. The baby knows my husband has nothing under his shirt to offer! In the night, if I go in to soothe our baby, he will scream until I offer a breast. However, if my husband goes in, the baby calms himself, as if to say: “Oh, it’s you—never mind.” And then turns over and goes back to sleep.
Set an early bedtime.
Perhaps my biggest pet peeve is seeing bleary-eyed babies and toddlers out and about after 8pm at night. Young children have different biorhythms than adults, and are naturally tired by early evening, and naturally more alert in the early morning. These biological rhythms signal that young children should go to bed and wake up at these times, regardless of their parents’ habits and lifestyle. I do empathize with working parents who may get home late from work, but keeping children up too late can lead to serious sleep deficiencies.
Keep a sleep journal.
When the time came to start our baby on a sleep schedule, we decided to keep a journal to record our observations. We included such details as: the time he woke up in the morning, the time and duration of naps, the time it took him to fall asleep, moods upon waking, and any other pertinent information. Eventually, a pattern emerged which helped us determine the best times for naps, as well as strategies that were effective in helping our son fall asleep and stay asleep.
Consult the experts.
Don’t hesitate to call in a Dream Team. There are some wonderful sleep doulas who are expertly trained in helping families cultivate healthy sleep habits. Don’t fret if you can’t find a sleep doula in your area—most can provide long distance consultations.
Check out these helpful sites:
for a helpful booklist of sleep resources put together by Parentbooks, located in Toronto.
-- Sarah Simpson