There are many articles and classes about parenting but very little information available on how you can teach a baby to sleep independently without any props, such as being rocked, held, given a pacifier, etc.
Teaching a baby to sleep is an evolving process. There are several gurus who have written about how to get baby to sleep, such as Marc Weissbulth, Jodi Mindell, Mary Sheedy Kurcinka and Richard Ferber, to name just a few.
Preparing for sleep training (0 – 4 months old)
A simple form of sleep training should begin from the day the baby is brought home from the hospital. This is a critical stage to prevent over-tiredness and for the baby to learn to sleep independently. This is important for both co-sleepers and for babies who sleep in the crib.
Typical wake times vary for children of different ages. For example, the maximum wake time for a baby who is less than 2 months old is usually one hour, which means that the baby should be in the bed/crib 50 minutes after waking up. The total sleep requirement for an infant this age is between 16 to 18 hours. Some babies need more sleep than others and hence the range of hours.
Remember these are general guidelines and each baby is unique and has his own internal time clock. Sleep training for babies less than 4 months old involves getting the baby used to sleeping independently without needing to be rocked or held to fall into a deep sleep. You can still cuddle and hold your baby, but it is best to put your little one in the crib while groggy, not fully asleep.
Until 4 months old, children do not have the capacity to cry for long unless something is bothering them. Therefore, up to 4 months, you should comfort and attend to your baby.
Starting sleep training (after 4 or 5 months old)
Many experts agree that the minimum age to start sleep training is 4 months. The definition of sleep training at this stage is to teach a baby to sleep through the night (about a 6-10 hour stretch) independently. Again, there is a range; for children who need less sleep, 6 hours is a full night’s sleep for them.
After 4 months, if your baby is still waking during the night and this is causing you stress, there are things you can do to help your child learn to sleep through the night.
- To eliminate hunger as a cause of waking, some people find “dream feeds” to be helpful. Dream feeds are given to babies while they are asleep. Just before parents retire for the night, the baby is fed in his sleep so that the whole family gets a good night sleep. This does not work for every baby.
- It is still recommended to put your baby in the crib drowsy but still awake.
- Mary Kurcinka, in her book “Sleepless in America,” suggests that if possible, you should parent your child at night the same way you do during the day. This means that if you can go to your baby when he wakes at night in a loving and accepting way, and still function the next day, that is the best thing to do. At that point, you can pick up your baby, calm him, and ideally put the baby down still drowsy.
- If the baby’s waking at night is causing you stress and you find you are not able to respond in a sensitive way, and if you are so exhausted that you can’t handle your daily responsibilities, you may need to let your baby cry for brief periods of time.
- After 5 minutes of peak crying, you would pick up the child, calm him, performing the same sleep reminders or rituals that you did initially, and then put him down again.
- If the child starts to cry again, wait this time for 10 minutes of peak crying and repeat the pick-up and put-down.
- If the child is whimpering or not peak crying, parent intervention can only make things worse.
- Parents should only intervene for sleep reminders if the child is distressed and crying at peak.
- If the child is well rested and does not need a burp, diaper change or anything else, he/she should not need many sleep reminders (i.e. the pick-up and put-down process).
- If more reminders are needed, they should be at timed intervals of 5, 10, 15, 20 minutes etc. Remember that these intervals should be timed from the start of peak cry. If the child cried for 3 minutes and paused and then started again, the clock resets at the restart of cry. As the child grows, these reminders should also grow in time, like first reminder at 10 and then 20 and 30 minutes.
If your baby is not sleeping well after being sleep trained
If your baby is not sleeping well at night at any given age, there could be several explanations. Some but not all of these possibilities are listed below:
- Hunger/Growth Spurts– these can interfere with babies sleeping long hours as they need to be fed frequently. Feed the baby frequently during growth spurts, which should last one to three nights.
- Teething/illness/separation anxiety or any other major milestone – When babies are going through any of these, they may have sleep disturbances. Some babies are not affected by these and others may be very disturbed by these stressors.
You need to wait until your child is feeling well to resume or start sleep training. Playing games such as “peek-a-boo” can help reassure your baby that you will come back.
- Dependency issues, such as rocking, nursing, pacifier, etc. – Baby should not rely on any of these for sleeping. When they have night waking, they will want to have the same routine that was followed when they were put to bed initially.
For example, if they needed Mommy to rock them to sleep originally, Mommy will have to provide the same routine for them to fall back asleep in the middle of the night. If they fall asleep with a pacifier in their mouths at the beginning of the night, they may need help to find it again at 2 a.m.
- Overtiredness – one of the most common problems with babies. A well rested baby is a happy baby and is more likely to sleep well.
- Late bedtime – The common belief that keeping the child awake longer will result in the child sleeping through the night or sleeping better/more soundly, does not work. Typical bedtime for kids range from 5:30-8:00 p.m.
- Colic – colicky babies do not sleep well because they are uncomfortable or in pain. It is best to comfort your baby when he or she is in distress, and let the colic phase pass before you teach him or her to sleep.
Consistency is the key. Follow a routine: any routine that suits you is fine. I follow a routine of bath, lotion, PJ’s, books and bottle/nursing and then a little rocking, but I always put my baby down in his crib when he is drowsy, but still awake. This makes it more likely that when he wakes up at night, he will be able to put himself back to sleep on his own without any intervention or action from me.
by Pallavi Lal
Sleep Consultant, Dresher, PA
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