Baby Sleep Training Basics

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Methods for achieving better slumber for baby and (tired) parents.

During pregnancy, you might have fantasized about cozy night feedings and quiet snuggle sessions. But a few weeks postpartum, you likely confronted a difficult truth: Waking up every two hours all night long is exhausting. Moms agree that an uninterrupted good night of sleep is critical, and many have found that sleep training is the way to get it regularly. Read on for advice guiding your little one’s sleep habits, plus tried-and-true methods to help progress stick.

Where to Start

Although it’s possible your infant will sleep through the night on her own, approximately 50 percent of infants over 6 months of age continue to have night wakings. Difficulties falling and staying asleep can persist throughout childhood, so it helps to address them early to give everyone a chance at better sleep for the long run.

Some parents begin sleep training around 4 months of age, after the so-called “fourth trimester” is over, and once the dreaded 4-month-sleep-regression has passed. Others wait until their wee one is too mobile to safely use a swaddle (a sleep crutch for many babes), or once their pediatrician recommends getting baby on a predictable sleep schedule. Whichever way, “Parents can begin learning about their baby’s sleep patterns from a few weeks of age,” says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution. Study baby’s sleep signals: Does she start fussing and seem irritable? Does she rub her eyes or stare off into space? Knowing the signs of sleep readiness allows you to intervene on cue.

Even if you think you know her sleep routine, write down what time and how long your child sleeps, advises Pantley. This helps you to see patterns and make changes in a gradual, systematic way. Your memory for how often your infant wakes and how long it takes to get her back to sleep may be distorted by your own fatigue.

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Strategies to Consider

All methods of sleep training are based on the premise that babies learn associations. Rocking or nursing your baby to sleep for naps and bedtime sets the expectation that you’ll help her wind down. Rushing to baby’s bedside when she cries teaches her that crying gets attention. Bottom line: Your little creature of habit will learn whatever pattern you establish. Sleep training techniques are designed to replace old sleep associations with new ones.

If, when and how you use sleep training will depend on your parenting style. If you value warmth and responsiveness, “It’s going to be more challenging for you to try a rigid sleep training approach,” says Melissa Burnham, PhD, professor of human development, family studies and early education at the University of Nevada, Reno, and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Sleep Training for your Child. Your approach needs to feel right to you. Do some soul-searching and see which of these strategies fit best for your family.

Extinction

The oldest and most demanding sleep training technique is what behavioral psychologists call “extinction.” (The name alone is enough to turn many new parents away.) Moms and dads who use this method establish a consistent bedtime and wake time, and they don’t go back into baby’s room after lights out unless they suspect illness or injury. Studies show extinction method can work—eventually—but it’s very hard for most parents and caregivers to ignore infants’ cries completely. Responding to some cries and not others is thought to unintentionally reward the behavior you want to extinguish. Unless you have nerves of steel, this approach may be very stressful.

Cry it Out

The most popular sleep training methods are graduated extinction strategies, including the method of Richard Ferber, MD, that’s described in the book Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems. Using the Ferber Method, your initial response to baby’s cries might be immediate. After that, you’ll wait progressively longer before reappearing. You may wait three minutes, then five, then 10, then 15. As the interval increases, baby learns you won’t magically appear to soothe her back to sleep. The structured nature of this (somewhat more) gentle sleep training approach cuts the guesswork and reinforces your resolve when you’re tempted to do whatever it takes to get baby—and yourself—some shut-eye.

Sleep In

If the cry-it-out method still seems too cold and uncaring, consider sleeping in. This modified extinction strategy isn’t the same as co-sleeping, because you won’t be sharing a bed. You might be camping out on the floor near baby’s crib or sleeping across the room in a bed of your own. Over time, you’ll increase your distance until baby is sleeping solo. This approach alleviates some worries because you have a crib-side seat for the show. Be forewarned: Rooming in can make it more difficult to stick to your plan. If you start shushing or singing baby back to sleep, you’ll simply replace one association with another and divert from building good sleep habits.

How to Make it Work

Regardless of which sleep training strategy you adopt, it’s important to establish a simple, soothing bedtime routine. For example, after dinner, give baby a bath, have a short nighttime feeding, and read a story or play quietly in baby’s room. Pediatric experts recommend you put your baby in her crib when she’s drowsy but not yet asleep, so she falls asleep on her own. Give her time to self-soothe for a period of time if she doesn’t doze off immediately. Your child may quiet down more quickly than you’d expect, or (fingers crossed) with no tears in sight.

Respond to middle-of-the-night awakenings in a consistent way and do as little as needed. You’ll never know whether your child might go back to sleep on her own if you offer milk or turn on her cribside music-maker every time she makes a peep. Your baby needs to learn sleep skills just like she needs to learn to eat, walk and talk.

Babies’ sleep patterns may be disrupted by developmental changes—such as teething and crawling—or by illness. Trust your own instincts. “Don’t listen to the pesky neighbor whose 3-month-old has been sleeping through the night since 8 weeks of age,” says Burnham. Every baby—and parent—is unique. Good luck!

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Heidi Smith Luedtke

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