A gentle approach to sleep training
Updated: Feb 23, 2019
How to instil some boundaries and discipline surrounding sleep in a gentle and loving way without extended crying.
Apparently the most frequent parent query or concern is about sleep. Why isn't my baby sleeping? How do I get my baby to sleep? How long should my baby sleep for? And that dreaded question that everybody asks "Is she sleeping through the night?
Now if you know us and our horrible reflux story, you'll understand that I'm even more obsessed with sleep than most parents. Before we fully understood what was wrong with Lexi, I spent ages reading up on sleep. Unfortunately because she had acid burning her throat day and night, she didn't really do what most babies are meant to do. It meant we spent months rocking her to sleep, or feeding her to sleep and holding her upright for naps. I was really worried about creating unhelpful and unsustainable sleep associations so once her reflux was under control with the right medication, I was extremely intentional (ok, maybe obsessive) about forming good sleep habits (just ask any poor unsuspecting courier who has been stupid enough to hoot outside my house while Lexi is napping).
Breastfeeding to sleep
Some moms are quite happy to breastfeed their babies to sleep, or still rock them to sleep at a year old, or wear them in a carrier for every nap. Moms on Facebook always say, "They are only little for such a short time, enjoy it while you can." Well if you have the endurance and patience to do that then you are a better mom than me. I was so emotionally shattered from months of reflux horror, I had to find a routine that was simple and sustainable (meaning that anyone could duplicate it I I wasn't around). Lexi also started to really battle with burps so I actually couldn't feed her to sleep even if I wanted to.
Crying it Out
Let's start by talking about Crying It Out. I read a lot about CIO and the psychological damage it can have on babies to be left to cry, so much so that I was terrified to ever let Lexi cry, just a whimper and I would pick her up. Then one day when we were driving from the Eastern Cape to Cape Town, Lexi was in her car seat and due for a nap. She had a clean nappy, a full tummy and I was sitting next to her but because she had never fallen asleep without help, she was tired but couldn't sleep. She cried so hard and I just sat and held her hand until eventually she just drifted off to sleep.
When I saw that I realised two things; it's ok for babies to express tiredness, frustration, and unhappiness by crying. Crying doesn't hurt a baby, as long as they have some comfort and love (I was sitting with her).
I also realised that she could fall asleep on her own! So I decided to try it in her cot at home. Well it didn't go down well at first but I persevered and I think that's one of the keys to helping babies sleep is perseverance. We are happy to spend months helping our kids walk or talk, but teaching them to sleep is also a great skill!
Training in stages
I am by no means a sleep expert and I'm just sharing what I've experienced with one little munchkin. I picked up most of what I tried from friends, books, articles and some mommy intuition. There is obviously the conventional sleep wisdom like learning your baby's sleep cues (Lexi's were almost non-existent) and learning how long your baby should be awake for before their next nap. I learnt most of this from the book Baby Sense. But for more challenging babies, the one book I can highly recommend, it's The No Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley! She suggests training in stages. Stage 1 would be where you are now, and stage 7 or 8 would be where you would like to be (I outline below what our stages were). This approach makes so much sense because you are not expecting your child to change overnight, but slowly training them into new habits and associations. The point of the stages is that it is slow and gentle so if your baby cries a lot and is really unhappy, go back one stage, but don't go back to stage 1!
Where and when to start
We started with working on naps and then worked on night times. Also we started when she was about 5 or 6 months old. Anything younger than 4 months is definitely too young. We used a gentle and slow process of stages, and our stages were really a personal choice.
1. Rocking/feeding to sleep
2. Reading some stories to calm down and then rocking her in a rocking chair until she fell asleep on my lap, saying the phrase "sleepy time".
3. Rocking until sleepy then putting her in her cot and patting her bum/leg until she fell asleep. [Unfortunately she was starting to stand up in her cot at this age so I had to keep laying her back down and saying "Sleepy time". It didn't go down well the first few times but she got it pretty quickly. I was really surprised. Yes, there were some tears. No, there wasn't hours of crying and I was always right by her side. I was convinced that I was helping her by teaching her a new skill and it has totally paid off!]
4. Stories then straight in the bed and some bum patting until she falls asleep
5. Stories and in the bed with no patting, just sitting by the bed and she eventually fell asleep [My eyes almost fell out of their sockets when it actually happened]
6. Stories and in the bed to fall asleep by herself.
We really struggled to get Lexi to sleep for long enough and to link sleep cycles for a long nap (more than an hour). Once she learnt to put herself to sleep, she got really good at putting herself back to sleep and linking sleep cycles to sleep longer. If she did wake early, a few bum pats and a "sleepy time" and she was back asleep.
Each stage progression can take days or weeks to get to. We took a long time to get to stage 6, but now she is 3 and sleeps like a baby!
Our night time routine includes all the standard wisdom - a nice bath after supper, pyjamas on and nice quiet play time in her nursery with a dim light, followed by a last feed and some bedtime stories. She would fight going down a bit but it wasn't too bad. It's the middle of the night that needed work. Now that I knew Lexi could go to sleep without being fed or rocked, I knew she could do it at night. I wasn't ready to night wean her in case she really was hungry, thirsty or sore, but I also wasn't prepared to feed multiple times a night anymore. I loved the idea of co-sleeping and letting her have boob on tap all night but it just didn't work well with her reflux. So again we looked at a staged and gentle approach. This is very much based on what I read in The No Cry Sleep Solution.
1. Remove her from the boob before she is fast asleep and put her in her bed sleepy but not dead asleep. This was met with protest at first but she got used to it.
2. No feeds before midnight. If she wakes up, lay her down and pat her bum/say "sleepy time" until she goes back to sleep.
3. For 2am feed, put her down drowsy but awakeIf she wakes up before 6:00, tell her "sleepy time", and try and push her sleep until 6:00
4. When she wakes for feeds, put her back to sleep
5. She puts herself back to sleep and sleeps through until 6:00
I need to emphasise that although Lexi has slept through, I'm sure there will be teething/illness moments when she doesn't. The trick will be not to go back to stage one!
I hope this is helpful! It worked for us and I hope there is something that can work for you because sleep is glorious and so good for our babies and for parents too! I'm a better mom when Lexi sleeps well and all the months of effort and being obsessed with sleep have really finally started paying off. Make a plan, work with your baby, and I hope for lovely long naps and peaceful nights for you!