After sleep training my four month old and posting all about it, I was overwhelmed with direct messages and comments from other mamas asking how the process works, many of them desperate for answers. So many mothers are exhausted, and so many have children still waking into their toddler years! The general takeaways I have learned after successfully sleep training two kids are as follows:
1) Your child is capable of sleeping through the night.
2) Your child is not hungry.
3) Crying may be temporarily stressful, but nothing is as stressful on an adult or child as interrupted sleep.
4) Nip it in the bud sooner than later.
This is my sleep training journey in a nutshell. I’m going to elaborate on each of those points below, but before I do, realize that:
A) I have successfully sleep trained two of my own children and have given advice that has positively helped others, but I am NOT a trained sleep consultant. However, I learned all of this from a trained sleep consultant, as well as through extensive research.
B) I’m going to speak to you in laymen’s terms. If you want technical or scientific specifics on this subject, hire a sleep consultant or google it. This is my interpretation on my experience. Think of this as an opinion piece that can help guide you in the direction you want to take your mothering.
When it comes to sleep, and most things involving child-rearing, it’s often said that every child is different. What I like to focus on, however, is how every child is the same. What I mean by this, is that every single child requires routines, structure, parents being parents (the authority, the constant, the rule enforcers—not rule breakers or best friends), sleep, food, comfort, protection, shelter, sun, all the stuff most of us already know. So with that, in order to properly sleep train your child, you need to be the parent your child needs in this scenario. The main reason sleep training does not work is due to parents “caving.” Not wanting to hear their child cry, offering up their own beds, pacifier, breasts, bottles, whatever. And I’m no heathen—of course I do not want to hear my child cry—but if the alternative is poor sleep, I will choose sleep for her every single time.
“Bad kids don’t sleep.” When first working with my London-based sleep consultant two years ago, she told me about a study on kids that were considered the “bad kids” and the correlation to the amount of sleep they were getting at home. The “bad kids” were the kids that screamed, hit, bit, had trouble listening, you know the type, you may have the type. Well, it turned out that these kids were not “bad,” in fact, there’s no such thing (I’ll leave the sociopath topic up to the professionals), they were all just tired. What happens when we sleep? We grow, we work through our conflicts, and we learn. Every lesson taught to those “bad kids” about respect, sharing, indoor voices, was being lost on the children that didn’t have the opportunity to absorb them overnight, while repairing their bodies from the draining day. When thinking about how important sleep is for mental and physical health, I knew I had to give that gift to my children and myself. So when did I know?
Both my girls were great babies. You know, the first month is a nightmare. Round the clock feedings, and you’re exhausted! If you want to understand the importance of sleep, just remember that first month! I breastfed both of my girls, so up until three months all feeding was on demand, but their own circadian rhythms took over, and we were in good shape by 4 months. It usually looked like a baby that would cat nap from 7-10PM, go down hard until she woke for a 5AM feed, then sleep until 7:30AM, or so. Manageable, even wonderful.
Then the dreaded 4 MONTH SLEEP REGRESSION! You’ve all heard this phrase, and believe me, it’s real. Not every baby will succumb to it (this is where babies are different) but there is hope for every baby out of it (this is where they are the same.) Once babies reach a certain age developmentally, their brains are developed enough to employ certain survival tactics. It was explained to me as LSL. “Look, smell, listen.” Once a baby settles into sleep, after about an hour, or so, a baby will check back in with her surroundings to make sure she is in the exact same situation as when she fell asleep (aka safe), and if anything is different, her body will prompt her to wake out of fear. And not just babies, we all do it. Humans, animals, all of us. So, you were rocking your baby to sleep, and now she’s in bed all alone, WAKE. You were nursing your baby to sleep and now she’s all alone, WAKE. She had a pacifier in her mouth and now it’s not there, WAKE. The sound machine went off after an hour, WAKE! If you understand this pattern, you’ll see the idea of sleep training is consistency.
What were my sleep trainer’s first rules:
1) Set up the room to include consistent noise. A sound machine will muffle any outside noises, but needs to be running all night long, or not at all.
2) Keep it as dark as possible. Blackout curtains are ideal. No night lights.
3) Keep the last feed of the night and the first feed of the day separate from the sleeping area. Sleep should no longer be associated with feeding. (We will get into dream feeds later.)
4) And, while I have never given one to either of my children, the first thing the sleep trainer does is throw out the pacifier.
5) Sleep sacks, or sleeping bags, make for safe sleeping, and can help constrict wriggling children.
Once your room is set up, you have everything you need to be successful. Well, all that and willpower.
You will need to listen to your baby cry for a controlled amount of time. This is the part that scares people. And, as mentioned above, I took solace in realizing it is more harmful for your child to not be sleeping than to cry for a few minutes. Also, what many people do not realize, (the people that really knock sleep training for its “cruel ways,”) is that this method does not last months. Your child isn’t abandoned in a cage for the rest of her infancy. It lasts for three days, max, or at least in my experience, and in the experience of my sleep trainer who has trained hundreds of babies. I think both of my children cried a total of thirty minutes broken up over the three days and over multiple nap/overnight sleep times. That is 10 minutes a day over a 24 hour period. Then it’s done. We’re talking peanuts in order to give them the gift of sleep for the majority of their young lives. Now, the majority of this crying is front-loaded onto the first day because the self-soothing and putting down awake may be new to them. By day three it may just be a whimper here and there. I can’t predict what will happen for your child, but if you can wrap your head around this concept, staying strong, and let your child cry for the greater good, you should read on.
Now, there are many methods of sleep training. Some are tougher than others—the babies just cry and cry until they fall asleep—but, this is not one of those methods. In this method, the baby cries in intervals. Night one, 5 minutes at a time, slowly upping it until 10 minutes. Both my children cried for 5 minutes, 5 minutes, and then fell asleep during the 10. That was the worst night, which really felt like nothing. In between those intervals, you don’t speak to the child, just walk in, touch each cheek, and walk out. Reset the timer on your phone, pausing if they take a short break in crying, or restarting altogether if there is a long lull. Your child will fall asleep and stay asleep. If it happens during the night, start that timer. If it happens during nap time, start that timer. Babies are smart, learning at a faster rate than we ever could today, so they will catch on quickly. Day two, one 5 minute segment, then up it to 10 minutes, 10 minutes, then 15. By night three, your baby should be snoozing through the night, all on her own, so start the night at 10 minutes solo, and then up it to 15 for as long as you need to.
You should never go over the 15 minute mark. The reason for this: studies have shown cortisol levels rise over 20 minutes in distress, so as long as you check in with your child within that time frame, if necessary, you will not be “damaging” your child. You will be helping them. (I am positive there are “anti-sleep trainers” or “no-cry sleep trainers” ready to jump at the chance to disprove all of this, but to them I say, “You do you.” My children are sleeping machines and the happiest, kindest, [typically] most well-behaved creatures on the planet.)
So, now that we have covered the basics, let’s get into the schedule. When I sleep trained my first, she was already on solids, so her daily schedule included food, as well as milk, but she was still young enough to need a dream feed to get her though the night.
What is a dream feed? It’s when you pick your sleeping child up around 10-11PM, and feed them on your terms. This ensures that their tiny tummies will make it through the night, but doesn’t allow the child to attach the feed to soothing-to-sleep, and doesn’t wake you up (just may require a later bed time for you—much better than broken sleep.) If I have pumped bottles in the fridge, I like to use them for the dream feed so I can measure exactly how much my daughter is consuming during the dream feed. Right now, it’s about 3.5 ounces. This feed may last until 9 months, or so. I will slowly give her less and less as she ages, until I notice that she can sleep through the night without any bottle at all. Once solids ramp up, and feeding is very efficient, the food for the day will sustain every baby. Think about it, we don’t wake up for a meal, so why are some people giving babies midnight bottles into toddlerhood? It is not because they are hungry. They need to be soothed because they never learned to do so themselves.
Here is the initial schedule my firstborn was on from 6-9 months. Currently, my four-month old is following the same schedule, but I am replacing the solid meals with breastmilk since I personally do not begin weaning (the U.K. term for introducing solids) until 6 months. She is also still taking a 4:00PM cat nap which will end in another month, or so.
Wake 6:30/6:45 DO NOT LET THEM SLEEP PAST 7:00
6:45/7:00 Breastfeed (BF)
9:00-10:00 First Nap
11:00 1/2 BF
12-2:00/2:30 Second Nap
10:30 Dream Feed
And, there you have it. This is my how, what, when, where, why of sleep training. We have covered why sleep is so important to your child’s development and to helping you be the high-functioning, happy, rested parent your child deserves. You know how the room needs to be set up, the schedule, the basics on how to actually “train,” the ideal age of when to start (4+ months), and the idea behind dream feeds. As I said, these are my experiences, make them yours if you want to. If you’re really stuck, hire a sleep trainer. We only had to do it once, as a morning consultation in my home, and it was the best £200 I ever spent in my life. Feel free to ask me any questions or leave any comments. Unless they’re crazy rants on how sleep training is the devil. You can go write your own post.