The concept of “sleep training” has long inspired debate among parents. Should we do it? Should we just let baby be? Even the term itself seems controversial! In fact, here at rockin’BLINKS, you may hear us refer to “sleep training” as “changing sleep habits” which we feel more accurately describes this process. Find out why this sleep strategy — no matter what you call it! — is a perennial hot topic and whether it might be the right choice for your baby (and family!) and toddlers .
Your Rockin’ Blinks Crib Sheet
- Sleep training is actually just a term for changing your child’s sleep habits and helping them learn a new way to fall asleep.
- Some opponents of “sleep training” believe it is an effort to control your child’s sleep, but we believe changing your child’s sleep habits will actually enable them to have control over their own sleep.
- Setting up a process for nighttime sleep will give your baby the opportunity to practice falling asleep with their own skills, in their own way.
- This process does not necessarily involve ending nighttime feeds if your babystill needs them.
Sleep Training: it’s a term that conjures up images of baby boot camp, torture and lots and lots of crying. It’s no wonder so many parents are vehemently opposed! In reality, sleep training is merely a commonly used — but largely negative — term for helping your child build healthy sleep habits. So before you take sides, take a minute to learn more about what it means to help your baby build healthy sleep habits and whether “sleep training” might actually be the wrong term for the right strategy.
What is sleep training anyway?
Sleep training refers to the process parents start when they want to change the way their child falls asleep. It is usually suggested by pediatricians and other health practitioners when a baby has reached a certain age and parents are still holding baby while they go to sleep, breastfeeding to sleep, or bottle-feeding to sleep.
The term is rooted in the concept of “self-soothing,” coined by Thomas Anders in the late 1970s. In studying the sleep patterns of infants by use of time-lapse video recording, he discovered that babies were waking more often than parents noticed. Not only that: remarkably, all of the babies woke a few times every night–including those whose parents believed that their baby was “sleeping through the night.”
Some infants were waking, but returning to sleep without crying out. Others would wake and begin crying. Anders labeled the non-cryers as “self-soothers” and the cryers as “signalers.”
What made the difference between the signalers and the self-soothers?
As it turned out, the most significant factor was about the baby’s behavior. It was actually about the parents’ behavior: whether or not they put their baby into the crib awake at bedtime. Thanks to Anders preliminary work, this distinction has been noted over and over, across the globe. We now understand that a parent has the ability to teach self-soothing….aka to “sleep train.”
Opponents of sleep training say letting your baby learn to “self-soothe” will teach them to distrust their parents and believe that their parents will not respond to their needs. Furthermore they may believe that “sleep training” is a parent’s attempt to control their child’s natural patterns of sleep.
But consider this: if your baby (or toddler or preschooler) can’t fall asleep without your presence in some way, that’s actually another form of control. You are controlling whether they learn to self-soothe… and in some cases preventing them from trying.
Giving your little one the opportunity to learn this skill of falling asleep is actually giving them the control. You are setting up the process of falling asleep as being pleasant and predictable through the use of your bedtime routine, and you’re releasing your control by allowing him to fall asleep with their own skills, in their own way.
When should you consider changing your child’s sleep habits?
While this is different for all babies, you can use these general guidelines:
- You’ve been noticing your baby takes a long time to fall asleep even when you offer the breast or bottle or when you are rocking them to sleep. If all these strategies are not working any longer, it might be a clear sign that your baby needs more space and independence to find other ways to fall asleep.
- Your baby is constantly waking up during the night. Although we all wake up during the night when we are connecting sleep cycles, we should be able to wake without noticing it or without finding it hard to fall back asleep. If your baby seems to be having a hard time falling back asleep (even after rocking or feeding), it may be time to sleep train.
You might not even need to do anything regarding your babies’ sleep. For many babies, falling asleep without assistance after a relaxing routine comes easy from a very early age. While experts and professionals cast a wide net in terms of the best age to consider changing your baby’s sleep habits (some suggest as early as 2 months old while others say to wait until 6 months), at Rockin’BLINKS we believe you should start creating healthy sleep habits as early as you can, while being flexible to address your particular baby’s developmental stages.
So how can we change our child’s sleep habits (and stop “sleep training”)?
Put your baby in the crib awake.
The way we all sleep is highly dependent on cues. Consider your own sleep. You may not even realize how many cues you rely on, because they remain so consistent from night to night. But try swapping which side of the bed you sleep on with your partner. Or rearrange the furniture in your bedroom. Try falling asleep with your daytime clothes on.
Is there any physical reason why you shouldn’t be able to sleep in any of these cases? And yet, if you attempted to do so, you would probably find it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep if your normal sleep cues had changed.
Consider how your child falls asleep at bedtime. Do they need to be nursed to sleep? Taking a bottle in order to become drowsy? Rocked or bounced? Maybe they just need you to sit close by?
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things. You should be feeding, holding, and comforting your child. The difficulty is that when these things happen in connection with falling asleep, they become part of your child’s sleep cues. Remember how Anders discovered that all babies wake multiple times at night? Baby expects those cues to stay the same all night long. When he wakes, he needs you to recreate how he fell asleep at bedtime.
Make sure their sleep environment stays consistent throughout the night.
Imagine if you noticed that your pillow was getting to the point that it needed to be replaced, but you didn’t want to get rid of it just yet. Your spouse, in a well-meaning gesture, decides to wait until you’re in a deep sleep, then gently lifts your head to remove your old pillow while placing the new pillow under your head.
During the night, you move out of that deep sleep into a lighter stage of sleep. As you roll over, you’re certain to notice that this is not your beloved pillow. It feels different. Your neck is at a different angle. Your head doesn’t rest on that flat spot the way it used to. What is this?! You sit up, find your old pillow, and wearily drift back to sleep. The feel of your pillow is a strong sleep cue.But this back-and-forth thing with the pillow continues, multiple times each night, every night. You’d get pretty annoyed, wouldn’t you? You might even begin to resist falling asleep at all, because you’re starting to become anxious that your pillow is going to disappear!
Babies are the same. If they wake up and find their environment has changed — the arms that held them while they drifted off to sleep are now gone! There’s no breast or bottle nearby! — they will have trouble falling back to sleep. But if they went into the crib awake and then wake during the night in their crib, they will recognize this cue and go back to sleep.
Can I really change my child’s sleep habits?
Change is hard, but possible.
To go back to our pillow-swapping story, this would be like trying to get used to falling asleep on your new pillow when you first go to bed, instead of your partner trying to swap it for you all night long. It allows you to readjust your sleep cue when you’re aware of what’s going on. Sure you might drag your feet on this change. Honestly, who enjoys change? But with our adult cognitive abilities, we recognize that although it’s going to be a challenge to get used to the new pillow, we can do this. Your baby can’t rationalize like you can. Their only way of saying, “Hey! What’s going on around here?” is to cry. That doesn’t mean they won’t get used to it, accept it, and have healthier sleep because of it.
Start slowly, and commit.
Your baby might be used to falling asleep while nursing. You could swap that out for holding him until he falls asleep. Is he going to protest? Most likely. When he finally falls asleep in your arms, is it because he gave up thinking that you would ever nurse him again? Or is it because biology is happening, and the need to sleep eventually wins? Test your theory in the morning. Does he still fuss for you to feed him, and do you still respond to his need to be fed? There you go.
Your baby might be used to falling asleep in your arms. You could swap that out for putting him down in his crib, and sitting nearby, reassuring him with your presence that you’re supporting him in the learning process. You’ll still hold and snuggle your little one throughout the day. You’re just giving him a new “pillow.”
- Anders, T. F., & Keener, M. (1985). Developmental course of nighttime sleep-wake patterns in full-term and premature infants during the first year of life. I. Sleep, 8(3), 173–92.
- Anders, T. F., Halpern, L. F., & Hua, J. (1992). Sleeping through the night: a developmental perspective. Pediatrics, 90(4), 554–60.
4 Adair, R., Bauchner, H., Philipp, B., Levenson, S., & Zuckerman, B. (1991). Night Waking During Infancy: Role of Parental Presence at Bedtime. Pediatrics, 87(4).
- Sadeh, A., Mindell, J. A., Luedtke, K., & Wiegand, B. (2009). Sleep and sleep ecology in the first 3 years: A web-based study. Journal of Sleep Research, 18(1), 60–73. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2869.2008.00699.x
- Mindell, J. A., Sadeh, A., Kohyama, J., & How, T. H. (2010) Parental behaviors and sleep outcomes in infants and toddlers: a cross-cultural comparison. Sleep Medicine, 11(4), 393–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleep.2009.11.011
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