Perhaps one of the most controversial and contentious parenting issues around is the topic of sleep training.
There are so many arguments for and against the practice, with supporters on both sides becoming very passionate about what they believe is best for their children. It doesn’t help that the science has remained relatively inconclusive on coming down on one side or the other. We completely understand why so many parents are really not sure what to do when it comes to their baby’s sleep.
So what is sleep training and is it right for me?
Knowing the answer to this question is entirely personal and it really depends on your own family’s preferences, tolerances and beliefs around how to parent your baby. Please remember that there is no one right way. Every family is different! To help you make an informed decision, we have put together some answers to common questions and suggestions below. Read on for more!
What is Sleep Training?
To decide whether it is right for you, we first need to understand what exactly sleep training is.
Sleep training refers to any technique or process that helps infants learn good sleeping habits and encourages them to sleep restfully for healthy amounts of time. Some babies respond especially well to these tactics and fall into a regular routine without too much trouble. Some babies seem to fight you every step of the way and seem to actually prefer being overtired and cranky than well rested! And then there are plenty of babies that fall somewhere in the middle.
Something to keep in mind no matter where on the spectrum you land is that young children are not physiologically wired to sleep independently for many months. Even the strictest adherence to a good sleep training schedule will involve some restless sleep, especially in the earlier months, and this is completely natural and to be expected. Ah, the joys of newborn parenthood!
If you are interested in learning more about sleep training, know that there are many different styles of sleep training, ranging from the relatively subtle to the extreme. Which method, if any, works for you will depend on your family’s circumstances and your personal preference. Most of us learn pretty quickly that sleep is a passionate topic for many moms.
One style of sleep training is known as “Cry-It-Out” or CIO.
Many times CIO and sleep training get confused with one another, which leads to further misunderstandings about the process. CIO is one possible technique in the broader practice of sleep training, and even within CIO there are many different variations.
The basic premise of CIO sleep training is to allow the baby to cry for a predetermined amount of time before going to comfort them. The reasoning behind this is that it gives the child a chance to learn how to “self-soothe” and approach sleep with more independence, both desirable and useful skills to develop. Obviously, this can be quite a distressing experience for new moms to hear their babies crying, which has certainly compounded the controversial nature of the practice.
There are several different approaches for CIO when looking at baby sleep training. Here are a few of them.
The Ferber Method
One method of sleep training is known as the Ferber Method.
Frequently called “gradual extinction”, “controlled crying”, and “cry-and-console”, this technique involves allowing the baby to cry for a preset amount of time, often beginning with as few as one to three minutes, before entering their room and comforting them. This technique usually suggests not taking the baby out of the crib, but instead remaining by their sides and occasionally giving them reassuring strokes until they have calmed down. Once they are no longer crying, you leave the room, and then return after a slightly longer intervals until they have fallen asleep.
Some studies have shown that Ferberization provide significant sleep benefits without any measurable long term negative side effects. However, crying does release the stress hormone, cortisol, and prolonged increases in this hormone have been linked to dampened neurological development.
Ultimately, the decision as to how long to allow crying to continue for is entirely up to the parents, what they feel comfortable with, and what works for their family.
The Fading Method
Another popular style of sleep training is “fading” or “camping out” or “the sleep shuffle”.
This approach suggests that the mother stays with her baby until they cry themselves to sleep in their cribs, providing the reassurance of their physical presence until the baby learns to self-soothe. The next night, the mom sits on a chair just a little distance away from the crib until the baby is asleep, and so on until they are observing from the hallway. Some variations of this method involve the mom initially sleeping on the floor in the nursery, others suggest back rubs.
Again, fading/camping out techniques have been shown to provide sleep benefits and helping to develop healthy sleeping habits. Again, however, whether this technique works and is practical for your situation will be entirely up to you to decide. And in the end, it still may result in a lot of tears from baby (and also from you!).
Is Sleep Training Right For Me?
The big question remains: is sleep training right for me and my baby?
This is a question that no one but you can answer. Every parenting situation will be unique, just like you and your baby. Only you know what feels right and what works for your family. Just because some other moms feel very passionately about one side, does not mean it is going to be necessarily the right option for you.
That being said, here are a few key tips and things to keep in mind when considering sleep training.
Newborns Will Wake Up
Getting a full eight hours is going to be impossible for a very long time with a newborn baby.
There, we said it. It’s just a reality of newborn physiology and getting adjusted to their new world. Up until around two to three months old, newborns will still be confused about the day/night cycle, and won’t adhere to the normal “awake during the day, sleeping at night” routine we all know and love. Even after they do adjust to this cycle, newborns and infants are still going to wake up every few hours, that’s just how it is. The quicker you accept this and learn to cope, the easier it will be to adjust yourself!
Understand Wake Windows
Each age range has an associated normal wake window, and learning these are key to nailing your baby’s sleeping cycles.
Wake windows are the amount of time your baby can stay awake in one stretch for. Generally this ranges from as few as 30-45 minutes, up to about two hours as they grow older. Once you figure out where you child’s wake windows lie, you can begin to time their sleeping schedules around them and should notice it is considerably easier to get them down.
Create A Restful Sleeping Atmosphere
Getting babies to sleep peacefully requires an optimal sleeping environment.
Once they have gotten used to the day/night cycle, ensure their sleeping environment is cool, dark, and quiet. Maintaining the room around 20 degrees allows their body temperatures to dip which is necessary for peaceful sleep, and installing blackout blinds helps to prevent any light from confusing them. Ensure the nursery is as quiet as possible, and remove any clutter or other stimuli such as a hanging mobile or nightlight from near their cribs. Once you have the perfect sleeping space, you’ll be well on the way to catching some peaceful zzz’s yourself!
Stick To A Bedtime Routine
Developing an effective bedtime routine is another key part of sleep training.
Much like you might have yourself, your baby will thrive on a regular, consistent bedtime routine to get into the sleepy headspace. Common elements of a bedtime routine might be having a bath, story time, a lullaby, and snuggles. While you can add and subtract some elements, such as a full bathing experience, as required, it is generally recommended to keep it as consistent and on time as possible. This will allow your baby to get used to the routine and help trigger the association of the actions with sleep time!
As you might remember from your college days, sleep deprivation is really, really hard on your health, both physically and mentally. Not catching enough zzz’s is actually similar to knocking back a bottle of wine in terms of you memory, coordination, and concentration. If you are a new mom, you need to be on top of your game to keep up with your little one, so sleep is essential. That’s why sleep training can be as much for the benefit of parents as it is for your young one. Developing good sleep hygiene can help you find a better sleeping balance that allows you to feel rested and present, or at least as much as is possible with a newborn baby.
That being said, sleep training is generally not recommended before four months at the earliest, as your baby is still getting used to their surroundings and schedule. Most experts recommend not starting until six months old, if possible.
Are you interested in learning more about sleep training? Or just need some help getting your little one into a healthy sleeping routine? West End Mamas hosts a comprehensive class on encouraging independent sleeping for babies 0-12 months old. West End Mamas has sleep consultants on staff to guide new parents through a range of techniques that can help them achieve healthy sleeping bliss. Contact us for more information!