One of the toughest parts of parenting an infant is the inevitable lack of sleep. Some nights will be better than others, and some babies will be better sleepers than others, but overall most of us are just plain old exhausted during this time. For the most part, there isn’t a lot we can do to impact how our children sleep. It doesn’t make us a good or bad parent or mean that our children or good or bad. It just is something we will all have to deal with.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
However, something I don’t think many people realize is that sleep is a learned habit. While falling asleep and being tired are natural human responses, just like urinating and crying, having sleep cycles at the same times as the rest of the world is a habit that we have to learn! How that habit is taught can definitely make life with a little one either easier or harder than it needs to be.
The #1 secret behind getting your child to go to sleep is a simple fact that makes so much sense when you think about it! When we go to sleep, we assess our surroundings. We consider whether we are safe before we go into our first deep cycle of sleep. While there are many scientific reasons as to why our sleep cycles are the way they are, one of those reasons is that we need to wake up regularly throughout the night to make sure we are still safe.
After every deep cycle of sleep, we have a lighter cycle where we are easier to wake. During this time we do actually wake up and assess our surroundings again and we don’t even realize it. If something is different (maybe the bed is wet, a new light is on or you smell smoke) we awake suddenly. If everything is the same as when we fell asleep, we won’t even remember that we were awake.
It works the same way for babies. Before they fall into a deep sleep, they assess their surroundings. If they are being rocked, sung to, breastfeeding and are in the warmth of your arms when they fall asleep this is what they remember. Of course when you put them in the crib they will stay asleep because they are already in a deep sleep. But when that cycle is over, they will wake up startled because everything they remembered from falling asleep is gone!
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR YOUR BABY
One of the things that initially held me back from trying to sleep train my baby was because I loved falling asleep with him. I loved co-sleeping and breastfeeding him back to sleep every couple hours. Even after we switched to formula and he was sleeping in his own room, I lived for that quiet time where I rocked him to sleep with his bottle. It’s such a serene and peaceful time that we will remember for the rest of their lives.
Some things that I learned through my “sleep-training” experience:
- It’s worth giving up some snuggles to have a child that sleeps through the night. If they don’t learn in the 4-8 month period how to sleep through the night, or to sleep well, you may have a struggle for the rest of their childhood. In my opinion, it’s not worth it to deal with years of not sleeping to get a few more minutes of snuggling a precious baby. If you disagree, that’s perfectly fine. But to me, this was definitely worth it!
- You don’t have to give up those special snuggling moments with your baby. I ended up rocking and singing and feeding my babe for about 20 minutes before he fell asleep each evening. It became our routine to have “snuggle” time and the last bottle of the night in the rocking chair. Then when he became very sleepy I would kiss him and put him in his crib. He was awake to see me say goodnight, leave the room and shut the door. Sometimes he would whine or babble, but I never left him there crying. It was definitely a gradual progression from sleeping with him and nursing to sleep, to the “cold-turkey” approach we have now that he is two.
- You shouldn’t ever cry it out or ignore your baby’s needs. The entire point of “sleep-training” using this method means that your baby should only cry out in the night if something is wrong. When we put baby’s asleep into a crib in a dark room and they are all alone, they will cry out when they wake in the night because they fear something is wrong. If you put them into that situation while they are still awake, the only reason they should cry out in the night is if something truly IS wrong (they are very hungry/thirsty, they are in pain, they have a dirty diaper, etc.). When my child cried in the night, I NEVER ignored him.
WHEN TO START SLEEP TRAINING
According to this method of sleep training, the “4th trimester“, or the first 3 months of a baby’s life, it is impossible to spoil them. They don’t remember anything that you do, thus trying to make routines is pretty pointless. Of course they are learning and processing the world, but there is so much going on that they have no long-term memory and therefore are incapable of learning a routine.
At about 4 months, baby’s begin to develop the ability to learn routine and habits. It will not happen instantly and that’s why we must be patient with our baby. It may be like many other milestones in childhood, where you have to ease into it and try and try again. But my biggest advice to you as a fellow mom is to NOT give up with sleep-training. Just like many other milestones (potty training, weaning off the bottle/breast, etc.) it isn’t the end of the world if you don’t get around to it at the same time as other babies… however, it is generally easier the earlier you get started!
HOW TO EASE INTO IT
There are many methods and belief systems about infant sleep, but for me these are the stages that my child went through. I honestly think it’s pretty cruel to take your baby from the womb directly to sleeping on a flat, cold surface all by himself in a dark room apart from you. It just doesn’t seem natural. So here are the steps I feel are necessary to get your baby to the milestone of falling asleep and staying asleep all by himself:
- In the womb. In the womb they are used to being next to you and hearing your heart beat 24/7. It’s very alarming to a newborn to sleep apart from you.
- Co-sleeping. I highly encourage co-sleeping, though there are definitely risks to it. If you choose to co-sleep, make sure you are doing it safely.
- Room sharing. This is probably the most common practice that parents do with their newborns. A lot of parents are not comfortable with co-sleeping so they just keep their baby in a bassinet next to their beds. I think this is a great idea, because you can still be very aware of your child’s needs and even touch them from your bed to comfort them in the night. This is also handy for night feedings in those early weeks.
- Rocking until sleepy. Once again, moving abruptly from room sharing to different rooms can be very scary for little ones. Sometimes you must ease into it. What you should NOT do is go back and forth. This will only prolong things and confuse your child. Once you decide to move your baby, just do it. You may want to check in on them once or twice at night and that is totally fine. It may actually be helpful if your child is frightened to walk in the room and tell them everything is okay, though it’s recommended not to touch your child unless there is something really wrong (if they are screaming, you should definitely check to see what’s up). The easiest way I found to transition was to feed/rock/sing/snuggle until he was very very sleepy and then I told him “I’m putting you in your crib now. I love you. Sleep well. Goodnight.”
- “The ditch & run”. Now that my child is a toddler, he knows his room and his bed and his routine. It’s all very comforting to him. Sometimes when he is having a really hard day all I have to do is tell him he’s going to have a little “crib time” and I leave the light on and let him play with his stuffed animals or read books and it always calms him down. His room has become his safe place, but it definitely took a bit of transition to get there.
THE END GOAL
Eventually, you should be able to do your nightly routine and then leave your child fully awake in their bed. There should be no crying or fear and they should sleep all night long without waking.
If you choose to sleep train before 4 months, you need to expect night wakings. This doesn’t mean you have failed at sleep training, it just means your baby needs feedings at night. By 6 months your child is mature enough to sleep through the night, but they may not want to yet. Follow your child’s leading and be patient with them.
It took us about 1 month for us to fully transition from room sharing to just plopping him in bed and him falling asleep all on his own.
WHAT IT COMES DOWN TO
But, the one thing I wish people would say when talking about sleep training is that this is ENTIRELY up to you. I don’t judge parents for sleeping with their children until they are 10. I don’t really care what you do with your kid. I do think it’s crazy and I wouldn’t want that experience, but it’s 100% up to you as a parent.
All I want to do is share this piece of knowledge and then you can use it to help you with what you need. If you want to rock your baby to sleep until they are 2, I think that’s wonderful. Snuggling with you is SO healthy for a child’s growth and well-being. It’s all up to what parent’s want and what is easiest for their lifestyle and schedule.
I hope that this information was helpful to you! Good luck in getting your baby to sleep.