Having a sleep-filled night is the holy grail of parenting. But for all the mums and dads who successfully sleep train their babies and children, there are many who struggle to complete this tough task. The Sleep Coach, Cheryl Fingleson, shares her tips for helping your baby to sleep through the night.
It’s important to remember that when they’re very small, babies are designed to wake up frequently because they need to feed often. As a paediatric sleep consultant, I tell parents that only some babies can learn gentle sleep skills or sleep shaping at four or five months. Six to nine months, meanwhile, is the perfect time for gentle sleep coaching. By then babies are developmentally ready to learn independent sleep skills.
Here’s what I recommend to parents to ensure sleep training success:
Pick the right time
Set yourself up for success by ensuring you don’t begin sleep training when your child is unwell, teething, having a growth spurt or going through a major transition such as weaning, potty training or starting day-care.
Break the feed-sleep cycle
This is probably the most important step to take when teaching good sleep habits and can be taught when a baby is younger than six months. Make sure they go down for their nap or sleep drowsy but awake rather than asleep or nearly asleep. Feed your baby a little earlier than usual, or even in a different room. Gently reduce their association with feeding and sleeping and you’ll be half way there.
Go slow and easy
Exchange rocking or nursing your baby to sleep with being present in their room and then gradually increase the distance between you and them. Once you’ve both mastered that, begin the process of moving out of the room so your baby doesn’t always expect you to be there when they wake up.
Learn your baby’s sleep style
Every child has different needs and cues when it comes to sleeping. Some babies will grizzle and cry a little before nodding off – this is their way of winding down. Others will be very sensitive to being the slightest bit overtired and need to be in their cot even before the first yawn.
There some babies that will need complete quiet, to be swaddled or have white noise playing in the background when they go to sleep. If you can learn what your child needs for successful, independent sleep, then you’re on your way to a full night’s sleep too!
Develop calming sleep cues
I always recommend parents follow an evening routine which develops as the baby grows but generally includes: diner, bath time, feed-time, story, cuddle, sleep.
Talking to your baby and saying the same words just before bedtime can also be a helpful sleep cue. For instance, saying, ‘Night, night, sweetheart. Sleepy time now,’ followed with a quick kiss every time your baby goes down for the night reinforces that it’s time for sleep.
Don’t do it alone.
If you have a partner, get them to help with sleep training. If you don’t, perhaps a family or friend who is very familiar to your baby can lend a hand. It can be especially hard for mums to sleep train their babies on their own – especially if they’re breastfeeding and the baby’s sleep-feed association is strong. It is very challenging if there is a sibling, help then is really welcome.
Don’t let a bad night win
There will be plenty of nights along the way when your child seems to go back to square one. This usually happens because of events during the day which play havoc with a child’s sleep pattern, for example, over-stimulation, broken nap-times or a change in routine. Often there’s not much we can do about that apart from ride out the storm. Most of the time though, things will settle after a few nights.
If they don’t, parents often dread having to start sleep training all over again, but usually a child will only need a little encouragement to continue the good sleep habits they have already begun to learn.
If all else fails, ask for help
Sleep consultants help because they don’t just teach babies to sleep through the night, they coach parents to trust their instincts. I help mums and dads to learn the gentle tools necessary to teach their baby lifelong sleep skills. Sometimes, all parents need is someone by their side for help and encouragement and to remind them how well they’re doing.