By Lorraine Felix
“Sleep Training” is such a buzz word! A lot of people think of it negatively. Many people have visions of babies being left alone in their rooms for hours on end. I promise, that’s not what sleep training is. I LOVE babies! And sleep too, but mostly babies! So, what does it mean? What is sleep training?
Different people and even pediatricians discuss the subject without realizing they have completely different definitions of the same words. Even sleep consultants can have slightly different definitions of what they mean when they say “sleep training”. Since you are reading this, I want to give you a clear answer to the question, “What is sleep training?”
When sleep consultants use the term sleep training most of them mean “a number of different methods parents use to adjust their child’s sleep behaviors”. When I ask, is your child “sleep trained?” What I am asking is “have you adjusted your child’s sleep to where he or she is sleeping through the night and able to fall back asleep unassisted (without the use of sleep props)?”
Here are some definitions, because it’s important that we are talking about the same thing.
- Sleeping Through The Night is defined as at least 10 hours from bedtime to wake-up time. *Note* Depending on age and weight, this does NOT mean without a feed.
- Falling asleep unassisted means putting baby down in the crib or bassinet awake and letting him/her soothe themself to sleep, without any sleep props.
- Sleep Props refers to anything the baby is dependent on to fall asleep (pacifier, feeding, rocking, patting, etc.).
Now that we know what sleep training is, let’s talk about the use of sleep props. Are they always a “bad” habit? No, of course not! Some babies are able to use a pacifier all night long and never wake when the pacifier falls out. Others can fall asleep at the bottle, and it doesn’t stop them from connecting sleep cycles.
When do we view sleep props as a problem? When the baby needs them to connect natural sleep cycles, for example:
- When someone needs to wake up to re-insert a pacifier to get the baby back to sleep.
- When the baby needs to be fed to get back to sleep.
- When the baby needs to be lulled (rocked, patted, swayed, held, or even just checked on) to get back to sleep.
These props are only an issue if your baby expects to use them to fall back asleep. If your baby is sleep trained they should be able to sleep through the night, get themselves back to sleep if they wake unassisted and should be on an age-appropriate nap schedule and feeding schedule.
Does Everyone Need to Sleep Train Their Baby?
No one should feel obligated to sleep train their little one if things are relatively smooth, and your baby is rested and happy. If you have a baby that is a good sleeper, then great job and go with it! That being said, if you are struggling, exhausted or unhappy with your baby or toddler’s sleep, you should consider sleep training. Everyone needs quality sleep. It’s not an easy way out for parents. It’s not selfish or done for ease so parents can make their kids fit into their perfect schedule. Sleep is necessary for muscle growth and brain development, as well as a healthy immune system for kids of all ages. Parents need sleep so we can stay healthy (immune system) and function in our daily lives (juggle work, life, balance our obligations, etc.)
A family short on sleep may struggle more than a well rested one. Parents that are tired have less energy and patience. Babies and children feel the same way! It’s hard to control emotions (especially when you are a toddler!) and process frustration when tired and overwhelmed. A rested family can better handle the ups and downs of a daily life.
DON’T let the words “sleep train” scare you! Remember the definition? “A number of different methods parents use to adjust their child’s sleep behaviors”. This means there is not one set method to help you and your little one get the sleep you need and deserve. Some methods that I use include sitting near your child, back rubbing/patting, quick checks, silently return to offer support (older children) and there are many, many more!
That being said there are some times that you will want to wait to start sleep training.
- If your little one is sick:
When your little one is sick, they need the extra comfort. They also sometimes need a little assistance in falling asleep depending on the situation. Wait until your little one is starting to get back to feeling like themselves and playing normally. Then it’s ok to start.
- If you are about to move:
Give yourself about a month to sleep train before moving. There is usually a lot going on before you move; packing boxes, making appointments, and a busy schedule. So you will want to start sleep training before all that begins. Your little one will sense the change, and it will make it harder for them to settle on their own if they haven’t done that before.
- If you are going to be traveling:
If you know you are going to be going away, give yourself 2 weeks before traveling to begin sleep training. Most methods will take 2 weeks before you see complete results. This gives you enough time to have your little one sleeping independently before you go on holidays rather than have the process interrupted and have to start again when you get back home. Again, a new place and new surroundings will throw their sleep off a little bit.
- If you just had a new baby:
A new sibling is a huge adjustment for your toddler. They are going to have to get used to sharing Mom’s attention, sharing space (perhaps a room), etc. It will be exhausting for you; but it will be so much harder on your toddler if now they have to do something new. It may even cause them to act out and resent their new sibling. If you have the time, I encourage you to teach your little one to sleep independently before the new baby arrives. It will be easier on you and your little one.
Sleep training can be a lot of work. It is changing the way we had inadvertently trained a child to sleep (using certain props and sleep associations) and re-training them to use new (independent) sleep associations. That takes patience, effort and consistency. When done consistently and correctly, it is a short term effort. Yes, you need to keep up with it; boundaries need to be maintained and routines need to be followed for the most part. But don’t let anyone tell you sleep training means you can never leave your house or have a late night dinner with friends; that’s not true! There will be bumps such as teething, regressions, illness and travel, but all of your hard work and routines will be beneficial. Children thrive on consistency and they will bounce back faster when they know what is expected and are back into their normal routine. You will be grateful for the rest and ease of sleep after these bumps. Sleep training may not be for everyone, but if you are struggling to get sleep, are constantly tired or feel that your child is constantly tired, it is definitely something to consider! If you have tried to sleep train your little one, are frustrated from failed attempts or feel like you need some extra help, ask for support! It will be worth it!
Lorraine Felix is a certified sleep consultant and the owner of Serene Sleep Solutions. SMPC is hosting a free zoom talk by Lorraine on “How to Sleep Train Your Little One.” The virtual event is May 24 at 7:30 pm. Please register here.