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Most sleep deprived parents will be ready to try anything to get a good night’s sleep. Most likely you are holding onto the hope that you can change your little ones unhealthy sleep habits without resorting to letting him cry.The good news is that sleep training does not have to mean leaving your baby to cry for hours on end on his own. All methods of sleep training entail some fussing and crying. You are teaching your baby a new skill and breaking old expectations. While some crying is unavoidable the ‘crying it out’ method is not advisable, as it can make your baby feel abandoned and emotionally insecure.
The goal of sleep training is not only to teach your baby to sleep through the night but:
To teach your baby to fall asleep independently and to put himself back to sleep should he wake during the night. Because babies pass through light sleep states every 45 minutes at night (up to an hour in toddlers), it is not possible to prevent your baby stirring at night (due to sleep cycles) but it is possible for you to teach your baby to go back to sleep without your assistance. This means that you will give him a chance to see if he can put himself to sleep (or back to sleep). You do not leave your baby on his own for long periods of time and by portraying a message of consistency and confidence your baby will feel secure not abandoned.
When controlled crying for sleep training is done in the correct manner to meet your child’s needs on all levels, especially his emotional needs, there should be no negative effects whatsoever – in fact a well-rested child with well-rested parents plays an important part of creating a loving and secure home. Have the courage to be firm, without guilt or fear that your baby will resent or love you less.
Before you start:
- Decide on an appropriate time to begin
- Rule out medical causes of night waking
- Ensure your baby’s diet is adequate for his age, with sufficient milk and age appropriate solid food
- Your baby’s sleep zone must support sleep and be a consistent and calming environment.
- Encourage a comfort object (dummy, soft toy)
- A consistent bedtime routine is an excellent way of preparing your baby for sleep.
- If you are both working, arrange for a day’s leave on either end of your weekend, to allow consistent time to change the unhealthy sleep habits.
- Try to rest during the day as it essential that you are rested for the night ahead. If you are not prepared, you will be more likely to give up or be inconsistent out of sheer exhaustion.
- If possible, take shifts with your partner to allow you to have some undisturbed sleep somewhere along the line to recharge!
- If you have other children or demands, try to elicit help and support from other care-givers for the first few days, so that you can invest sufficient time and energy into the programme. Reassure your other children that you will make it up to them later – don’t forget to do this!
- Earmark a reward for yourself at the end of it all
It is important to communicate confidence and calm to your baby when you begin. He needs to see an emotion that makes him feel secure that you are comfortable with what you are doing.
It is no good to start with sleep training at bedtime only to relent later out of desperation and give your baby his ‘crutch’ (such as feeding to sleep). The message that your baby receives in this case is that he must cry long and hard to have the old method reintroduced. Any inconsistencies will simply prolong the process of sleep training.
Sleep training is an act of teamwork between you, your partner and your baby. It is completely essential that you all work together and do not undermine the process for each other.
If your child has developed a habit whereby he is dependent on you for sleep, he will protest within minutes (probably even seconds!) of you leaving the room. This is where the hard bit comes in. Accept that your baby is going to cry, however, you are going to control how long he is going to cry for and you are going to be there for him every step of the way. There are two methods of handling this – neither one is better than the other – do what feels right for you at the time. One thing though, remember to be consistent and stick to one method for at least a week.
Staying with your baby
If you are anxious about separating from your baby, and if you feel uneasy about leaving your baby on his own whilst he is learning to put himself to sleep, you may want to stay with him for the process. All sleep coaching is hard work and may be very emotionally draining, so if you feel angry and frustrated when your baby cries and feel that you might physically harm your baby out of tiredness and frustration, then this is not the sleep coaching method for you.
Leaving your baby for short periods of time
This method allows you to pick up your baby when he is crying and comfort him until he is calm, but it differs from the first method in that you actually leave the room for short periods of time from the beginning, before returning to pick him up to calm him once more. If you feel that you could possibly harm your baby physically (out of sheer exhaustion and frustration) this may the method of choice for you as you are able to step away from the situation for very short periods of time in order to catch your breath and re-focus on the goal in sight.
Changing unhealthy sleep habits is exhausting and the key to its success is to focus on the goal at the end of it all. Accept that you will be tired and frustrated at times, but try not to get bogged down in the immediate drama of the moment, and rather look at your long term goal.
The process of falling asleep unassisted is a skill that needs practice, so bear in mind that success comes only after a period of practice, so don’t give up!
By Sr Ann Richardson