Sleep Training 101: 9 Tips For Encouraging Better Sleep

Sleep training. Are there any more controversial words in the parenting lexicon? I mean, besides “reform school” and “Honey Boo Boo”? Sleep is the holy grail of the first year of parenting a new baby but the idea of sleep training, specifically so called cry-it-out methods, has a mixed reputation at best.

As a parent who has now sleep trained two children, I can tell you that it’s not as bad as it sounds. And if successful, it’s even better than you dreamed.

I’ve done a lot of reading on kids’ sleep needs, books like Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Richard Ferber, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child by Marc Weissbluth, Good Night, Sleep Tight by “Sleep Lady” Kim West, and, just recently, the chapter on sleep in Nurture Shock by Po Bronson. All of the research on sleep in infants and children points to it being very important for development. Not only is rest necessary to keep an active little body going,  sleep is when little brains process all the information they take in while awake. It’s theorized that the processing is why babies have so much REM sleep — they learn through dreaming. And a recent study demonstrated that sleep training through controlled soothing is not harmful to babies. That was enough to convince me that maximizing opportunities for sleep was a good parenting choice.

When I sleep trained my son, he was 11 months old and reliant on nursing, rocking, cuddling, and a binky to get himself to sleep. Needless to say, every time he came awake in the night, he was helpless to get himself back to sleep without interventions from either me or my husband. No one in the family was getting more than 2 consecutive hours of sleep and none of us were thriving. To remedy the situation, we spent a week removing the sleep crutches C needed: first we stopped nursing to sleep, then stopped rocking, then had him fall asleep next to us instead of on us. As we moved toward sleep self-reliance, he stopped waking in the night because he could resettle without us. Finally, we put him in his crib awake, kissed him good night and left the room. For 15 angry minutes he cried and we popped in every few minutes to hush him. Eventually, he lay down and went to sleep. Within three nights of that, he could fall asleep with no crying at all. He’s never lost that skill and now that he’s nearly 5, bedtime is a pleasant end to our day.

My daughter has been a good sleeper until recently, when she started needing to nurse through all naps and her nighttime sleep regressed dramatically. I suspected the root of the nighttime sleep problem was that she’d outgrown the Rock’n'Play we’d had her in so I decided to make the crib transition. I also gave up nursing her to sleep for daytime and nighttime sleep so she no longer associated sucking with sleeping. The first night of sleep training, I rocked her until she was relaxed, laid her down, and sat in her room, ready to offer a comforting pat or a quiet shush as she wriggled and grunted for 15 minutes before falling asleep. She whimpered awake every hour or so for a while but settled in under 5 minutes each time. The next night she rejected the rocking and thrashed in my arms until I laid her in bed. She was asleep in moments and didn’t wake until 4am when she was hungry. Every night since then has been a repeat of that and she’s napping in her crib as well.

Both my kids emerged from sleep training sunnier and more energetic than before. I remember my son stopped getting sick as frequently once he was better rested. My daughter learned to sit up a few days after she started sleeping better. Coincidences? Maybe. But regardless, I feel good that my kids get the rest they need for their busy little lives.

Here are a few of my tips for successful sleep training with as few tears as possible:

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  • Study Sleep 1 of 9
    Study Sleep
    Learn as much as you can about sleep and sleep training. Read books and websites, talk to your pediatrician, and most of all, ask other moms for advice. Find out how other babies slept and what techniques worked best. Chances are, something will ring a bell as being the right way to help your baby sleep.
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  • Health Check 2 of 9
    Health Check
    Make sure your baby is healthy before you sleep train. At one point, we thought our son was having the mother of all sleep regressions and nothing we did fixed it. As a last resort, we got his ears checked and he had a raging double ear infection. Pain medicine and antibiotics solved his sleep problem immediately.
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  • Decouple Eating and Sleeping 3 of 9
    Decouple Eating and Sleeping
    Do the last feeding of the day before starting the bedtime routine. Don't make a breast or a bottle instrumental in getting your baby settled for sleep. They'll associate suckling with sleeping and, unless a binky will suffice, you'll need to provide that when they wake int the night.
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  • Watch Your Baby Sleep 4 of 9
    Watch Your Baby Sleep
    The more your know about your baby's natural sleep patterns, the likelier you are to know what to do to support good sleep. For example, my daughter slept beside me for so long that I know that she cries out in her sleep sometimes. If I wait a second, she settles. If I were to touch her, I'd wake her. Knowing that prevented some missteps later on!
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  • Keep Bedtime Simple 5 of 9
    Keep Bedtime Simple
    Design a bedtime routine that anyone can do. You don't want your baby to only be able to sleep if you put him down. Grandma or your partner should be able to do it too. I personally like bath-jammies-book-bed as a routine after a final feeding. Easy, cozy, and anyone can do it!
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  • Make Sure Baby’s Tired 6 of 9
    Make Sure Baby's Tired
    Bed time for a baby is not about the numbers on a clock. It's when they're biologically ready to sleep. It might not be the same time every night. That's ok. Just make sure they're tired enough that sleep is imminent so they aren't left wide awake and frustrated in bed.
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  • Keep It Consistent 7 of 9
    Keep It Consistent
    Make sure your baby falls asleep under the exact same circumstances that he'd find if he woke in the night. If you went to sleep in bed and woke up on the couch, you'd be shocked fully awake and unable to go back to sleep easily. Same with baby. Make sure the lights are out, white noise is on, and baby is in his bed when he falls asleep. Changing the environment after he goes down will just confuse him if he wakes up later.
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  • Give Your Baby Credit 8 of 9
    Give Your Baby Credit
    Don't assume every cry means you need to step in. Sometimes a baby just needs a minute or two to get resettled. Think about your own sleep - you wake in the night, adjust the blankets, poke a snoring spouse, and settle back down. Give your baby a minute to do the infant equivalent. She may be able to go back to sleep all on her own!
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  • What If It Doesn’t Work? 9 of 9
    What If It Doesn't Work?
    If your sleep training plan doesn't show results in a few nights, adjust it. Do you need to leave the room instead of staying? Does baby need to go to bed later? Is the binky making things better or worse? Tweak what needs to be tweaked. Don't keep doing something that makes you and your baby miserable.
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