My five-month-old has discovered a new skill: she knows how to put herself to sleep.
Tonight, after a bath, PJs, books, and a song, I put her in the crib and headed out to spy on her by video monitor. She turned her head back and forth, lifted her legs up and kicked them down repeatedly, gnawed on her tiny fist, made sounds reminiscent of Chewbacca … and 10 minutes later, dozed off. I think it must be nice for her to fall asleep in her crib knowingly, rather than nodding off in my arms and ending up there inexplicably on her own. She can make herself comfy — what a gift.
This is thanks to what we commonly refer to as sleep training. Last week, we started putting her down awake instead of feeding or rocking her to sleep, and checked on her every five minutes if she cried. The first night it was 20 minutes, and since then just a few.
But what I’ve realized is that I haven’t “trained” my daughter to do anything. I’ve stepped out of her way and backed off on habits that were starting to disrupt rather than enhance her slumber. Turns out, she already knew how to sleep.
I started contemplating this one night when she was four months old and we were bouncing on the yoga ball in the wee hours. My tightly wrapped bundle was drifting off with the rhythmic up-and-downs, her eyes flickering and her mouth curling into the smiles of dream sleep. She kept inching her small, but already strong, arm up through the swaddle toward her mouth, arching her back slightly, and twisting. I realized she was trying to settle in and self-soothe but didn’t quite know how — and my rocking and swaying wasn’t helping matters because I was doing it all for her. Indeed, studies of infant sleep patterns show that by four to six months, babies whose parents don’t jump to the crib at the slightest peep tend to be better self-soothers and sleepers, which could explain my daughter’s wakings.
Of course, it wasn’t always this way. When she was a newborn, she actually did need me to do the job of soothing for her. In fact, all newborns need our help to regulate their immature, little nervous systems. They spend nine months in utero being tightly curled and naturally bounced, and for the first months of life, also known as the “fourth trimester,” they need their parents to re-create that environment with swaddles, shushes and motion.
But baby brains grow fast and furiously, and so does an infant’s ability to find comfort — each in her own way. I’ve asked my friends to describe how their babies fall asleep after the age of five or six months, and the repertoires are all different. Some suck their hands, some turn into a perpendicular position and put their feet on the crib bars, others roll to their sides and put an arm overhead. My now four-year-old son turned to his belly and tucked his hands under him, a position I often still find him in. The point is, once a baby has some mastery over moving her own body, the ability to get comfortable and welcome sleep takes off.
The hitch that I ran into, as do many moms and dads, is that the old soothing tricks I used when my daughter was a newborn worked so well, I kept using them past the point when they were needed. We both started relying on them too heavily. At times, I could put her down awake and she’d fall asleep on her own, but inevitably the next night it wouldn’t work, and I’d swoop in again. She had the ability to find comfort, but no space to practice.
This is why the term sleep training is misleading. Besides conjuring up associations to canine conditioning, the name implies that we’re doing something to our babies — imposing something from the top down — when, in fact, it feels like just the opposite. If anything, I think that before, I had inadvertently “trained” my daughter to fall asleep with my help. Allowing baby to fall asleep in your arms can actually create a pattern where she thinks she needs to be there, instead of in her crib, to doze off every night. Sleep is controlled by the brain stem, and newborns have this region already up and running. Yes, they need help organizing their budding nervous systems when they get overwhelmed, but one could argue that sleep is an activity we all come into the world ready to do without training.
Pulling the plug on the rocking, bouncing, or feeding to sleep isn’t for everyone. But for me, it was the clearest way to pass the baton over to my daughter and let her show me what she was capable of. When I realized her continuous sleep was so often interrupted, not because she was hungry, but because she didn’t know how to get comfortable, I knew we had to make a change. I started with putting her down awake at bedtime, since research shows this paves the way to sleep throughout the night. I still wake up with her if she needs to eat — I just don’t lull her back to sleep again. She didn’t like it at first, and I can’t blame her. She was protesting the change. But I checked on her repeatedly, without picking her up, to let her know she wasn’t alone. And when she realized the new arrangement, she turned her head back and forth and found her trusty hand. Now it’s a skill she’ll always have.