Does baby sleep training work? And if it does, when should you be doing it and what method – of the dozens out there – should you be using?
I remember staring wild-eyed at my health visitor as I asked her why my baby wakes immediately when put down into her Moses basket.
It had only been four weeks but I was going bonkers, she never ever wanted to be put down. She was more than happy to nod off in my arms but when it came to even thinking about putting her down, she would snap awake the second I took a step towards her bed.
I needed the answer, I must have been doing something wrong!?
She turned to me with a face that said “Christ, if I hear that question one more time this week,” and told me: “If I knew the answer to that, I would be a billionaire.”
And therein lies the problem.
There are a lot of books, people and products that will promise you the solution, but can anyone REALLY make your baby’s sleep improve substantially?
Can anyone stop the frequent night wake-ups? Can a schedule help your child to self-soothe? Can you teach a terrible sleeper to change their ways?
Why sleep matters?
You don’t really know sleep deprivation until you have experienced it for weeks and weeks at a time.
When you’re a new mum the first few sleepless nights aren’t so bad, because you were expecting them. But once you get to a few weeks down the line, the novelty wears off and you are running on empty.
Sleep deprivation makes everything seem worse. Its impact on your mental health can be severe, plus physically it can cause horrible breakouts, lank hair and weight gain.
We can write off the first few months of course, because that’s when the baby is tiny. But what about when it’s been six months, or a year? Shouldn’t a one-year-old be sleeping through the night? Or at least going for longer than five hours.
Improving baby’s sleep
In this post I’m going to explore some of the various sleep training options and what worked for me.
I am not a doctor or a health visitor, but I will try to pass on the best and most sensible advice I had.
Remember that a baby younger than six months is still growing a lot and so shouldn’t be expected to be sleeping through just yet. Therefore sleep training is not recommended before this age.
Of course some people get lucky and have a champion sleeper before the six-month birthday hits, but for others it’s tough. Try to hang in there and remember it definitely will NOT last forever.
What is sleep training?
Sleep training is where you deploy a method or a different routine with the goal of helping your child sleep for longer.
Entire books are written about sleep training, so it’s definitely not an easy subject.
Some babies do need to be taught how to sleep, which is partly because they are born with no sense of day and night and partly because they can form “bad” habits early on?
I cringe slightly at the use of the word bad, because actually I think the first six months is about survival. Some baby experts will tell you that rocking your baby to sleep or feeding them to sleep are bad habits.
But at the end of the day, if it gets them to sleep right now, who cares! It’s what happens after six months and particularly after one year that I think matters, because when solids are established and you have spent months and months not sleeping properly, it’s time to make a change!
What are the options for sleep training?
No tears method
This one is advocated by experts and authors such as Elizabeth Pantley.
It involves being close by to comfort and help your child to sleep. Pantley also advocates a relaxing and comforting bedtime routine to set the ball rolling before rocking a baby to the point of drowsiness.
Pantley writes about getting rid of sleep props that your baby is relying on to get to sleep, such as the boob, bottle or rocking. Her plan involves giving the baby what they need to relax – boob, bottle etc – but remove it just before your baby falls asleep.
It requires a lot of time and patience, especially for stubborn babies.
I really tried to make this work with my youngest, but she just wanted to lie in my arms. Eventually after her first birthday I had to get tougher.
This is a great one to try for anyone who is horrified at the prospect of allowing any crying.
Cry it out
A lot of people do not like the thought of this one, and I completely understand why.
Leaving your baby to just cry themselves to sleep is not for the faint-hearted, though many say it has worked wonders for them.
But cry it out doesn’t necessarily mean leaving your baby to cry for hours on end. The goal is to teach your child to self-soothe and get to sleep by themselves, without needing boob, bottle or rocking to nod off.
Baby expert Richard Ferber recommends a seven-step approach for after baby has turned six months and you think they are ready.
1. Put your baby in his cot when sleepy but still awake.
2. Say goodnight to your child and leave the room. If he cries when you leave, let him cry for a predetermined amount of time – say two to five minutes.
3. Go back into the room for no more than a minute or two to pat and reassure your baby. Leave the light off and keep your voice quiet and soothing. Don’t pick him up. Leave again while he’s still awake, even if he’s crying.
4. Stay out of the room for a little bit longer than the first time and follow the same routine, staying out of the room for gradually longer intervals, each time returning for only a minute or two to pat and reassure him, and leaving while he’s still awake.
5. Follow this routine until your child falls asleep when you’re out of the room.
6. If your child wakes up again later, follow the same routine, beginning with the minimum waiting time for that night and gradually increasing the intervals between visits until you reach the maximum for that night.
There are two schools of thought about the gentler sleep training methods and cry it out.
Crying increases stress levels in your baby, which some argue are not good for their development.
However if training works in just a few days, others work argue that healthy sleep is far more beneficial for a child in the long run than being tired all of the time.
This is similar to Ferber’s method however involves being in the room to provide reassurance.
You pick up and put down again as many times as it takes for your baby to fall asleep.
A combination of this and Ferber worked for me, however it can be very very draining as your baby may need picking up hundreds of times in one night.
They do eventually get the message! More on the pick-up-put-down method over on the Netmums site.
This involves staying in the room until the baby falls asleep. You start with a chair right next to the cot and stay until your baby nods off, comforting them as and when they need it. You then gradually move it further and further away from the cot over the following nights.
This is actually a method you can deploy earlier, before your baby turns six months, and involves staying with them and comforting them to sleep, but in their own bed.
It starts with “shhh”-ing to your baby while patting their back as you hold them to get them off to sleep. Then you use this method when they are in their cot.
You need to roll them onto their side and prop them up with blankets to make it work though, so that you can pat their back. This is what put me off this method.
It never worked for me (I shhhhhd until I was hoarse), but I know that it has been hugely successful for others.
This method comes from the Baby Whisperer book series author Tracy Hogg, and there’s lots about it on the My Baby Sleep Site, so do check that out for more advice.
What you can do to improve sleep right now
Whatever you choose to help your baby’s sleep, there are a few things you can try in general that should help:
Start a bedtime routine
You want to try to give your baby signals that it’s time to get to sleep. They won’t get it at a few weeks old but if you do start early it becomes routine to them and eventually they pick up the cues and you’ll see them start to yawn as you begin the routine.
Give them a bath, then a bottle, read a book and tell them it’s night time.
Check out my post about bedtime routines for more advice.
Be firm and consistent
Once you have decided a type of sleep training or a course of action, you need to give it more than one night. You should really brace yourself for at least one week of fussing.
In reality I found with my mixture of pick-up put-down and controlled crying that everything changed in just a few days. It’s knackering when you’re going through it though, so block off time when you don’t have much on.
Try to get the daytime naps right
This is a tricky one in the early months so please don’t let it stress you out too much. To a degree you have to go with the flow and accept how your baby is.
But try to work towards a rough daytime routine where you baby is napping roughly every three hours for a 12-week-old.
A dummy worked wonders for getting my eldest to sleep at nap time when she was tiny. Before introducing the dummy she was feeding to sleep at every nap time.
Remember that it’s not forever
I had a terrible time with my second child and sleep. I spent the whole of her first year getting a maximum of four hours sleep in a row before her next wake-up. What changed for me was when I decided on a course of action and stuck to it. She’s now an amazing sleeper, so there is hope!
Do you have a little sleep thief? Have you tried sleep training? Let me know what methods you’ve tried.