The Inside Scoop on Sleep Training
Sleep training is sometimes perceived as unkind. But I see it as a kindness to give our children this important life skill, and everyone is happier and healthier when they’re sleeping well.
Those of us who have done it know that it can be a lifesaver when sleep isn’t going well. And we know that the benefits far outweigh the difficulty of 2 weeks of sleep training work – which by-the-way, isn’t more difficult than what some families already experience before the sleep training starts.
I’m not a sleep consultant who believes everyone should sleep train their child. I write this to explain how it works, so that those who want help can consider it a great option.
Here are my answers to the top 10 questions I get about sleep training:
1. What is sleep training?
Sleep training is behaviour intervention for the purpose of eliminating the helping moves you do, like feeding or rocking, to bring on sleep for your child. The process gives your child the opportunity to access and develop their own self-soothing skills, so they can fall asleep confidently and independently for naps, at bedtime and for any night waking.
2. How do sleep associations develop?
Helping to sleep with feeding, rocking, holding, or other similar moves, is usually necessary for newborns and children up to age 4 or 5 months. As a sleep consultant, I recommend it and urge parents not to worry about creating bad habits.
At around 4 months of age, children develop a greater ability to make associations and connections. It’s at this time that those helping moves can become stronger sleep associations. By 4 months old, children’s circadian rhythms are developed and sleep can be more organized. This is when we can start to give them opportunities to practice their own skills for settling to sleep.
If you rock your baby to sleep at bedtime, and lay them in the crib, already asleep, your baby will be looking for the same help when they wake in the night. And waking is normal, they just don’t always have the skills to go back to sleep because they are used to being rocked to sleep. We often see at 4 – 5 months that babies start to wake more often throughout the night and start to demand more and more help to fall asleep, further solidifying those associations.
3. Could sleep training be right for our family?
You might consider sleep training if:
- Your child is over 4 months old and has few to no self-soothing skills, has night waking, early morning wake ups, or napping trouble.
- Your child is not connecting sleep cycles because of their strong sleep associations.
- The help that is required to get them to sleep has become too burdensome, physically and/or psychologically – we all have a limit.
- You’d like your child to be able to fall asleep confidently and independently.
It’s okay to choose to keep helping your child to sleep, in all the ways that are safe, especially when it’s working well for you and everyone is getting the sleep they need.
4. Can I still feed my child at night?
Yes, it’s possible to keep night feeds during and after sleep training. We just put the feeds on a schedule so that it becomes more predictable to your child.
5. Are there sleep training methods that work for our family?
There are many sleep training methods, and they all work well when done consistently. There are several that work by phasing out support very gradually. These are the methods some people call “gentle”. There are some that are more abrupt like Cry It Out, and there are many methods that sit between those worlds.
Sleep Consultants often think of the methods as having high, moderate, or low parental Involvement. By parental involvement we mean, how much contact the parent and child have during the sleep training process. The more contact, the more gradual the process.
Choosing a method is a personal decision, based on many factors like parenting philosophies, health concerns, different levels of family support, age of child, sleeping arrangements in the house, etc. As a sleep consultant, I know that you have to feel totally comfortable if you’re to succeed. Your child will read insecurity on your face and hear it in your voice. And if you’re confident about the process, you’re more likely to be consistent with the plan.
6. How does it work or not work?
Any method can be adapted to work for your family, as long as the support to your child is being phased out in a consistent way. Consistency is key because your child is collecting data about how you respond to them.
For example: Let’s say you’re implementing a sleep training plan that involves a short check-in with your child every 5 minutes, until they fall asleep. If your child has been crying since you put them in the crib and it’s been 15 minutes (or three visits), you might decide that you can’t bear to hear them cry any longer, and you feed them to sleep. Based on the data they’ve collected, what they’ve learned is, if they just cry long enough, they’ll get whatever they want. You’ve basically taught them to cry longer and harder. If your responses keep changing, your child will be confused and there will be no progress. And ultimately it’s unfair to the child.
Sleep training sends this message to your child: “I am here. I love and support you, and I believe in your ability to do this.” Even when a parent chooses a method that has high-involvement, their aim is never to put their child to sleep with a particular move, but to be more present when the child is learning the skill, and to taper the support more gradually.
7. How Long Does it Take?
This is a very popular question. If we’re asking how long until they’re falling asleep independently, sleeping through the night and having predictable naps, the answer is, “It depends!” I know it’s an annoying answer, but it’s true. It depends on things, like:
In general, high parental involvement makes for a slower process and low parental involvement makes for a quicker process. Though most parents shrink at the thought of cry-it-out, it often involves less crying because the process is shorter. But all the methods are valuable because they serve different needs while functioning basically the same way.
The age of the child
Most sleep consultants will agree that the sweet spot for sleep training is 5 – 7 months old – old enough to have a fully developed circadian rhythm, and to make connections and associations, so they learn quickly, but they haven’t had a very long time with their sleep associations. I think there’s another sweet spot when kids are 2 – 4 years old, because we all benefit from the ability to communicate ideas in creative ways. Babies from 8 months and up have more ingrained sleep associations and start to develop a greater stamina for staying awake, even when they’re exhausted, and a greater stamina for crying. They can also start to experience separation anxiety. But sleep training works with this age group too, they may just launch a stronger campaign of protest.
The personality of the child
Definitely a big factor. Parents who have older kids can testify that they can look back and see how their personality was asserting itself from day 1 – they just didn’t know it yet.
The sleep issue
The two toughest issues to fix are too-early morning wake ups and short naps. This is because the pressure to sleep is lower at the end of the night and during the day. These issues take a little more time and patience. Another slower moving process involves helping an older child with nighttime fear.
Consistency in implementing the plan
I covered this already but it’s worth saying again. It’s common for parents to stray from the plan here and there, because they’re exhausted and they’re not robots, and they’re feeling all the feelings. So that’s really okay. It can cause some delay in the process. We just regroup, reset and move forward.
Keeping all these things in mind, to try to answer this question: With moderate parental involvement, we typically see great progress within 3 days. Nights often become solid in one week and naps often take another two more weeks.
8. Will there be crying?
Yes, there will be some crying. Children will protest the change to a familiar, strong pattern, and that’s how they’ll communicate their displeasure. They will also cry when they’re overtired and out of frustration about not having the skills to fall asleep.
It’s okay for them to have big feelings about it. It’s okay to let your child struggle toward achievement. They will learn how to self-soothe, they just need the opportunity. I tell my clients, “You are providing all of the love, comfort and support they need – and at night, you all need to sleep.”
9. Will the process damage my child?
No. All scientific studies of sleep training, for babies who are at least 4 months old, show that sleep training causes no harmful effects on child behaviour, emotional health or parent-child relationship. Sleep training does not affect secure attachment and does not cause psychological damage in children. And we tend to under-appreciate the psychological and physical toll that chronic sleep deprivation takes on parents.
10. Does it matter if my child sleeps through the night?
Long and consolidated night sleep contributes to optimal growth, brain maturation and learning, as well as happier moods, adaptability, healthy sleep habits and confidence. When children reliably sleep well, parents gain more time, more freedom, more sleep, and in-turn, they become better parents, have better relationships, and enjoy better health overall. It’s a win-win.