Sleep training

I have had a few friends ask about sleep training and emailed them my notes. I thought I would post them here too, in case anyone else finds them useful. I got a lot of advice from friends myself, especially Kate Pounder, for which I am eternally grateful. Also, I drew a lot of this from Baby Love, by Robin Barker, and Sleep Sense. And of course we nuanced it to suit our little bubba. We did the training at 12 weeks – some say to wait, but we couldn’t any more, as Ellie was refusing to sleep at all by then. Please add your advice too – every baby is different as we all know too well!

Here are some of my top tips for sleep training:

The objective is to teach your baby how to fall asleep on her own, in her cot. You want her to know her parents are never far away, and meanwhile, she is safe in her cot and able to fall asleep and go back to sleep, all by herself, from one sleep cycle to the next.

For the night time sleep: the book says that once the baby is about 6 kgs, they can sleep through the night i.e. 12 hours. Some babies may not last that long without a feed – you are going to be the best judge of this.

The following advice applies to the night time sleep AND naps. We found it was best to be consistent for naps and the night time sleep, so Ellie really got the message.

1. Make sure her room is quiet and dark. You may need to put up a blanket over the blinds. Make sure there is nothing in the cot apart from the mattress and sheet – no toys, no mobiles. No longer use dummies or any other pacifiers. If you need a sleep prop because the baby doesn’t suck her thumb, then use a small soft cloth or blanket, which the baby associates with sleep. But nothing that you are going to have to replace every hour (like a dummy) – use something they can get hold of themselves if they wake during the night and need it.

2. Make sure she is getting sleepy but is still awake before you put her in the cot. This means if possible, no falling asleep whilst feeding – I used to tickle Ellie’s feet so she did not fall asleep while feeding!

3. Have a simple routine pre-nap and night-time sleep. Eg for naps, we would always pick Ellie up, rock her a bit by the window saying “sssh” for about 30 seconds. Then we would put her in her sleeping bag and put her in the cot, all the while saying “ssh” and using the same words, e.g. “nap time” for naps and “sleepy time, night night” for the night time sleep. The night time sleep routine was a bit longer – i.e. when we thought she had about 20 minutes left of her awake time, we would do dinner, then bath, then feed, then the rocking/sssh ssh. We would always make the living room relatively dark before the night time sleep too – so when she came out of the bath, she understood that it was now night time.

4. When you put her in her cot, just give her a quick pat and ssh and then leave. Don’t linger. She is now learning to go to sleep by herself, without your help. If she starts crying once she is in the cot, wait for about 10 minutes if you can, before you go in to soothe her. If 10 minutes is a bit too hard on you, then try for 6.

5. When you go in to soothe her, just pat her a bit on the chest, whilst ssshing. Don’t spend too long there – less than a minute. You don’t even have to wait until he has stopped crying.

She will probably start crying again (if she ever stopped!). Try to wait a bit longer this time before you go in again. The books recommend you give her 10 minutes, then 20 minutes, then 30 minutes and so on. I say, just try to wait a bit longer each time – but do what is best for you. DO NOT PICK THE BABY UP unless there might be something wrong – e.g. poopy nappy – then you address this and put the baby straight back to bed. Do NOT feed the baby – if you really think she is thirsty, then give her some water in a bottle. She has to learn that crying, when you can reasonably assume she should be sleeping, will not lead to rewards any more.

6. Do the same things for naps. The key with naps is, DO NOT pick her up until she has been asleep. You now only reward SLEEP with being picked up, and nothing else. She might wake up after one cycle, and make some noises. Try and gauge whether these are “I am up and awake!” noises, or tired noises. If you think they are tired noises, you can ignore her and see if she re-settles. If she doesn’t resettle and actually starts full-on crying, but you think she should still be asleep, you can repeat the above process of patting, then leaving her for 10 minutes, etc. Personally I found this a bit hard to keep up for naps, so I would let her get up after one cycle if she seemed to be awake. This sometimes meant the next awake period was a bit cranky, but once she is up, she is up – no going to sleep on mummy, or ANYWHERE but the cot.

7. Once you start this training, try to stick to it as much as you can. Otherwise you are putting yourself through all sorts of agonies for nothing!

Tired signs:

Here is some stuff you probably already know, but anyhow…

By about three months of age, babies can really only stay awake for about 1.5 hours. Ellie could sustain a bit less e.g. about 1.25 hours, but some babies can last longer. You are the best judge. Basically, by around 3 months, I would wait for the first yawn after an hour. As soon as I saw the second yawn, it was nap time. Other tired signs are not wanting to hold eye contact any more; grizzling; balling hand into fists; arching back. Once they start arching their backs, there is a good chance they are overtired and might cry a bit when they are put down. So be prepared for that :-).

Make sure the baby has expended a bit of energy whilst awake – e.g. wriggling, rolling, crawling, bouncing…. Otherwise they might not feel like sleeping even though they are tired (we have all been there…)

Night time waking:

You know best if your baby still needs feeds during the night. With Ellie, she didn’t really need night time feeds after 3 months. I knew this because once or twice, she woke up crying because there was a thunderstorm, so I went in to comfort her (I thought that was a reasonable reason for waking up, and warranted a cuddle) and offered her some milk, which she wasn’t really into. This happened twice, so I knew she wasn’t waking because she was hungry – so I knew I could leave her to sleep all night, even if she woke up and cried.

For night time waking, if you don’t think it is because of legitimate hunger, then repeat the same process outlined above in steps 4 and 5. Only get the baby up if you think there eight be something wrong – e.g. the baby has a cold and might need a drink of water, or has a poopy nappy, or a thunderstorm scared them awake. If you do get the baby up, don’t keep them up long, and don’t give them milk (unless you really think they are hungry). I would check Ellie’s nappy, keeping her in her room and keeping the lights low but bright enough for her to see me or Yen (for reassurance). Once we checked the nappy, offered her some water, and checked she was OK, she would be straight back into the sleeping bag, rock rock, sssh, then back in the cot.

Repeat:

Ellie got the hang of this after a few nights initially, but would keep crying for up to an hour some nights, for the next month. We just kept doing the same thing. Every few weeks, she would cry for up to an hour at the night-time bedtime, right until the age of about 12 months. This would happen if she was overtired, or if she was going through a “wonder week” (developmental phase). Sometimes she would wake in the middle of the night and cry for up to an hour. We just kept doing the same thing.

Self-soothing:

At about 10-12 weeks, Ellie started sucking her thumb. That was fantastic. If your baby doesn’t suck her thumb, she might like a security blanket (a small soft cloth) to hold or suck which she can associate with bed time. If you give her this, make sure it is something you can easily get a replica of in case you ever lose it. Do NOT give her a dummy or anything you will have to keep putting back in her mouth. Giv her something she can grab for herself.

Sleep cycles:

Again you probably know this, but babies have sleep cycles of about 45-50 minutes. The first 20-25 minutes they are sort of dozing, so they can be accidentally woken really easily – you need to be fairly quiet! They will grizzle and cry and grumble too, or sing and coo. Ignore it unless it becomes proper crying, and then you start the 10 minutes, 20 minutes etc routine.

At about 20-25 minutes, they will fall asleep deeply for about 10 minutes. Yay!

hen they start coming back out of this for the remaining 20-25 minutes – sort of like dozing.

At about 45-50 minutes, they wake up fully and need to be able to get themselves back to sleep – this goes for naps and night-time, if the nap is meant to be longer than one cycle. This is where all your hard work pays off, because they have learned to get themselves back to sleep and don’t need your help.

Ellie went through a phase, at about 6 or 8 months I think, of only napping for one cycle at a time, four times a day. Before that, she had been having 2 hour naps or thereabouts. Eventually she consolidated again and had one or two longer naps of about 1.5 hours. I used to get her up when I thought she “sounded” awake – a bit hit and miss, but I wanted her to learn that she does get picked up after sleeping, if she is genuinely awake.

Naps:

They are all different of course. Ellie was a good napper after she did the sleep training – I think she had a lot of catching up to do! She used to nap for a couple of hours at a time, with a shorter nap in the late afternoon. I think she used to nap four times a day, until she was about 6 months, then 3 times a day until she was about 9 or 10 months, and then 2 times a day (she still lodes this, but is in the process of dropping a nap).

The transitions to fewer naps can be tricky – when Ellie was dropping her late afternoon nap and going to 2 naps, I kept putting her down for the third nap because she was tired, but she would cry for about 50 minutes, not wanting to sleep. This left me in a bind because it was getting too late in the day to wait her out until she fell asleep, but if I didn’t, I would be rewarding crying and getting her up before she had fallen asleep! This was tricky because we started to undo some of the training – she started to cry before her night time sleep again.

So we stretched put her awake times for the morning and midday sessions, and dropped the third nap altogether – better to keep her up rather than undo her sleep training. So that worked.