Our brains are hardwired to resist change, no matter where change comes from. Even the smallest alterations in the way we are used things to be done could cause a major inner storm (usually expressed via psychosomatic conditions like headaches from elevated stress levels). And, if it is difficult for most of us, grownups, you can only imagine how dreadful change can feel to a baby.
Take, for example, sleep training. When trying to help a baby learn to fall asleep (and stay asleep) throughout the night, parents are usually advised to follow one of the following three main approaches:
- The Cry It Out Approach – You put the baby to bed at bedtime while drowsy and allow her to cry (for short time periods, not indefinitely, of course). Comforting is provided, but it doesn’t involve picking up the little one. This is also called the Ferber Method, from paediatrician Richard Ferber who developed it. The core principle of this technique is to teach the baby to soothe herself in order to fall asleep on her own (and sleep the night through).
- The Fading Approach – Also referred to as the Camping out method, it gradually reduces the parents’ bedtime role. There are many fading approaches but the “chair technique” is the most widely used one. You or your partner grab a chair and place it by the baby’s crib. You sit there until she is asleep. Every night, you move the chair a bit further away from the cradle. This should give the little one time to figure out how to soothe herself.
- The Tear-Free Approach – The goal is to teach the baby to soothe her self to sleep gradually. Parents instantly respond to their baby’s crying and offer their comfort straight away. Such an approach usually wants the parent to rock or hold the baby to sleep while getting her to suck on the breast or pacifier. Then, the parent removes the item just before she falls deeply asleep and lets her fall asleep on her own.
Whichever method you choose, you can expect some protest from your baby. The human brain may love (pleasant) surprises, but it absolutely hates uncertainty and unexpected change. Until now, your baby knew that crying would get all of her needs met. Now, she is entering a new stage, where middle-of-the-night crutches (i.e. picking up, rocking, feeding, etc. every time she wakes up at night) are no longer an option. She is now called to find a way to adjust to this new situation and fall asleep on her own. What a change! Of course, she will resist it!
Notes for Worrying Parents:
As long as your baby is in a responsive and loving family environment, it doesn’t matter which sleep training method you choose. Fear not that she will be placed under intense stress or that this could ruin your relationship with your baby. Babies are super smart. So, your infant will soon realise that you are still there for her to comfort her and address her needs (that she will still show through crying) during the day (i.e. when she is tired, or hungry, or hurt) but bedtime crying won’t get her the satisfaction she expected because your responses to that particular behavior will no longer be as positive as before. Eventually, she will learn that new skill and find out that going to sleep on her own is nearly as dramatic or complicated as it looked like at first. It is just sleep!
Giving The Baby Room to Adjust to Change
A newborn’s body clock needs between 4-6 weeks to adjust. But, let’s step back a little. In the uterus, the baby’s circadian rhythm (a 24-hour cycle that drives our wakefulness and sleep periods) is linked to your hormones. As soon as you give birth to your child, though, she has to develop her own rhythm, and all the other nuances adults have. While your baby is trying to develop her own circadian rhythm, be patient. Some infants adjust to the 24-hour cycle within a few weeks; others need a bit more time (in most cases, it is fully developed at 3 or 4 months old).
Important Note: Early wakes ups and naps can be problematic while sleep training as they make it more difficult for a baby’s internal clock to adjust.
Night Co-Sleeping and Co-Feeding Issues
A baby that has been used to co-sleeping/feeding at night may become clingy as that closeness to her parents has changed. As a result, she may seek that closeness during the day. Besides the various issues you may face when co-sleeping (it is found to be associated with infant sleep problems, including multiple waking at night and difficulty falling asleep compared to babies that sleep alone in their crib), there is a possibility your child becomes more cranky during the daytime. This is a (short) passing phase until it all settles inside her and she finds her own circadian rhythm. If she fusses nightly and you bring her to your bed, you give her an extremely powerful message that only validates the crying or other negative behaviours.
Note for Distressed Parents:
More than often, parents feel guilty about sleep training. This is mainly because they have tried a sleep training method for a while, then met strong resistance (often in the form of crying and sobbing), then decided to quit. It is imperative that you are persistent and consistent with sleep training. There is no reason to feel sorry about any part of the process, including shifting from co-sleeping or feeding to sole sleeping. It is a routine procedure that will do both you and, primarily, your baby good.
Clearing Baby Sleep Debt
Sleep debt is, as its name suggests, the hours of sleep you have skipped for some reason; the hours of sleep you “owe” to yourself. If, for instance, you need 8 hours of sleep every night to wake up rejuvenated every morning and you get 6 instead, you wake up with a 2-hour sleep debt. If this lingers on, your sleep debt will quickly accumulate, causing you problems like fatigue and exhaustion. Those hours of sleep you miss are essential hours the body needs to repair and fix the immune system, so you remain healthy and feeling well.
It is pretty much the same with babies. If they are running on sleep debt, they will not only be cranky but also have a hard time responding (positively) to sleep training methods. How to tell if your baby is operating on a sleep debt? Monitor her reactions (i.e. falls asleep within a couple of minutes of being in the stroller or the car, and this is not part of her scheduled nap time). Getting her to bed at the same time every night and waking her up at the same time every morning can help regulate your baby’s sleep, which could significantly cut negative behaviours and crankiness.
Note: It may seem that the more sleep your baby gets, the more she grizzles and whines. Don’t be alarmed. It is just her clearing her sleep debt.
Sleep Training Tips For Faster Transitions
During my career as a baby sleep coach, I have seen the effectiveness of the following tips, when helping parents sleep train their babies faster and more stress-free:
- Start at the Right Time – At around 4 months old, most infants have developed the ability to soothe themselves. You may start sleep training at 4 or, even better, 6 months of age. I would not recommend beginning sleep training before that 4-month mark, though, or at the same time as other important milestones like walking, potty training or moving the child to her room, as they are all linked with sleep disruption.
- Shift Bedtime (if necessary)– It is crucial for a child to have a well-structured bedtime to ensure quality sleep. The bedtime routine should be predictable, enjoyable, and last up to half an hour tops. To reduce protest and crying, you could move your baby’s bedtime later. The goal is to have her be more drowsy at bedtime.
- Eliminate Medical Causes – Various medical issues could cause sleep difficulties, like anxiety, asthma, obstructive sleep apnoea, or night-time fears). If your baby has a medical condition related to sleep difficulties, she will probably not respond to behavioural changes.
A Few Final Words
Sleep training a baby is not as a lengthy process as you may think. Most of the times, the suggested techniques work in a matter of a week or so. However, be prepared for some undesirable behaviours to worsen when you are trying to help your baby develop and adjust her biological clock and figure out ways to soothe herself to sleep. Such negative reactions that escalate for some time are often prevalent in the “Cry It Out” sleep training. The behavioural term that describes this is the “Extinction Burst”. Be patient and stick to whatever sleep training method you have decided to use and things will quickly improve. Nevertheless, if you are still stuck after a month or so, it is advised to call your paediatrician.