This is the question a mom in the park asked me the other day when I told her what I do for a living. She had joked “we’ll sleep some time” as she gently pushed her seven-month-old in the swing for the first time.
There seems to be a lot of talk about it, but I realized there are probably a lot of new parents who don’t know what it means to “sleep train” their baby. I was one of those parents; although in the months after my first child was born, I dreamed of walking into the room with a clipboard and whistle to command her it was time to sleep. For the love of….
Simply put, sleep training is giving your baby (or toddler/child) the opportunity to learn self-soothing strategies. We all have self-soothing strategies – I lie on my left side in the fetal position and pull the covers up to my shoulders. Ahhh… now I can fall asleep. And I stay asleep, all night. Even though it is completely normal to wake three to four times a night, we don’t remember waking because it’s so brief. Somewhere in our infancy, we learned self soothing. We wake, shuffle / turn over and go right into the next cycle of sleep without being consciously aware of it happening.
Babies need to learn how to fall back to sleep in between sleep cycles. It helps (or is essential, actually) if they’ve learned to fall asleep independently, meaning, not while breastfeeding, sucking a pacifier or being rocked in mom’s or dad’s arms.
So why do so many babies have a hard time putting that together? It seems an anomaly these days to have a baby that just sleeps through the night after the first couple of months of life. Often parents intervene too soon with baby's every fuss and cry; their little one doesn't have a chance to develop the ability to soothe themselves back into another cycle of sleep.
Another possible contributor is "back to sleep". This is the educational campaign that has literally saved babies’ lives. Since government programs have urged parents to put babies to sleep on their backs rather than on their bellies, as had been done for probably a millennium, the rate of infant deaths due to SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) has dropped by 50 per cent. But when not sleeping on their bellies, babies will startle themselves awake more often (that jazz-hands-looking reflex present in early life).
Just to be clear, I strongly advocate putting babies to sleep on their backs. It is the single biggest factor in reducing cases of SIDS. But that means many of us have to work a little at helping our babies learn the critical life skill of independent sleep.
Sleep training can take on many forms. A lot of people assume this means “Cry It Out” or CIO as it’s called in sleep literature. Many of our parents did this, and a lot of experts recommend it for exhausted parents and overtired babies, but it can be pretty hard on the heart – the parents’ figurative heart as they put their child down and close the door on their crying baby, not to open it again until 7 a.m. It can also have less-than-lasting success compared to other methods.
Then there’s increasing check times, often called “Ferberizing” as it was popularized in the 1980s by Dr. Richard Ferber. Using this method, you put your baby down awake and return at predetermined amounts of time to comfort them with gentle pats or rubs and a soothing voice; those intervals gradually increase in length until your baby falls asleep.
Then there’s “camping out”. This is the method popularized by Sleep Sense founder Dana Obleman; she calls it the “stay-in-the-room method”. This is the method I most often recommend to parents. Using this method, you are beside your child for them to see and hear you, and occasionally feel your soothing touch. The method then progresses and changes over the ensuing nights to allow your child to learn complete independence. In my experience, it’s a game changer.
If you Google 'sleep training', you'll find strong opinions from online moms on all sides of the discussion; everyone is absolutely entitled to an opinion. But one fact always remains: if you’re sleep deprived, you’re not at your best. At worst, you could be unable to properly attend to your child, unsafe to drive or even heading into depression. And parenthood is all hard enough.