sleep training

Saying Bye-Bye to the Bottle

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You’ve reached that point when you know your toddler doesn’t need a bottle anymore: you’ve heard paediatricians recommend children switch from a bottle to a sippy cup around age one; your dentist has told you it’s a bad idea for her teeth if she falls asleep with it; you know it’s probably the only reason she’s still waking up at night; and your mother-in-law is on your case about it.

Whatever your reason, you want to quit bottle feeding in the night but you can’t imagine how your child ever going to manage (or sleep through the night) without it.

One strategy that works well for a lot of kids is to package up all the bottles and “send them to a new baby” (you can secretly keep them in storage if you need).  If you know a new baby your child can visit, even better.

Prepare for this by talking to your child ahead of time about how he’s so big now that he doesn’t need a bottle anymore and that it’s time to pass them on to “a new little baby who really needs them.”

He can still have his milk before brushing his teeth, but he should have it in a cup. You can warm it up and call it “special coffee” or something fun. And, more preparation: tell him no more milk until the sun comes up.

Now for the hard part: what to do when your child cries out in the night for it? This is one of those unavoidable tough-love parenting moments.

First, you wait a few minutes to see if she will drift back to sleep on her own when she isn’t met with the instant gratification of Mom or Dad sleepily handing over a bottle full of warm milk. If she is not taking this change lying down (pardon the pun), then it’s all about your poker face: go in her room and calmly, quietly remind your little one that there is no more milk until the sun comes up, give her a little rub on the back for comfort and then leave again.

If your child is old enough to be in a big-kid bed and is coming to you with the milk request, then you have to lead her back quietly and matter-of-factly with very little interaction, tuck her in and do the same remind-and-leave routine as above.

You may have to repeat this a lot on the first few nights, so be patient; best to start on a weekend when you can trade naps with your spouse the next day.

It might seem like a losing battle the first night or two, but if you are absolutely clear and consistent with your child, your night-shift work will pay off in spades and full nights’ sleeps for everyone are just around the corner.

Trading Nap Time for Quiet Time

Quiet time

A lot of parents I know see nap time as the most sacred part of their day; it's that break that keeps them sane in the unrelenting job of parenting.

So when your 3-year-old suddenly announces, "I don't want to nap!" and happily makes it through the entire day (with maybe a bit more fuss at supper time), it can bring a full-on state of mourning.

Look at it another way and it can also be freeing - no more rushing home for nap time, trying to keep your child awake in the carseat before you make it home.

How to know it's time to drop the nap
Starting around 3 years old, it's common for kids to no longer need a nap. Some toddlers make the switch a little earlier - they're usually the ones who sleep 12 hours a night and are on the bigger side of the growth curve. On the other end of the spectrum, some kids keep napping well into their fourth year.

You'll know your child is ready when you see signs like:

  • not being able to fall asleep at nap time, even when you push it later; or

  • taking for-EVER to fall asleep at bedtime on days when they had a nap.

(Just to be clear, I'm talking about kids who have solid sleep skills and had a regular routine of napping and sleeping through the night.)

Transitioning to no-nap days
If your child is showing one or both of those signs, then I'm sorry to say, your nap-break days are likely over.

Or at least shorter; you can start this transition by capping your child's nap at an hour (ie. wake her up!) if she normally knocks off 2+ hours in the middle of the day. (You may find that when your child first stops napping, he will still fall asleep in the car if you're driving later in the day - when this happens, I would cap the carseat nap at 30 minutes and just push bedtime a half hour later.)

When it's really time to drop the nap altogether, I strongly recommend making Quiet Time the next great thing in your house.

In the beginning, most children struggle to get the concept entirely and, depending on temperament, may even fight it. So you have to make it sound, well... awesome.
 
How to get your child to love Quiet Time
Tell your child ahead of time that instead of a nap, she can have Quiet Time. Then at lunch time, remind her about the plan:

Start with some dedicated one-on-one time: let your child choose a toy / activity and then spend the next 10 minutes sitting beside her, pretty much doing a play-by-play of her activity. Say things like "You're making the car go round and round!" or "You're making a really tall block tower!"  No praise, no direction, no questions. This is the idea behind a miraculous behavioural strategy called "attending". It's kind of like a B12-shot of Mom/Dad attention that can curb your child's need to act out for attention in negative ways (see below for more information on this).
 
Then read a book (just one!) with your child, have a snuggle, and get him excited about Quiet Time.

  • Have a few toys / figurines and books in a box that is designated only for Quiet Time. You may have to switch it up or add to this regularly.

  • Make a simple fort with two chairs and a blanket draped over it with a blanket to sit / lie on inside while he plays. A flashlight can be pretty exciting for a 3- or 4-year-old.

  • Keep it short in the beginning: about 20 minutes. You want to avoid making your child feel like he’s been banished. You will want a longer break, but you have to take the long view on this: I’m setting you up for years of quiet times!

  • Give your child choice: “Which of these two toys would you like in your quiet-time fort?” “Would you like the cars or the figurines today?” “You choose three books from this pile.”  You have to keep this part quick though.

  • Give your child a simple kitchen timer, or set the oven timer for 20 minutes; tell him that when it goes off, quiet time is over.

  • Work up to longer quiet times as your child starts to enjoy it and not protest it.

  • As soon as your child is contently playing in his Quiet Time spot, go lie down and take your break!  It will be over before you know it.

The Attending strategy can be a real miracle for parents struggling with their child's behavioural issues, or just to help build a more positive parent-child relationship. For more information on how to practice Attending, read Parenting the Strong-Willed Child by Rex Forehand and Nicholas Long.

So what is sleep training?

So what is sleep training

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.