Being a postpartum doula and a mother, every single day I read a post or an article online somewhere about sleep training babies, and there are ALWAYS very big emotions and opinions around it. Parents post in local groups asking Why won’t my baby sleep? What do I do if my baby has their days and nights mixed up? The responses they get vary widely, but when people hear the words sleep training, they immediately connect those words to “negative” terms like Cry-it-Out, (CIO), BabyWise, and Ferber, but I’m here to set the record straight on some things.
The very first and most important thing is JUST STOP. Stop the mommy wars, stop the parent shaming, stop the judgment. THERE IS NO ONE RIGHT WAY to raise a child, and as long as no one is getting hurt, we all need to leave it alone and let everyone find what works for them. Period. Full Stop.
Back to sleep training.
There is a good and valid reason that sleep training is associated with the “negative” term above, even though those words and concepts by themselves are not necessarily negative (more on that later). The information our parents and grandparents had when it came to raising children and getting them to sleep was scientifically shoddy at best and steeped in religious dogma, superstition and old wives’ tales at worst. (Some old wives’ tales hold up though, we just needed some science to back it up) IT IS NOT THEIR FAULT. Remember, no shame. They were doing the best they could, with the information they had at the time, and now we have study after study after study that gives us more information we can use to do better for ourselves and for our babies.
Here we go.
Our bodies need sleep to function, and a lack of sleep can cause everything from memory loss to decreased muscle function. We all have hilarious stories about things we’ve done when we were tired, but what would that same story look like if you were caring for your baby and older children? Lack of sleep while driving has been found to be equivalent to a blood-alcohol level of .05. One study found that pregnant people who do not get enough sleep due to shift work and long hours have an increased risk of miscarriage and pre-term birth. Babies need sleep. Toddlers need sleep. Teenagers need sleep. Adults need sleep. The United States is extremely under-slept, and the negative effects are still being discovered. Not getting enough sleep, for you and for your baby can lead to many dangerous things. For the health of you and your family, find a way for ALL of you to get sleep.
Sleeping Through the Night (STTN) is a myth. Yep, I said it. NO ONE sleeps through the night, we all know it, but the phrase is still used as a baby milestone for parents, and as fodder in the war against sleep training infants. Let’s talk about that for a minute. What we really mean when we ask if a baby is sleeping through the night is: “did the parents need to feed or otherwise soothe their baby overnight, between putting them down for the night and getting them up in the morning?” For sleep trainers and other experts looking at the links listed above, this means approximately 12 hours, 7PM-7AM. Everyone has different ideas about the exact amount of time. For some parents, if their babies sleep 5-7 hours, they feel like entirely new people. For others, if baby sleeps while they sleep, they are happy. Everyone wakes up at night. The difference is whether you have the ability to wake, look around, flip the pillow to the cool side, adjust the blankets and go back to sleep or not. In that way, sleeping through the night for everyone is a fallacy. For babies, this may look like kicking their legs, rocking side to side, opening their eyes and looking around (hopefully in a very dark, quiet room) maybe even making some noises, and then dozing off back to sleep.
Exactly how and when do we get babies to be able to do this on their own, and how can it be done without affecting breastfeeding and bonding?
The answer is simple, but not necessarily easy, and it goes by many different names. We call it newborn sleep shaping, others call it gentle sleep training, and science calls it sleep hygiene. But here’s what we, as experienced postpartum and infant professionals who have BTDT, would like you to know.
There is nothing wrong with babies learning to soothe themselves back to sleep when all their other needs are met. It can be started on day one, and it does not require letting your baby cry it out.
If no one ever learned to do this, we’d all still wake and need help getting back to sleep at night. There is a huge difference between helping babies learn good sleep habits and leaving a baby to cry for hours.
There are dozens of different sleep training methods out there that you can choose from, and none of them are inherently good or bad, though individually they can be either good or bad for one specific baby or family. Some methods work better for older babies, while others can be used from day one, with a newborn.
Newborn sleep shaping is all about observing your own baby, their individual needs and habits, and listening to your own maternal instincts to give your baby the space and tools they need to learn how to fall asleep without help, and go back to sleep after waking when it’s not actually time to get up yet. Many people choose to use the Eat-Play-Sleep schedule from BabyWise, but sometimes it can be difficult to stay on a strict schedule when you have other things going on. What, if you had to run an errand and nap time, is late, but the baby ALSO needs to eat? What if the baby wakes too early from their nap? Maybe today, the Eat-Sleep-Play method is what will work best. Knowing your baby’s individual needs on any given day, and having multiple tools on hand to keep everyone on track, we find, works better than sticking to one strict method.
When I go into a family’s home, I prefer to work during the day, when parents can observe the methods I am using, ask questions, tell me what they are most comfortable with, and try those methods on their own. If they do not also have night support, this makes it a little bit easier for them to try the methods themselves at night, when they are tired and trying not to wake the house. The middle of the night is never the best time to try something new, that you’ve only heard about and never done.
Daytime routines and a consistent nap routine (sleep begets sleep) work wonders for babies and vastly improve their overnight sleep, with little to no guidance needed. Babies WANT to sleep, and so many times, when parents are struggling, we find that they are actually overstimulating their baby or unintentionally preventing baby from sleeping. Instead, we show parents how to give their baby the opportunity to learn the skills they need.
Babies are individual people with personalities and preferences all their own. Do you know an adult who does not want to be touched while they sleep? As a baby, if they were constantly picked up and cuddled every time they made a sound, they likely became overstimulated, cranky, and even less able to sleep. As a baby, maybe they just needed some white noise in the background. Know an adult who cannot handle white noise, but loves to cuddle with their partner all night long? Maybe they were the baby who needed a silent room, or music and nature sounds and a few pats on the belly to settle back down. Is your mind wandering to all the different people you know and the different ways that they sleep? Now you’re getting the concept behind sleep shaping.
What exactly do we do when we work with a newborn and sleep shaping? We spend time discussing bedtime routines that work for the individual family that will ultimately lead to a 12/12 schedule (if this is what the parents want). We teach about dream feeds so that we protect the breastfeeding supply. We talk about healthy weight gain and daily calorie intake and when it is not safe to let a baby sleep through a feed, and when it is safe to let babies naturally extend their sleep. We talk about letting baby choose when to night wean, and how to extend the time between feedings at night, ONLY when certain milestones have been met. We discuss how sleep regressions are neurological progressions, how to get through them, and how babies who already have the skills to fall asleep often work through these “regressions” much faster than a baby who has always needed help to go to sleep. We do all of this, side by side with parents who want this for themselves and for their babies, and we do it with NO controlled crying* and NO extinction. Every family is different and the methods we do use can vary depending on the comfort level and routine of the family. The fading method is almost always used, while the chair method can also be used if a parent prefers it.
So what about Cry-it-Out (CIO), Extinction and Ferber? As I mentioned above, these terms and ideas alone are not necessarily negative, and they all have their place…stay with me here and I’ll explain. Sleep shaping is for very young babies aged newborn to 4-6 months. Babies this young all have generally the same needs, follow the same sleep cycles, and, while they can absolutely have preferences that will stick with them for a lifetime, they also respond quickly and easily to minor changes in routines. What happens with older babies? Well, they get OPINIONS about things, oh yes, they do. Developmentally, growth and neurological leaps begin to vary quite a bit, and some babies begin eating solid foods. By this age, if babies do not have good sleep hygiene, and are not already on a 12/12 schedule, Sleep Training is the next step. Because I’m not a sleep training specialist, at this point, I defer to the sleep training experts here in Colorado. Sometimes, at this age, stronger methods are needed to get the job done. I can hear the gasps across the world as you read these words but let me ask you. If your baby screams when you put them in the car seat, or continuously crawls towards the fireplace, no matter how many times you tell them no or redirect them, which is a better option? Letting them get a burn or be unsafe in the car, or keeping them away from danger and letting them cry about it? Letting them be angry and learn the lesson is, in this case, a much safer option. If your baby is too old for sleep shaping, it just might be time for the next step.
We are proud of our skilled and professional work with families who invest in the level of care we provide to help their babies learn the important life skill of falling asleep. Parents with demanding careers, parents with mental or physical health challenges directly tied to sleep deprivation, babies with dark circles under their eyes – infant sleep shaping, sleep training, or whatever your preference – can literally save lives.
Are you struggling with getting your baby to sleep? Colorado Newborn can help.
Learn more about the ideas presented here in these informational sources below:
Drowsy Driving vs. Drunk Driving
Shift Work Increases Miscarriage and Pre-Term Birth
Safe Sleep Guidelines
Infant Sleep Hygiene
Long Hours & Late Nights Affect Pregnancy
Facts about Sleep Deprivation