As a first-time mom, what confused me most about trying to help my baby sleep better was the number of “sleep training” methods out there. In my desperation, I gathered no fewer than six books — all claiming to hold the key to a restful night’s sleep.
I was not alone in my sleep-deprived struggle, of course. Sleep problems are among the most common problems new parents face, and among the most difficult to manage, according to Elizabeth Pantley, a Seattle-based parent educator and author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night.
In fact, a new study recently published in the journal Pediatrics showed that at least 10 percent of American children suffer from parent-reported sleep disorders (unreported disorders could mean that number is even higher), and 21 percent of children who have sleep troubles in infancy will still be struggling by age 3.
Kari Hunnicut, a Port Orchard mother of three, knows this all too well. She let her firstborn, Kendall, cry it out — but she suffered as a result. “It tore me up. Something just didn’t feel right about letting her cry like that,” she says. So when the next baby came along, Hunnicut tried a variety of other methods to help him sleep. But the baby’s problems with colic and reflux made it difficult. “We tried everything with Kallen, but nothing ever worked. And at age 3, he’s still a terrible sleeper.”
If three or more years of disrupted sleep aren’t enough to convince you how important it is to help your child develop healthy sleep habits, consider this: sleep shapes all 24 hours of your infant’s day. “The quality and quantity of your baby’s sleep influences not only his mood and behavior, but also his health and brain development,” says Pantley. “Sleep can affect how happy your baby is when she wakes up in the morning and how easily she’ll go to bed at night. An appropriate sleep schedule is a vital component for your child’s healthy, happy life.”
The “cry it out” sleep method
According to Rebecca Michi, a Seattle-based children’s sleep consultant, sleep training approaches typically fall into two camps: “cry it out” or “no cry.” Some feel the “cry it out” method — letting your child cry without offering comfort — teaches him to fall asleep alone.
The popular Ferber method, sometimes referred to as controlled crying, offers a less extreme approach to this theory. In his 1985 book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems (revised in 2006), Dr. Richard Ferber suggests putting your baby to bed and leaving him to cry for gradually longer periods of time. After each predetermined period (five minutes, 10 minutes, 15 and so on), parents are instructed to go in and rub, pat or verbally comfort their baby without picking him up. Eventually, babies learn to soothe themselves and fall asleep on their own.
The “no cry” sleep method
“No cry” advocates believe that not responding to your infant’s cries is unnatural, diminishes the trust your baby has that you will come when needed, and can leave your child with permanent negative associations with bedtime and sleep.
Although no-cry methods often take longer to be successful, Pantley says, they’re easier on both baby and parents. In her book The No-Cry Sleep Solution, Pantley recommends parents work with their baby’s natural sleep rhythms and introduce gradual changes in patterns and habits (nursing or rocking to sleep, for instance). Eventually, those techniques will help the baby learn to fall asleep on his own — and stay asleep through the night.
Michi advises parents not to get “wrapped up” in any one system. “No one technique is going to work for every family, or even every child. But just because one method doesn’t work for your child, it doesn’t mean the situation is hopeless.”
Andrea Dashiell is a local freelance writer.
5 tips for helping your baby get more sleep
1. Establish a daytime routine. Make sure your baby is getting the proper amount of napping time and the bulk of her nutrition during the day, which can reduce nighttime awakenings by at least half.
2. Establish a naptime and bedtime routine. A very consistent bedtime routine (10–15 minutes at naptime; 30 minutes at bedtime) will help your child understand what is coming next (sleep) and relax into the process of falling asleep.
3. Listen to and learn your baby’s cries. You may not know what every whimper or whine means right away, but listening closely will help you learn to decipher whether your baby is just fussing and will put herself back to sleep or whether she really needs your help.
4. Be aware of their developmental stages. There are certain times in an infant’s life that will not be ideal for sleep training (for example, the very clingy phase between 8 and 12 months of age). Try to avoid beginning a training method during these times.
5. Know your child’s temperament. Every child is unique. If you have a particularly strong-willed, spirited or stubborn child, having them cry it out likely will not work.
Source: Rebecca Michi
The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep:
In his wildly popular book The Happiest Baby on the Block (2003), Dr. Harvey Karp introduced new parents to the idea of soothing their crying baby with his instant calming cues, also called the 5 S’s (they are: swaddling, side or stomach position, swinging, shushing, and sucking). Many parents have relied on Karp’s tips to keep the peace at baby’s bedtime, so it’s only natural that he would pen a follow-up dedicated specifically to sleep training. In his new book, The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep, due out in June, Karp not only debunks common baby sleep myths (for example, feeding your infant rice cereal will help her sleep longer) but he also tackles every sleep issue parents may be dealing with from birth to age 5. The book is chock full of helpful, easy to implement and gentle tips for dozens of sleep-training trip-ups, including:
- Reversing day-night confusion
- Weaning from a pacifier
- Establishing daytime routines that lead to nighttime success
- Transitioning baby from the parents’ room to her own room
- Moving from a crib to a toddler bed
Consider it a field guide to a great night’s sleep.