Of all the terrifying, life-changing things that people warn you about when you’re expecting a baby, sleepless nights is near the top of the list for most parents.
It doesn’t take long for new parents to start wondering “When will my baby sleep through the night?” “Will I have to endure hours of crying to get him to sleep?” “Is sleep training going to be as awful as I’ve heard??”
The term “sleep training” has become synonymous with “cry it out” and has developed a bad rap. It conjures up images of confused parents forced to leave their baby alone crying in the crib for endless hours while they listen helplessly from the other room after being told that they are not allowed to get their child until morning. While there are a variety of great sleep training techniques that don’t fit this unpleasant image, the primary goal of all sleep training methods is the same – to teach babies how to fall asleep by themselves. I call it “sleep independence” - the ability for your baby to fall asleep alone without needing you, the parent, to help them.
Is sleep training inevitable or can it be avoided? Well, it all depends on you, parents.
Here’s some good news. Most babies can sleep through the night by 4 months old. Now, if 16 weeks of sleepless nights seems like an eternity (and I agree!), don’t fear - babies can sleep through the night much sooner if you begin good sleep habits early. And, on the contrary, some won’t sleep through the night until much later if you don’t.
So, how do you ensure that your baby is on the young side of that bell curve? How do you become one of those families with an awesome little sleeper who never had to be “sleep trained”? Well, here’s the secret…
Put your baby to bed, don’t put your baby to sleep.
What’s the difference? As your baby gets older and becomes more alert and aware, they can develop strong sleep associations. For example, if you consistently feed your baby until they are in a deep sleep, they will come to rely on being fed in order to fall asleep. They will rely on this feeding at bedtime and throughout the night if they awaken. The same associations can form if you rock them to sleep, hold them, pat them, etc. The key to raising a great, independent sleeper is eliminating these associations.
Start when you see your baby’s first social smiles - around 6 to 8 weeks. Smiling means that your baby is becoming more aware and beginning to interact with their environment. This is the optimal time to start helping them learn sleep independence.
Here’s the technique: beginning with night sleep and working up to include naps as well, stop getting your baby into a deep sleep before you put them down in their crib. Soothe them until they are very drowsy but once you start to see those sleepy heavy eyelids, go ahead and put them down. The last thing your baby should realize before they fall asleep, even if only for a few seconds, is that they are alone in their crib. Over time, this teaches them that they can fall asleep by themselves and they don’t need Mom or Dad to help.
This one tip can turn your family into a sleep success story! Once your baby learns the skills for sleep independence, you’re more likely to be able to skip formal “sleep training” altogether. So remember, put your baby to bed, don’t put your baby to sleep.