Getting a good night’s sleep is no easy task even for adults, and for babies it can be a truly frustrating experience. The long-standing hypothesis is that soothing oneself to sleep is an acquired skill like any other and that babies in the first few months or even years of their lives are dependent on your assistance to fall asleep. In many cases, this practically means that parents are advised to gradually implement the CIO or “cry-it-out” method.
This method takes the basic premise of sleep being a teachable skill and sets it as its goal. The parents are encouraged to leave the baby alone for incrementally increasing periods before they comfort them, once it is time to sleep. It doesn’t mean leaving the child to cry in the dark for hours on end no matter what.
The parents should start by waiting outside the room for about three minutes before comforting the child, then about five minutes, and so on; and in about a week the child should be able to fall asleep on their own.
There is no recommended age range in which to start applying this method, simply because of the variance between every individual child, but children aged six to eight months should be ready to try it. A good rule of thumb is that if the baby is showing significant resistance even at the end of the week of training, the parents should wait a few weeks before trying again.
Sometimes, however, this method is simply not viable. The reasons for that could range anywhere from the baby simply not being ready to be left alone to a prolonged visit from the in-laws. This quick write-up will provide you with some gentle sleep training alternatives and good practices, in general, to make sure your little bundle of joy gets the best possible sleep they can.
In the end, all that matters is that you find what works for you, your child and your family, and set up an environment that allows everyone to be happy. If that means that the “cry it out” method works for you in the first week of trying, then that is great and you can simply stick to what you were doing before, but if you feel like you could all benefit from some better rest, then feel free to test some of these gentle sleep training methods and see if they help.
You don’t need to apply all of them, or any of them for that matter if you don’t feel completely comfortable with using them. Besides that, all of them are perfectly safe and can be reverted if you feel that they don’t work as well as you’d wish them to.
Setting Up a Bedtime
The first gentle sleep training strategy is one you have probably heard about for ages when it comes to regulating your own circadian rhythm, and it applies with as much importance to children as well. The ideal time for sleep for your baby is about 7 PM, which coincides roughly with the average time of twilight in America, give or take an hour. This is no coincidence, as we are naturally wired to sleep in the night time.
However, you don’t need to strictly follow this timeline, what is more important is that the bedtime is consistent and becomes routine. This allows the baby to get used to sleep cues and become more relaxed when it is time to go to bed.
Winding Down for the Day
As much as your child needs to have enough stimuli throughout the day, that is to say, to play with your child, to read and sing to them, etc., it is also crucial that you reduce the amount of activity as time moves towards the planned sleep time.
This goes back to the same point from before: your baby has similar needs as you, an exciting movie or an animated conversation will make you fall asleep later, and for the baby hearing mommy’s or daddy’s voice, crawling around or playing will have the same effect. Wind down for the day and let the baby relax before it is time to go to bed.
Reduce the Oral Sleep Association
The baby should not fall asleep while being fed, much less with a bottle in their mouth, because it creates a cue that the baby will perceive as necessary to fall asleep. And when they wake up during the night (as any human being does, child or adult), they will find it impossible to fall back asleep without being fed again. Try to feed your baby a short time before they are put to sleep instead.
Set Up a Night Time Routine
You can start having a fixed number of activities before bedtime as soon as 3 months into your babies’ life, which will help provide subtle cues for the baby that it is time to sleep, as well as help them build a healthy sleep schedule.
This can include things like dimming the lights, having a bath, reading to the child or getting dressed in your PJs. Whatever you and your toddler enjoy doing and isn’t too exciting will help establish a routine that prompts sleep.
While having a fixed place for the baby to sleep in, under the same circumstances every night is beneficial for setting up regular sleep patterns; you will want to have some degree of flexibility sooner or later.
To ensure that your baby doesn’t lose sleep every time you go to visit friends or family, or say, go on vacation, try to vary the sleep situations during nap time at first. For example: try to get the baby to fall asleep in the car, while in a stroller or on a mattress; introduce some light and slight noise to allow your baby to adjust to them in safe environments. This will help them sleep in a variety of circumstances and make life easier for all of you.
Proper Calorie Intake
Try to feed the baby more during the daytime, with lighter feeding as the night approaches. This method for gentle sleep training is squarely biological, as having more calories introduced signals the body that new energy is available and prompts it into more activity to make use of that energy. You can again draw the parallel between the baby’s needs and your own – make it a family activity so to speak – as taking in less food, especially carbohydrates in the nighttime will help you sleep better as well.
Maintain the Ideal Temperature
The ideal temperature for sleep is around 68°F (around 20°C) for babies and toddlers. Humans simply sleep better in colder rooms, and you can see that for yourself when your baby kicks off the blanket or wriggles out of their socks. You should keep the room around 68° and dress the baby in long-sleeve PJs and socks (even though they might get kicked off), and just to be sure, check your baby’s hands and feet after about an hour of sleep to make sure they are not cold.
Adjust Nap Times
The need for daytime sleep changes as the baby grows older and is different for every individual baby. However, at some point, you might notice that naps, especially when had shortly before night time, can start affecting the baby’s ability to fall asleep at night.
At that point, you should try to gradually adjust the number and length of daytime naps and see if that helps. The emphasis here is on gradually – don’t just let the baby have three naps today and only two or one tomorrow, as that is too huge of a change for them to handle. Instead, gently shorten the time your baby spends asleep throughout the day until you are sure it causes no trouble for them at night.
Ease the Baby Back to Sleep
You might have heard of feeding the baby when you notice they are about to wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle to ease it back to sleep and “reset” the sleep cycle.
A better alternative to this can be just gently kissing the baby or moving them to their side, which sometimes allows them to go back to sleep and can assure a good night’s rest for the parents as well.
Sleep When the Baby Sleeps
Allowing yourself to get more sleep will help reduce your anxiety, and the baby will naturally perceive that, helping them to fall asleep easier as well. In addition to this, cueing the baby for sleep with visual symbols like laying your head on a pillow (as soon as the baby can have a pillow) and closing your eyes, closing the curtains and reducing noise, etc. can help the baby tell that they aren’t missing out on anything and that everyone is getting ready to sleep, which will help them sleep better.
Don’t Stress About It
Unless the baby’s sleep patterns are concerningly irregular or cause real problems – don’t attempt to unnecessarily change them. Every child is different and every family is different, which means there is no overarching method or set of guidelines that will work for everyone.
Your baby is an individual human being and has a set of characteristics that set them apart from the hypothetical baby we have discussed in this little article. This means that acting on instinct and trying to attune yourself to the signals and cues your baby gives you about their needs is often the best way of making sure they stay happy and healthy little munchkins and don’t fuss when it’s time to go to bed.
We hope that these few tips on how to achieve better sleep and start your own gentle sleep training will help you get to a point where both you and your baby can have a good night’s rest without much trouble. Keep in mind, however, that none of these are fit-all and might not work for everyone the same, so feel free to choose those that fit you and your child the best, and don’t stress over the details, whatever works for you is perfect.
Don’t forget to have fun with your baby and enjoy the time you spend with them, and go through the rough spots with them together – they will appreciate it and a happy baby simply sleeps better. Good luck, and sweet dreams!