As a new parent, my (Beth) worst fear was sleep training. I had no idea how to do it, and just as I put my sleeping infant into his crib, he would wake up and I would have to start all over again. This was because I rocked, walked or breastfed my first kids (twins) to sleep, as I did not know how to do it differently.
By the time my third child, Tyler, was born, I was determined to do things better.
By way of background, I breastfed all my kids, and our family did not want to use the Ferber, or crying it out, method. We believe in creating and adhering to schedules and arranging our day around the napping needs of our children. Our family believes that children who have napped and slept enough at night are well rested and therefore happy children.
At about three-and-a-half months old, I fed Tyler, put him in his bouncy seat, proceeded to clean up the kitchen after breakfast, turned around a few minutes later and he was fast asleep. “Yes!” I told myself. "This is really going to work. He will be able to sleep train without all the crying and emotional work!"
I decided now was a good time to sleep train him. I prepped him for three days about how things were going to change regarding falling asleep. I would no longer breastfeed him to sleep or let him sleep in his bouncy seat. I told him he was going to be a big boy and learn how to help himself fall asleep just like Mommy and Daddy do, and just like his big brothers do. I told him Mommy and Daddy would help him learn this important skill.
A key to my sleep training was to separate eating from sleeping. Tyler would breastfeed, have a period of playtime then a short naptime routine (read two board books, sing two songs then put him in his crib awake).
On day one, after his naptime routine, I turned on his lullaby CD, put him in his crib awake, walked two steps away and he started crying. I was committed to the no-crying method of sleep training, so I picked him up, held him until he stopped crying, then put him down again as soon as he stopped crying. I patted him on the bottom twice while saying my key phrase “night, night, shh, shh” and walked away again. Yes, you guessed it, he started crying again.
So I picked him up, held him until he stopped crying and put him down immediately when he stopped, patted his bottom and used my key phrase. I repeated these steps over and over again (about 25 times) and he finally fell asleep. He slept for about 45 minutes.
Nap two was not so easy, as I missed his window of when his body wanted to sleep. I discovered that timing was the crucial thing for him. Catch him at the right time and he would fall asleep without needing me to pick him up too much. Miss his window and he would cry a lot and require assistance from me.
It's like a surfer trying to catch a good wave. If you miss the window of opportunity, your little guy can become overtired and cry because he doesn’t know what else to do. I discovered that his optimal time to sleep was about two hours from when he woke from his first nap. I needed to recognize the signs – yawning, turning away from me or his toys, staring into space or rubbing his eyes.
I repeated the same naptime routine. This time, it took me about 45 times of picking him up until he fell asleep. I repeated the steps for his third nap, and he fell asleep pretty quickly (incidentally, I stopped giving him this nap after about three days because with two older siblings, I did not have time to devote to getting him to sleep). He transitioned fine to having only two naps per day.
For bedtime, I repeated the same routine and made sure I put him to bed by 7:30 p.m. at the latest. I repeated the above steps of picking up and putting him down when he stopped crying. This did not go so well, and it took me 60 times of picking him up and putting him back down before he fell asleep. I was exhausted but happy to be on our way of teaching him the important skill of helping him fall asleep on his own.
I repeated the above steps over the next few days. Each day I reassured him he was learning to fall asleep on his own. Each day he required less picking up and cried less as long as I followed his signs of being ready to fall asleep, put him down for his second nap two hours after he woke from his first nap and put him to bed early. Finally, after about one-and-a-half to two weeks of formal sleep training, I was able to put Tyler in his crib wide awake, walk away and he would put himself to sleep.
Although at naptime and bedtime he would put himself to sleep, he was still breastfeeding in the middle of the night and would breastfeed himself back to sleep. I was not ready to tackle weaning him from overnight feedings yet, so I allowed him to continue this in the middle of the night for a few months. When I was ready, I weaned him from the overnight feedings. I told him a few days in advance that I was not going to feed him in the middle of the night anymore, because he was such a big boy that he did not need to eat in the middle of the night. When he woke up and cried, I picked him up and put him back in his crib when he stopped crying. It took three to four nights before he stopped waking up. By this time he already knew how to soothe himself to sleep, so it was only a matter of breaking his habit of waking and feeding himself back to sleep in the middle of the night.
My takeaways from sleep training Tyler...
- Look for cues he was tired
- Start his first nap two hours from when he woke in the morning and his second nap two hours from when he woke from his first nap
- Put him to bed early at night
- Stop holding him once he stopped crying
Although it took about two weeks to sleep train him, I felt good knowing the gentle method of sleep training worked for me.
(Editor's Note: The opinions in this article are those of Parent Sense, Inc. The opinions are not medical advice. Always consult your pediatrician about any changes you are contemplating.)