Sleep training is a very often misunderstood topic. With so much conflicting information readily available online – even among sleep experts and pediatricians! – it is really is no surprise that parents are downright confused and overwhelmed. With so many questions parents want answered like: what age can I sleep train, how does baby sleep training work, and why sleep train in the first place – I want to put to bed some of the most common sleep training mistakes I see in my daily work.
Photo Credit: Humphrey Muleba
1) Not understanding what sleep training is
Sleep training is not about bedtime routines and lavender massages. However, it is about your kiddo learning how to go from being awake to being asleep all on their own. Meaning, being able to fall asleep without the help of a caregiver, a car, a swing, or a pacifier. In that way, nearly all sleep training methods are similar. As parents, you want to develop a plan where you can put your child down awake, and find a way that you feel most comfortable dealing with the inevitable protest crying that will initially occur (like doing timed checks, for example). Then most importantly, making the commitment from that bedtime and on, that you will not assist your child to fall asleep. After several days, babies and toddlers will learn to fall asleep unassisted, and sleep training will be complete. The whole goal is getting baby to sleep longer by teaching them how to put themselves to sleep.
One of the biggest mistakes I see families make before working with me is their attempt to sleep train only for nights without training for naps at the same time, or vice versa. In an effort to not let their children become “overtired,” parents often help their babies fall asleep for naps during the day, while only sleep training at night. Because there is so much melatonin in the body at bedtime, kids fall asleep relatively easily for bedtime (and throughout the night), yet struggle to nap unassisted during the day. In this case, after a few days the child might sleep well at night. However, when parents try to tackle nap sleep, the child uses all their stamina from solid night sleep to then fight naps – making nap training extremely difficult. Worse so, if a child continues to receive help to sleep during the day, it is usually only a matter of time until a sleep disruption (such as illness or travel), causes nighttime sleep issues…which then requires a parent to start from square one. The parent now has to help their child fall back to sleep for bedtime, and in the middle of the night, all over again. In this circumstance, it’s only a short period of time before sleep training progress completely falls apart.
3) Keeping the pacifier
Unless a child is old and dexterous enough to reach out in the middle of the night and quickly put a pacifier back in their mouth, sleep training while using a pacifier isn’t really sleep training. The truth is, whatever your child relies on to fall asleep at the onset of bedtime or nap time will be the same thing they’ll want to have to fall back to sleep with throughout the night. Even older babies who can easily re-insert the pacifier in their mouths often experience significant nighttime wake ups just looking for their pacifier. Ensuring a child can fall asleep without any help whatsoever is always the best route to pursue for long-term results, and a well-rested baby. And always consult with your pediatrician to see if they approve your child not sleeping with a pacifier.
I always require that 4 things be present when sleep training a baby: Loud white noise, a very dark room, a video monitor, and a safe crib (with NOTHING in it other than a mattress, a well-fitted sheet, and baby). Babies do not need much to sleep well. Studies have found that loud white noise helps humans fall into deeper levels of sleep faster, and stay there longer. Darkness helps the body produce a constant level of melatonin to further aid in easily falling asleep. A safe crib is a no brainer – never allowing your child access to an unsafe crib is very important, especially as they will be in it all night on their own. And finally, a video monitor (mounted on the wall or a piece of furniture other than the crib) helps parents know when their babies are actually asleep and awake, which provides peace of mind in knowing their babies are safe.
5) Starting sleep training without having a plan in place
Families who want to start sleep training will be a lot more successful if they have a plan in place first. All sleep training plans should contain 4 parts: What to do at bedtime, how to deal with middle of the night wakings, how to make sure kiddos start each day at the same time, and how to train for naps. Obviously, reading many books and working with a sleep training professional can take a lot of the guesswork out of how to deal with all of these different aspects of sleep training, however, not having a plan is a recipe for disaster. Sleep training requires time, consistency, and patience. Without a solid plan in place, it can make it difficult to stay consistent over the several days or weeks it may take to properly sleep train a child.
6) Not sticking with it
When done properly, sleep training usually takes about 3-4 nights for night time sleep, and 1-2 weeks for naps. This might seem like a small amount of time, but similar to caffeine or sugar withdrawals, shifts like this can actually feel pretty agonizing at first. One of the biggest mistakes that many families make is shifting gears or quitting after only a few days due to not getting immediate results. The commitment must be to stick with sleep training for 1-2 weeks, which usually results in huge success, regardless of the training method parents use.
Once a child knows how to fall asleep unassisted for naps and bedtime, they do not suddenly “unlearn” what they have learned…unless a parent reverts back to helping the child fall asleep. I am adamant with the families I work with in informing them that – once your child masters falling asleep on their own, do NOT go back to helping them fall asleep. Even when they are ill, love them, comfort them, medicate them under doctor’s orders, but when the yawn of sleepiness comes, always put them down awake and let them fall asleep on their own. I even advise my clients to share a room with their children over night just in case their child needs them, but to simply stay out of the room when the child is actually falling asleep.
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