When my baby was really little, I answered every cry, immediately, every time. I changed every diaper as soon as it had pee in it. Every time. I even once pulled over on the side of the freeway to change a pee diaper. I really didn’t think a “cry it out” (CIO) method of sleep training was for us and I even feared it could be damaging to my precious baby.
But, as I heard moms’ stories about their now-simple bed-time routines and babies who slept straight through the night, I had to admit I was curious.
One mom, Kayla, told me that she used to spend two hours putting her baby to bed. “Now we do one story. One song. Then, I put him in his crib and he rolls over and goes to sleep”, she explained, “It’s amazing.” She even shared that she thought it was good for him.
Will my baby be damaged if I sleep train?
So, let’s start at the beginning—is sleep training safe or damaging? Whether sleep training was in the cards for us or not, there is real data on sleep-training effects, collected in a 5-year randomized trial done in Australia. The trial conclusions, which were echoed in a press release press release by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), were that sleep training did not impact childrens’ mental health, stress levels, or the child-parent relationship. Beyond that, they concluded that up until the infants were about 2 years old, sleep training improved mothers’ and infants’ sleep and also reduced maternal depression.
“With my daughter, I had post-partum depression,” shared one mom, Brandy. “When my son came along, my husband helped more with the nights, and we sleep-trained as soon as we could. I didn’t have PPD after my son. I think I just really need my sleep”.
After 2 years old, there wasn’t much difference between sleep-trained and non-sleep trained babies.
When to Sleep Train
The ideal window for sleep training is after a baby is five months old and fifteen pounds, but before they’re seven months old. I was ready to delay this for as long as possible, but Kayla told me about a sleep training video she’d watched, “One boy in the video is standing up and yelling ‘mama’—It’s heart-breaking,” she told me, “That really motivated us to do it now, before he can stand and talk”.
Also, you want your baby to already be comfortable sleeping in his crib for naps and nights, before starting sleep training—if he’s not there yet, you can gradually transition him into his crib before starting. If your baby is sick, injured or teething, try to be sure he’s feeling better before starting. If you can practice putting him down a little bit awake, it will make sleep training easier.
It’s a good idea to set up a good sleep environment and night routine, in advance, as well. You can hang black-out curtains and turn on white noise to help your baby sleep. A good night routine helps to signal to your baby that it’s time to sleep through the night. For your night routine you can do things like dim the lights, put pajamas on your baby, read a story, bathe your baby, give an infant massage, and/or sing a song. A bed time between 7PM and 8:30PM is ideal.
Showtime: 5-10-15 minute check-ins
So, how do you do it? There are a zillion sleep books out there, but most say pretty much the same thing.
The first night of sleep training, try to feed your baby early in your good night routine, so that they don’t fall asleep eating. When you get to the end of your good night routine, gently explain to your baby what’s going to happen next. You can say something like, “I’m going to put you in your bed, and I’ll come back in to check on you after a few minutes. Go to sleep, honey. I know you can do it. I love you.” Then place your baby on his back in his crib, leave the room, and close the door.
After five minutes, go back in for a check-in, where you offer a short supportive statement again, then leave. If your baby is still crying after ten more minutes, repeat this. After that, if your baby is still crying, go in every fifteen minutes. If your baby isn’t crying, you can delay the check-in, to give him time to go to sleep.
“It was really hard to listen to him cry, so I drank wine and did the dishes,” shared Tonya. “Then, finally, I realized the monitor was quiet. He’d fallen asleep by himself!”
If your baby awakens at night, you can stick with your sleep plan and do check-ins at 5, 10 and 15 minutes, without feeding or rocking her back to sleep.
Some moms prefer to take night weaning slower. In this case, you can do dream feeds instead, where you awaken the baby just enough to get her on the breast or bottle. At first, you may want to plan dream feeds for 30 minutes before your baby’s normal wake-up times. So, if she normally wakes up at 1AM and 4AM, you can do dream feeds at 12:30AM and 3:30AM. Then, knowing your baby is full, you can confidently do check-ins for any other wake-ups, without offering food. You can gradually drop to one dream feed then stop the dream feeds entirely.
“I wasn’t comfortable with just letting her cry at night. So, I decided if she woke up, I’d give her 10 minutes to try to go back to sleep before going in and nursing”, recalled Dani. “The first night she woke up, she fell back to sleep on her own, after 3 minutes. She’d learned to put herself back to sleep.”
Variations on Sleep Training
If different time intervals or tweaks feel right for your family or baby, that’s OK. When Callie sleep trained, she or her husband stayed in the room with their son, until he fell asleep. “For us, I felt it was important that he knew I was with him. It kept him calmer than CIO, even though there was still a lot of crying,” she explained. “He didn’t feel abandoned, just confused.” They spent three days next to the crib, three days in the middle of the room, three days in the doorway, and then three days in the hallway.
In our case, I was so nervous about it, I invented extra steps to get her extra comfortable in her crib first. I would put her in her crib awake, for a couple of minutes and leave the room, while she played. I’d come back before she fussed and praise her. I extended the amount of time that I left each day for about a week, until I was able to leave for fifteen minutes without her fussing. When we sleep-trained, it only took 26 minutes for her to fall asleep, the first time. I think it helped that we just took a really slow, positive approach.
It’s helpful to record the time that you put your baby in his crib and the times of any check-ins. This will help you stay on track for doing check-ins on-time and it will show you the progress your baby makes.
Try to be consistent, as this will help your baby to learn her new routine.
Mamas who breastfeed may want to pump right before going to bed, in order to avoid impacting their supply, by night-weaning.
The End Result
As my daughter and I sat around in a play group of infants, several moms with tired and desperate eyes, talked about having multiple wake-ups every night. We hear that every week. Another mom had just left, because her baby was fussy from skipping her nap. Then, Tina chimed in. “We get eleven hours of sleep every night and two 2-hour naps every day”, she said casually, as her bright-eyed daughter laughed and played with a toy in front of her, “I let her cry. I know not everyone agrees with it, but it works. It’s three nights of hell, then it’s bliss.”
Thanks to these mamas for sharing their tips and experiences. If you want to receive Mama Lovejoy articles automatically through your Facebook feed you can, by liking the Mama Lovejoy Facebook page.