It’s time for sleep! Sleep training your baby and understanding the “why” behind the method

At any point during the infant phase, you are likely to wonder “when will my baby sleep longer than a few hours?” Those beginning phases are rough, because even if your child does not wake up frequently on their own, feeding requirements necessitate you waking them on a regular schedule. These moments will pass and you’ll get to a point where the sleep stretches last longer AND you’ll be ready to dive into “sleep training.” There are lots of blogs, and websites available to give you advice on this topic. In my blog today, I’ll focus on how to sleep train, but also the “why.” That is, the behavioral principles behind what makes or breaks any particular sleep training strategy. But first, some disclaimers!

  • I am a behavior analyst and much of the intervention focused on sleep training involves environmental change. Many popular methods utilize behavior analytic principles. I am not a certified sleep consultant, nor do I have a specific sleep consultant credential. That being said, behavior analysts have been treating sleep issues for decades and there is a myriad of literature to support a behavior analytic approach to resolving common sleep problems.  Most sleep consultants rely heavily on the science of behavior analysis to guide their recommendations, even if they don’t refer to the principles specifically.
  • You should always talk to your pediatrician before attempting any sleep training method. Be sure your pediatrician gives you the “green light” and be sure they approve of your approach. Be sure there are no medical conditions or other physical limitations that might prevent success with behavioral sleep training methods.
  • Always remember safe sleep arrangements

I often get asked at what age a child should be able to sleep through the night. This is a difficult question because all babies are unique, and parents differ in their psychological readiness for sleep training. Generally, by 3-6 months, most children can sleep through the night without parental care or support. While some people sleep train their babies very young, doing so can be challenging and many parents may not be ready. Find the time that’s right for you and speak with your pediatrician about the time that’s right for your baby. Personally, I was ready to sleep train my son at 6 months (well, maybe at 1 month really!!), but I spoke to our pediatrician who said that because our son was so small, he may still need the nutrition at night. So, we held off on training for another 6 weeks and successfully sleep trained him at 7.5 months.

Before diving into the actual strategies, there are a few foundational things you should do to “set the stage” for successful sleep training:

  1. Create a simple bedtime routine. If you don’t have one already, create a simple (emphasis on simple) routine that you do every night before bed. This could include changing a diaper, placing in swaddle, feeding, rocking in chair, and/or brief reading of a simple book. Find a routine that works for you and your family, but don’t make it too long or complex. What you’re trying to do here is create stimulus control over sleeping behavior. Meaning, when these things happen, your baby thinks – “it’s time to go bed!”
  2. Arrange the environment.  The concept of stimulus control is important for the routine but also for the physical environment. The sleeping room should be quiet, dark, and cool. Consider black out curtains, keeping the blinds completely shut (look for little peeps of light!), and the temperature set to 68 to 72 degrees. White noise machines or fans help, and your baby should be dressed in light clothing (nothing too hot, nothing too cold).
  3. Watch out for the pre-bedtime “no-no’s.” Just as it is important to create things in the environment that will set the occasion for sleep, its’ also important to remove things that will interfere with sleep. If your child is older when you sleep train, limit liquids at least one hour before bed and do not give food or beverages with caffeine. Also, avoid sugary snacks and big meals. For all children, watch out for overstimulating activities right before bed, including bath (for some children bath is calming, for others it can be very stimulating!), screen time, playing outside/exercise/rough play, and noise (dogs barking, music playing, people talking, television on). You can have the right environment and routine, but these little extras may interfere with your ability to successfully train.
  4. Prioritize Health & Nutrition. Movement and fueling your baby’s body with the right nutrition are very important! Be sure your baby is getting enough movement and stimulation throughout the day. Even if your child is not yet mobile, there are lots of activities you can engage in with them to promote movement! Also be sure your baby is eating enough food/liquid generally and is eating nutritionally rich food. Particularly if your child is older when you sleep train (over 1 year), food that has excellent nutritional value (i.e., fruits, vegetables, whole grains) will create the overall health that is needed for a good night sleep. Many people underestimate the role of nutrition and exercise in sleep, but it is so very important, even for young babies!
  5. Create Consistency. If you haven’t already, before formal sleep training, arrange for a consistent bedtime and waking time. Naps can be a bit more flexible, but the time you put your baby down at night and wake them up in the morning is crucial for success! This may mean you need to wake them up from sleeping in the morning to stay on schedule, but that is okay and will help your overall efforts better than if you let your child’s sleep schedule vary. Thirty minutes wiggle is okay on both sides, but do not go beyond that window!

Now that you’ve “set the stage,” you are ready to sleep train! There are many variations of sleep training procedures, but I want to share with you one I think minimizes parent stress and can be effective in most cases. To keep you focused on the procedures, I’m not going to label this technique with any particular “method.” Focus on the steps and your new-found knowledge of the behavioral principles behind them, and you’ll be just fine!

  1. Put your baby to sleep at their usual bedtime, following your regular routine and leave the room.
  2. When/if your baby begins to cry, you can immediately go in and pat them on the back and say a simple phrase such as “It’s okay, mama loves you. Go to sleep” After you do this – EXIT THE ROOM IMMEDIATELY! Make this interaction very brief (10-15 seconds at most). This is where a lot of people get stuck – they have a hard time leaving baby because they are still crying! I KNOW! It is very difficult to do! But you must. Whatever you do, do not pick baby up, do not feed them. If you do these things, you run the risk of reinforcing the crying, which is what we are trying to avoid here.
  3. Once you exit the room, start a timer. The timer can be anywhere from 5 minutes to 15 minutes, depending on your ability to listen to the crying without getting overly stressed. Trust me, the minutes will go by incredibly slowly and you will want to run in and pick your sweet baby up! Try and distract yourself, use a baby monitor so you can see your baby is safe. The first few times you do this will be the WORST because your baby is accustomed to you coming in and picking them up. It WILL get better, I promise!
  4. Once your timer goes off, you can go back in and do the same thing you did in step 2 – brief pat on the back, simple loving phrase. But remember – EXIT quickly and DO NOT PICK UP!
  5. Then, start your timer again
  6. Continue this process (setting timer, going in for brief consoling, setting timer, brief consoling, etc.) until your baby stops crying.

For some kids, crying will stop very quickly. You will probably find that if you set your timer for 10 minutes or more, that your baby may not even make it to the full 10 minutes before they fall back asleep!! Really! It won’t seem like it, but it happens, a LOT! Generally, the younger a baby is, the easier sleep training will be because their history with crying and getting picked up, fed and rocked is much shorter. Older children have a longer history of reinforcement, so they may persist more. At 7.5 months, my son only made it to the 10 minute mark crying the first time we tried, necessitating I go in for consoling a second time. After that initial wake up the first night, he made it to about 7 minutes twice (3 total night time wake ups) without me having to go back in. The next night he only had 1 nighttime wake up that lasted under 5 minutes. Then we were done! That’s right, two nights and he was sleeping through the night and has been doing so now for almost two years now. It’s magical, really!

The whole sleep training process could take one night or several weeks, but it is worth it in the end! Remember that you are the parent, so your focus is naturally going to be to console your child in the moment. But doing so will provide quick reinforcement for the crying and only make it so that they keep waking up to get out of the crib, get your attention, food that they do not need, etc. Remember: You are not completely ignoring your child with this strategy- you’re going in regularly to console them when they are still crying, but just removing the part where you pick them up, feed and formally wake up and get out of the crib.

Also please try to remember that just as sleep is very important for an adult’s health, happiness and overall wellbeing –  It’s important for babies too! By getting through a few rough nights, you’re giving your baby a gift – they deserve to sleep through the night and have a good night’s rest! If you continue to get them up, they won’t be well rested, will be fussy, won’t eat well and will have all the other negative side effects of poor sleep.  

Sleep training is indeed a beautiful gift that you can give your baby as a parent! It is difficult in the short term but has a big pay off in the long term to support your family’s overall health and wellbeing.

You can do this!!!!

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