Guide to Sleep Training

One of the most challenging parts about being a first time parent for me was the sleep deprivation!  I remember thinking to myself, when my baby no longer needs to feed every few hours through the night I will finally be able to sleep a solid 6 hours – at least.  So there I was around the 6 – 8 month mark where I knew my child could sleep longer stretches but for whatever reason they kept waking up.  Each of my kids had different sleeping patterns and tolerances when it came to “sleep training” but with all kids I was guilty for rocking, bouncing, feeding and even holding them in my arms just so I could get a few hours of solid sleep.

I came across Andrea from Blissful Nights on my Instagram feed, and initially was intrigued because I saw that she was certified in infant Mental Health and Development.  As a registered psychiatric nurse, I value the importance of mental health and as I read more about her I saw that she was also certified sleep coach.  Incredible!  Andrea was kind enough to answer some crucial questions I had when I was sleep training my kids and the only regret I had, was not finding her sooner.  Here are Andrea’s answers from our interview.

  1. Tell us a bit about yourself and how you decided to become a sleep coach.

I’m a mom to 3 amazing kids (ages 5, 3, & 1).  Prior to my work as a Gentle Sleep Coach, my educational/professional background was in psychology and social work. I love to read when I capture an elusive moment to myself.

My second child is the reason I became a Gentle Sleep Coach.  He had a rough start in life; he fractured his clavicle in birth, had reflux, a tongue tie, and was just not a happy camper for the first few months of his life.  Postpartum depression and anxiety set in almost immediately after his birth.  My little bundle of fury woke up 6-12 times per night until he was 7 months old and we discovered gentle sleep coaching.

By night nine, he was sleeping all of the way through the night other than one feeding that we chose to keep.  The most significant difference was in his personality.  He transformed from a very grumpy, fussy baby to a happy, sweet little guy.  He had been chronically overtired, but I had no idea what to look out for to help him.  This experience was so life changing, I decided to enroll in the Gentle Sleep Coach Training program 3 years ago.

  1. When should parents think about sleep training?

To be completely honest, the best time is when parents feel ready and confident to make some changes.  The easiest age to implement sleep coaching is when their baby is between 6 and 8 months of age. The hardest age is between 15 months and 2.5 years of age.  4-6 months can be challenging, but many babies have great success with a supportive method.

  1. How can I tell if my baby is tired?

Watch their tired signs.  Some tired signs are subtle and some are more obvious.  Early signs include zoning out, a 7-mile stare, a red, puffy, or glassy look to the eyes, a “heavy-lidded” look, or shadows under the eyes.  Mid-range signs include fussiness, clinginess, asking to breastfeed/nuzzling into mom/dad, becoming extra clumsy, becoming shrieky (think pterodactyl screech), losing attention span with toys, lacking impulse control, or exhibiting attention seeking behavior (and usually not the positive kind).  Late tired signs include eye rubbing, face rubbing, ear puling, and yawning.

Babies usually have a 10-15 minute window between early and late sleep signs before they hit overtired (ie. a cortisol rush).  A cortisol rush is like a burst of second wind energy.  It stays in their system for the remainder of the day and is the #1 contributor to night awakenings.  The ideal time to be finished your child’s bedtime/naptime routine is the time you see an eye rub.

  1. What are your thoughts on pacifiers?

I feel that they are a tool that can sometimes help and sometimes hinder.  Pacifiers may help with younger babies, but when they rely on their pacifier being replugged multiple times per night, it becomes more of a problem.  Removing the pacifier in conjunction with sleep coaching works well.

  1. Why does my baby wake up as soon as I put them down?

This often depends on how quickly after they fell asleep that you put them down.  Babies transition from the lighter part of their sleep cycle to the deeper part 20-25 minutes after falling asleep.  They are more likely to awaken when in the lighter part of their sleep cycle.  You may find that simply holding your baby until they have been asleep longer than 20 minutes results in more successful transfers.   Another reason they may awaken after transferred is if they have cortisol in their system (from being overtired).  When they go through a partial arousal, they become more fully aroused because of this cortisol.

  1. At what age do babies start sleeping through the night?

My definition of “sleeping through the night” is when babies sleep 11-12 hours at night.  I find that many babies do well with one feeding per night between 6 and 12 months, although there are babies who do just fine without a feeding at this age.  When I work towards one feeding at this age, ideally this would be right before the parents go to bed (ie. baby goes to bed at 6:30pm, the parents offer a feeding at 9pm, and then sleep 8 solid hours themselves).

  1. Is the “crying it out method” harmful for my baby?  Will it affect attachment?

What we know is harmful to a young child’s development is toxic stress.  Examples of toxic stress include living in a war zone, domestic violence or addictions in the home, abuse, chronic neglect, etc.   Toxic stress can change a child’s brain architecture.  Tolerable stress is something a child can bounce back from with the help of another loving caregiver.  An example of tolerable stress would be if a parent passed away.  Positive stress increases our ability to adapt to future stressful situations.  Examples of positive stress include job interviews, the first day at school, transitioning to daycare, sharing toys with other toddlers, etc.

Younger babies (ie. babies under 6 months of age) can become overwhelmed/stressed quite quickly as their ability to self regulate is minimal.

What this comes down to is your baby’s temperament.  Some babies escalate quickly and some are quite easy going.  Some babies will fuss and cry mildly for an hour or so for a few nights and then sleep well.  Some will cry for hours and hours night after night.  And there are many babies that this method simply doesn’t work for (active, alert, intense, high needs, spirited, etc).

CIO methods can affect attachment.  If you have tried this method and notice your baby isn’t making eye contact with you during the day, if they seem to smile less, and are less interactive with you in general, this may be an indication that this simply isn’t the right method for your child.

I find that most babies do much better with a supportive approach that involves coaching from inside the room with your baby.  It is ok for babies to be challenged, but we want to avoid them becoming overwhelmed.

  1. How do I maintain a nap schedule with older kids who have activities?

That’s a hard one.  Part of it is figuring out what your baby’s natural nap schedule is and scheduling activities around this as much as possible.  You can determine your child’s schedule by keeping a log for a few days.  Make note of what time they wake up, what time you see tired signs, what time they fell asleep, and how long they slept for over a 24-hour period.  Over a few days, you will start to notice some patterns.  Learning your child’s patterns will help you maximize their sleep and schedule around their needs.

I know this is easier said than done.  Sometimes you will miss ideal naptimes and that’s life.  Some babies are more sensitive to missed naps than others.  If you have a baby who won’t sleep at night if they miss one nap during the day, you may want to be more accommodating to their sleep needs.

  1. What is the best way to sleep train twins?

I usually recommend coaching in separate rooms (coach the worse sleeper first) and then move them back into the same room once they are both sleeping soundly.

  1. How long does sleep training take?

This depends on your goals.  The most popular method that I use takes approximately 2 weeks.  There are usually big improvements in the first week and babies can be sleeping independently by the second week.

Some parents prefer to trade time for tears. There are other methods that involve moving forward in baby steps and can take between 2 weeks and 2 months (depending on how slow you would like to go).  This method tends to work best for parents who feel that sleep isn’t too bad, but they would like to gradually move towards better sleep skills.  This method also works well for babies who need higher levels of support.

If you are a new parent and have some questions about sleep training, Andrea is your go to.  She is a Certified Gentle Sleep Coach and owner of Blissful Nights in Calgary.  She works with parents providing workshops on sleep education and sleep coaching and offers a 15 minute introductory consultation for free!  Contact her here for more information.

Photography by Gabe McClintock

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