You need rest. You’re grumpy. Plum pooped.
In fact, you’re slurring sentences so badly people think you have a drinking problem.
In desperation, you start searching the Great Google for answers to questions like…
How do I get this baby to sleep more than 30 minutes? Or…
How many Red Bulls can be safely consumed in 24 hours?
Suddenly the search term “baby sleep training” shines across the screen like a sunrise in Mordor.
Your heart goes all pitter-patter and fluttery. After all, the ultimate romance these days is sleep. But, done wrongly, baby sleep training is the darkest of foes.
It takes those hopes of a restful tomorrow and dashes them on the Cliffs of Crankiness.
There are 7 pitfalls in sleep training babies that trip up many new parents.
I’m going to lay them all out plainly, so you can easily sidestep the mistakes of parents who struggled before you.
Sleep Training Disaster #1:
Trying to Sleep Coach Too Early
Trying to sleep train a baby under 6 months is just asking for lots of screams and little benefits. Why? Because their little developmental clock is ticking so fast nothing “sticks”.
Trust me, as a Certified Gentle Sleep Coach, starting to train to early leads to a lot of tears (for baby and parent) and takes just as long as if you had just waited a few weeks, so you really gain nothing (but bad memories).
I don’t do Sleep Coaching for babies younger than 6 months. For babies 4-5 months old, we do Sleep Shaping instead. For babies younger than 4 months, I recommend something called Sleep Survival instead.
0-4 Months: Sleep Survival
- Feed your baby on demand, whenever that is.
- Sleep when your baby sleeps, or have someone help you so you can get more than 5 hours cumulative sleep a day.
- Wear your baby if that helps him/her sleep better while you’re puttering around the house.
- Nurse to sleep, rock, bounce, whatever works, and don’t feel guilty about any of it.
- If your baby sleeps better in his car seat or a swing, use that and don’t feel guilty about it.
4-5 Months: Sleep Shaping
- Continue to feed on demand, whenever that is.
- Work on helping your baby’s sleep environment a “sleep happy space” (more on that in #6 below).
- If your baby is rolling over, start weaning off the swaddle.
- Start keeping a sleep log, if you haven’t already, and watching for your baby’s natural daily rhythm (more on this in #3 below).
- Watch for your baby’s sleepy cues. He will probably start showing he’s ready for a nap after being awake for 1 to 1.5 hours.
6+ Months: Sleep Training
- If your baby has passed his 4-5 month milestone shift (and is a lot more “baby” than “newborn” during the day, increased interaction, etc.) it may be time to start doing the Sleep Shuffle or one of my other favorite coaching methods. (Always check with your doctor first before doing any kind of nighttime weaning!)
- You don’t have to cut those nighttime feedings cold-turkey. You can slowly wean your baby away from extra feedings. We can talk about that process together.
- If your baby is struggling to fall asleep, start putting her down drowsy-but-awake for the first nap of the day. (It’s usually the easiest.)
Sleep Training Disaster #2:
Misunderstanding the Science
The biggest misconception parents have regarding sleep is that they don’t realize that falling asleep is a skill.
We ALL wakeup several times at night. We roll over, or steal the blanket from our spouse, or pick up the pillow from the floor. It’s called a “Partial Awakening” and we do it multiple times a night.
The difference is, you’ve learned how to put yourself back to sleep after those episodes.
For many babies, they rely on you to help get them back into a sleepy state. They’ll have a partial wakening period, but then yell and have you come and rock them, or bounce them, or nurse them (for two minutes), to help them fall back asleep.
That’s where Gentle Sleep Coaching comes in. You are there, actively encouraging and soothing your baby, while they learn this important skill.
It’s not “See you in the morning, kiddo!” It’s a team effort.
Sleep Training Disaster #3:
Not Having a Good Routine
This is NOT a good routine:
- Play horsey and tickle monster for thirty minutes.
- Get him dressed for bed, blowing on his tummy frequently.
- Give a kiss, lay him down on the crib.
- Turn off light.
- Listen to him scream in rage for an hour, wondering (with frustration) “What’s wrong with this kid? GO TO SLEEP!”
That may work for pets, but it doesn’t usually work for humans.
Would you fall asleep with that routine? I know I wouldn’t.
I have to be lulled to sleep. Comfy pajamas, a warm cup of coffee (decaf!), quiet music, dim lights…all set the tone for sleepiness to settle in. Some “brainless” activity is a prerequisite for my snoozes.
Your baby is the same way.
Prepare her for the change in brain waves by giving her by trying one of these techniques:
- a light massage in a dim room
- a warm bath
- light singing or soft music
- Nursing or giving a bottle (WARNING! – see #7)
- reading one of Sleeping Beauty’s Top 10 Best Bedtime Books for Babies
Pick a few of my favorite sleeping tricks, and then do them near the same time, in the same pattern every night. It makes a huge difference in your baby’s long term sleeping success.
Sleep Training Disaster #4:
Missing His Sleep Window
Sometime after 5 months your baby’s brain starts to make the magical nighttime hormone called “melatonin”.
Interestingly enough, do you know what cues our brains to make this wonder-drug? Social cues that it’s bedtime (i.e. the bedtime routine), and darkness (i.e. good blackout curtains on the windows).
There’s a special time in your baby’s active (and increasingly tired brain) where the brain makes melatonin. Catching this “Sleepy Window” is a huge boost to your nap training efforts.
Here’s the kicker, though: If you miss that window, even for a minute, the brain will STOP making melatonin, and start making the cortisol hormone.
Cortisol is Red Bull for babies. (It’s also the same hormone that let you pull all night study sessions at Steak and Shake.) Your baby will get “wired” and be a zillion times harder to get to settle down to sleep.
Here are two articles that can help you pounce on that Sleepy Window before it slams shut:
How do you know if you’ve passed the threshold of “Overtired & Exhausted”?
- Seems to be fighting sleep (you know he’s exhausted, but he just. can’t. fall. asleep.)
- Fussy, loud cries
- Rubbing eyes hard
- King Crankypants: nothing pleases him (also could be a sign of teething…)
Sleep Training Disaster #5:
Starting at the Worst Possible Time
If you want your efforts to be successful, you need to make sure you are starting your efforts at the right time.
Do not start baby sleep training if…
- Your baby is younger than 6 months. (See #1 above.)
- Your baby has a cold or is sick. That’s a time for comfort and cuddles instead.
- Your baby is teething. Wait a few days for the nubs to appear, using these techniques to get you through the long nights.
- You have visitors in the house.
- You are going on vacation in a few days (or a holiday approaches).
- You are going back to work in a few days. (It’s very common for babies to have sleep disruptions the week that mom goes back to work – they are craving Mom time!)
You want to be able to see a block of time in your calendar where you can focus on the training and getting caught up on extra sleep.
And if you’re nap training (which I don’t recommend until after nighttime sleep is improved), plan on doing nothing but nap training for a week or so. Nap coaching is the hardest form of baby sleep training there is. (Learn how to use gentle nap coaching methods here.)
Sleep Training Disaster #6:
Ignoring the Nursery
There are nurseries that are perfect for magazines...and then there are nurseries perfect for sleeping.
Shoot for “perfect for magazines” when you have visitors. Zero in on “perfect for sleeping” the other 99% of the time.
Is it Dark?
I have blackout curtains and a old sheet covering our nursery window. Not exactly gorgeous, but all 3 of my children have been consistently late sleepers (8:30-9:00 am) and awesome nappers.
It’s a lot easier to take down ugly drapes for visiting guests than it is to re-program a 5 a.m. waking habit.
Make the room as dark as possible to help your baby learn the difference between playtime and sleeptime. When naps are over, slide over the blackout curtains and brighten up the room!
Is it Quiet?
The fewer distractions you can offer, the more likely he’ll stay sleeping longer.
GET A NOISEMAKER.
Even if you don’t have other children crashing around the house.
It will drown out the mailman’s knocks, the neighbor’s dogs, and the occasional crazy honking driver that only seems to come by during naptime.
Whichever you choose, make sure it doesn’t automatically turn off after an hour. (What’s the point in THAT?)
Sleep Training Disaster #7:
Nursing to Sleep as a Crutch
Right off the bat, let me share this disclaimer:
Most of the time, there’s nothing wrong with nursing your baby to sleep.
After all, that’s one of the biggest perks of breastfeeding, right? I LOVED looking down at the suckling sleeping faces of my girls. It’s so precious.
It’s only a sleep training disaster if your baby cannot fall asleep without it. (The whole “falling a sleep is a skill” thing.)
If your baby (who is older than 6 months, right?) is waking up 4-5 times a night to “nurse” for 2-3 minutes before falling asleep, he has developed a nursing-to-sleep crutch.
If your doctor has given you the thumbs up that he doesn’t need those feedings, he’s really just using you as a human pacifier. He needs to learn how to fall asleep without a nipple in his mouth.
- Try breastfeeding with the lights on, or in a separate room, before starting the rest of the bedtime routine.
- Breastfeed first, then do a diaper change or read a few books to help break the association of “nipple to nap”.
- Breastfeed and then hand over to Dad to finish the bedtime routine, and possibly use one of my gentle sleep coaching methods, like the Shuffle.
Leaving The Dark Side,
Moving into the Light
The best thing about mistakes is that, with a little sleeping training perseverance, you can usually overcome them.
What is your greatest challenge when it comes to getting your little one to sleep?