I believe that children learn to sleep to their family’s standards in the same way that they learn to eat the way their parents do. Vegetarians will teach their children to love vegetables and night-owls will have children who like to stay up late. But while we can accept that it may take five or ten years to get our children to eat the way we do, we can’t wait that long to get a full night’s sleep.
My advice to parents of young babies is to be patient…
- Give the baby a lot of cuddling and holding.
- Sleep with baby if that is necessary for everyone to get sleep. Make sure the co-sleeping environment is safe. Read more here about safe co-sleeping.
- Make nap-times peaceful and cosy and consistent.
- Take naps with baby so that parents get extra sleep during the daytime.
- Introduce bed-time routines and rituals that help baby to associate certain cues with sleepiness.
- Read gentle parenting books like The Discontented Baby Book by Pamela Douglas
- Check out the BASIS website – Baby Sleep Info Source
Give your baby at least six months to settle into this new world where they sleep alone, rather than inside or on top of another human being. Give your baby at least six months in which all you try to teach him is “We are here for you, whenever you call us, whenever you need us.”
Some babies are very easy going and move gradually from waking every 2-3 hours around the clock to consolidating their sleep into longer naps and night-time stretches. By six months or so, many babies are taking two good naps and sleeping a five-six-hour stretch at night, which allows their parents to say: “Oh yes, she’s sleeping through the night,” without feeling like total liars!
For a large number of parents though, the baby does not make this easy gradual shift. These babies are sometime those who had a difficult early baby-hood, those who cried a lot, seemed to have a lot of “gas” or “colic”, those who needed a lot of physical contact and bouncing and patting and singing to get to sleep. These hard-to-sleep babies often don’t nap well either.
Some parents can doze as they cuddle or nurse their baby through the night. These parents go to sleep quickly and easily and are not upset by the frequent night wakings. For these parents it doesn’t matter if their children take a long time to learn to sleep on their own. And it doesn’t matter to their children either. There is NO NEED to do any “sleep training” in a family where everyone is content with the sleep patterns.
Some parents are absolutely desperate by six or seven or eight months. They may not have had a decent night’s sleep in months. Sleep deprivation is making them angry or depressed. Lack of sleep or disagreements about how or where baby should sleep may be interfering with their relationship as a couple. Resentment and fatigue is making them impatient as parents.
These unhappy parents of non-sleepers need help. They need a plan. They need a system to teach their baby to sleep. The gentle methods take a long time and involve being patient and accepting. And these parents are past that.
Often, these desperate parents are also in disagreement with each other about their baby’s sleep. They need help to come to an agreement about how to teach their baby to sleep. Often one or both of them are anxious about the “cry-it-out” methods of sleep-training. The “tough-on-sleep” books, like those by Ferber or Weissbluth or The Baby Whisperer offer one-size-fits-all solutions which don’t really fit anyone very well. Even privately hired sleep consultants can be inflexible.
The worst way of all to deal with sleep problems is to make a sudden and desperate decision in the middle of the night. “Ok, that’s it – we’ve had it! He’s not coming into our bed anymore – we’ll just let him cry!” This kind of action hardly ever works out. The baby is totally baffled and upset. The parents start out frustrated (or even angry) and then quickly feel guilty and after a period of letting the baby cry, they “give in” and cuddle the baby back to sleep. This solves nothing and wastes everyone’s time and energy.
What families need is a time to discuss the problem and come up with a practical plan. They need a plan that matches their parenting values and their beliefs about their baby’s needs. Then they need support as they carry out the plan, and help making changes to it as they find out what works for them and what doesn’t. This is what I try to do in my sleep consulting practice.