As a parent, you’ve probably already picked up that a baby’s sleeping patterns can be notoriously chaotic. Supporting this vital component of your baby’s development is often referred to as sleep training.
If you’re thinking that sounds a little militant – you’re not alone! For me, ‘sleep training’ isn’t a term I tend to use. Instead, I refer to this process as ‘sleep guidance’ – a gentle approach using response based settling techniques.
Sleep-Training versus Sleep-Guidance
Pop the words ‘baby sleep help’ into Google and you’ll be bombarded with pages of articles about sleep training but it might leave you wondering, what exactly is sleep training?
I refer to this as sleep guidance because the aim is to support your baby to self-settle. Sleep training sounds very hands-on, but the ideal scenario is to guide our babies to soothe themselves calmly to sleep without adult intervention.
Every baby has a differing natural ability to self-settle. This is impacted by a variety of factors including their innate temperament and genetics, how their needs are responded to from an early age and their environment.
Another key factor is their age and developmental stage.
As a sleep consultant, one of the biggest questions’ parents come to me with is when they should start sleep training/guidance with their baby. The answer isn’t as straight forward as pinpointing a specific month, but understanding where your baby is at with their development can help you to start putting the right support and guidance in place at the right time for them.
Here’s what I recommend:
Newborns and the First Few Months
Your baby is adjusting to life outside the womb and needs security, care and a lot of patience. At this age, your baby can’t distinguish between day and night and will require regular night-time feeds. They sleep a lot at this age – up to 17 hours a day – this is usually on demand.
Many parents ask me if they should start sleep training a newborn baby. The answer is yes and no. At this stage, you want to help your baby learn the difference between day and night, by gradually introducing gentle cues for sleep and settling at these times.
Start with some gentle repetitions of events leading up to nighttime, such as swaddling, dimming the lights and singing lullabies. Your baby needs to feel secure, so responding to them is essential to promote their attachment to you. If they do not naturally self-soothe, now is not the time to deny them your attention.
From Three Months Onwards
From this age, your baby should have a better understanding of day and night, along with better body clock regulation. You’ll probably notice a natural pattern emerge around their sleep and feeding habits from around four months.
Your baby’s sleep may reduce to between 12 and 16 hours a day. Now is the time when you should be more aware of their awake and sleep windows so you can begin guiding them towards self-soothing sleep. You’ll need to start replacing their dependent sleep associations with independent ones:
- Dependent Sleep Associations: These are the associations that your baby relies on from you to care for them and support them into sleep. They include things like rocking or cuddling them, singing to them, using a dummy, or taking them for a walk/drive.
- Independent Sleep Associations: These are the associations you can help your baby develop that require no involvement from you, yet support them into sleep. This includes things like creating the right sleep environment such as a dark room, white noise or some low music, and consistency around the times you put them down for a nap.
At three months, your baby is still learning and may not be able to self-soothe entirely but this is the starting point to put in place the micro actions that will build long term and successful sleep training.
Sleep and Your Baby’s Emotional and Mental Health
Many parents I work with are concerned about whether they should pick their baby up every time they cry when they’re starting sleep training.
This is an important thing to consider. Your baby’s mental and emotional health feeds directly into how well they sleep. Crying is a core way baby’s communicate with us. When you ignore a crying baby, you inform them that their needs aren’t going to be met. This can cause your baby to feel anxious the next time you lay them down for sleep. Their stress hormones go into overdrive and, at such a young age, they lack the capacity to find a state of calm.
They may become vigilant and ultra-alert as they feel unsafe in their environment and uncertain if their needs will be met.
As you can imagine, this emotional state does not equate to a peaceful cycle of sleep.
Sleep training doesn’t happen overnight (to pardon the pun) and will be a process of working with your own unique baby as they grow. In their early months, it is recommended that you make time to observe and learn about your baby and understand their cries. By doing this you will be able to differentiate between a “grizzle” (just observe) and distressed cry (required to be picked up). Every baby is different and every parent is different.
Knowing when to get help?
Some babies won’t need any help with their sleep, but if you’re at a point where you feel overwhelmed, anxious, helpless or just a bit lost with sleep training your baby – now could be the time to get some help.
If you’re also feeling like you’ve tried every suggestion in the book and it’s still not working – now could be the time to get some help.
Seeking help doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a parent. On the contrary, it means you’ve identified a need for your baby and you’re addressing that need proactively.
Sleep Training Guidance FAQs
1. Is three months old too early to start sleep training?
So when do you start sleep training your baby… At 3 months It’s not too early to begin the process, but you should focus on gentle settling cues at this age only. Your baby is still learning all about their new environment and you need to ensure you provide a safe, nurturing and consistent space for them to feel secure and grow.
2. How do I teach my baby to self soothe?
This will depend on several factors and vary from baby to baby. The response-based approach I use has been proven to be effective in teaching babies to develop self-settle techniques for sleep.
3. Is it okay to let my newborn cry itself to sleep?
The short answer is, no. As mentioned above, leaving your baby to cry in this manner can have a detrimental impact on their mental and emotional health. With a newborn, you need to ensure you’re creating a safe and supported environment where their needs are met.
4. Can you hold a newborn too much?
No, you can’t! You can’t spoil a baby. Research has found that you can never hold a baby too much and newborns need this interaction to support their physical, emotional and mental health.
Some Final Words On Sleep Training
During the first few months, you may have to resign yourself to accepting your baby is still figuring things out – and that’s okay! There is light at the end of the tunnel.
If you’re wondering about what next steps might look like for you or how and when to start sleep training your baby, you don’t have to figure it alone. I’d love to help.
Book a completely free chat with me here today and let’s help your baby on their way to better sleep.