As a mom of two young children and a Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant, I understand firsthand how the decision to sleep train your child is not an easy one. I work with families every day who struggle with endless wake ups during the night for months or even years. As anyone can imagine or has experienced, this causes sleep deprivation to take a tremendous toll on both the parents and their child. A mom and dad can usually understand the importance of 11-13 hours of uninterrupted sleep throughout the night for their son or daughter but continue to have some valid questions about whether or not sleep training is a good choice for their family. Here are the most common concerns I hear from parents about sleep training and some straight talk to help put your mind at ease about giving your child the gift of sleep! Remember, sleep is not a luxury – it is a necessity!
- There will be no flexibility once my child is on a strict routine. For many families, having a schedule for their little ones seems overwhelming. It is completely understandable that there is a huge need for parents to get out of the house, especially if they are on parental leave during their baby’s first year. I agree that it is not healthy to be house bound all day every day. While sleep training does require a commitment of at least two weeks in order to establish a child’s new sleep routines, families actually have more flexibility once the sleep training period is done because they have a predictable schedule to work around. If children have a solid routine most of the week and then have an occasional nap on the go or a later bedtime one night, they can get back on track easily again the next day.
- Sleep Training means letting your child Cry-It-Out. What does it mean when a child cries? Many things – they may be hungry, have gas, be overtired and a million other things! I remember being told over and over again while I was pregnant with my daughter that I would be able to determine what her cries were for…..nope….they all sounded exactly the same to me so I was always guessing. I soon realized that endless hours of bouncing and walking the floor or breastfeeding non-stop to try and calm her were not responding to her need for sleep.
When I work with families to help their little ones sleep well, I expect them to cry for at least the first few nights but we work together to minimize the amount of crying. Parents are also shown how to be there as a full support system by guiding and reassuring their child as they learn this skill. The good news is once they learn how to develop an internal self-soothing strategy, they are quite happy doing it on their own. Babies will end up babbling and turning over, falling asleep happily, usually after the first few nights as they become familiar with the routines and come to love the feeling of being rested – who doesn’t look forward to a good night of sleep? I often wonder why sleep has this stigma as being a sort of ‘punishment’ for children, as sleep is necessary for important brain development, the ability to focus, learn, grow and feel energetic throughout the day.
A recent randomized, controlled trial published in the journal Pediatrics involving 43 infants between the ages of six months and 16 months tested two techniques (both of which involved some crying) to help parents whose babies were having trouble falling asleep and were waking up often in the middle of the night. Both techniques did not find elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the infants nor did it find significant differences in parental attachment or behavioural problems in those infants 12 months later.
So sleep training does not mean “crying-it-out”, but it is normal for children to protest as they learn the skill.
- One day my child will magically sleep through the night. Maybe but likely not without some sort of help and support from mom or dad. I have seen children who are under 12 months to 5 years of age, with their individual personalities, take their own path to learning how to sleep well and independently. The great news is that all of them learn to sleep well. Some children sleep through immediately on the first night, while others have a challenging first few nights and progress more gradually, but at the end of our time together, all children have the ability to reach their sleep goals. I have seen even the most determined child learn to love their sleep! It is just like teaching little ones how to ride a bike – some do it more quickly than others. At some point parents have to take off the training wheels and let their children learn how to balance and ride on their own. You wouldn’t be helping them if you put the training wheels back on every time they fell down. With sleep, you are not helping your child or yourself by waiting it out. There is no magic pill but there is a definitely a path to learning how to do it.
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