When Should I Start Sleep Training?
Updated: Apr 1, 2021
“So, is your baby sleeping through the night yet?” a mom you’re talking to asks. You blush, unsure how to answer. Your baby wakes every couple of hours, and sleeps only when you are holding her. “She’s a great sleeper,” you reply, feeling your mothering skill being judged.
As a culture, we tend to equate infant sleep with parenting prowess. Books and products are targeted at new parents to get your babies to sleep longer, sooner, alone, in a crib, etc. You’ve probably heard the terms “controlled crying,” “cry it out,” “extinction” and “Ferberize” or “cosleeping” and “the family bed.” You may have seen special sleep sacks or heartbeat bears to keep a baby comfortable, physically and emotionally. So much stuff out there, but so few clues as to what’s normal for a baby.
Many new parents think their babies have sleep problems and there’s a huge market for sleep training books, classes and consultations. Can sleep training help? Are there any drawbacks? Does it make a difference if you’re breastfeeding or bottle feeding?
On a positive note, though, this frequent waking may be protective against SIDS and can certainly facilitate infant growth by signaling feeding more often.
What’s normal for infant sleep?
When parents are able to better understand infant sleep, they are less likely to see their baby’s pattern as a “problem,” and more likely to understand it as normal newborn behavior. Newborn babies sleep lots – 12 to 20 hours a day. They wake often, and rarely sleep longer than 3 hours at a time, around the clock. And some babies have their days and nights confused – they have yet to develop a circadian rhythm. So, they wake us when we were hoping to sleep.
Adults typically fall asleep and go directly into deep sleep. We then cycle through the other stages, and eventually into REM or light sleep. As our sleep session continues, we have more REM sleep and less deep sleep. A typical sleep cycle for adults lasts about 90 minutes. Infants, on the other hand, start their sleep in the lightest stage, REM sleep, which researchers think is necessary for brain development. After 20 minutes or so, they move into deep sleep, but start to arouse after a 60-minute sleep cycle.
See the disconnect? Babies’ sleep cycles are much shorter than their adult caretakers – so those adults are being awakened before they are “done” sleeping. On a positive note, though, this frequent waking may be protective against SIDS and can certainly facilitate infant growth by signaling feeding more often.
As an adult, think for a moment of how you sleep. Do you get eight uninterrupted hours a night (before kids!), or do you need 10 hours to feel your best? Maybe you can get by on as few as four or five hours. Do you sleep with your partner, the dog, the cat, a blanket, on the same side of the bed every night? And do you need those things to sleep well? Do you wake to check the clock or use the bathroom? Do you wake because you’re hungry, lonely, in pain, under stress? Are you a morning person – waking early and most productive before noon – or are you a night owl who gets their best work done between 8pm and midnight? All of these are normal for adult sleep – and we can apply that to infant sleep, too.
Sleeping long stretches is a developmental milestone for babies, and it cannot be rushed. In fact, researchers typically define “sleeping through the night” as a 5-hour stretch (which may not exactly be your idea of a full night’s sleep). At age 1, your baby may still need occasional nighttime soothing and this is completely normal. And as your baby meets other developmental markers like teething, crawling, walking, etc. expect sleep patterns to change again.
Sleeping long stretches is a developmental milestone for babies, and it cannot be rushed. In fact, researchers typically define “sleeping through the night” as a 5-hour stretch.
What is sleep training?
‘Sleep training’ is the umbrella term used for any program that aims to teach you how to get your baby to sleep differently than they are now. Mostly, the programs focus on teaching your baby how to self-soothe or to fall asleep without you. Some programs can be more rigid or harsh than others, and some entail more crying than others (mostly from the baby, but maybe from you, too).
Pros of sleep training
Once your baby needs less of you to fall asleep, you may get more sleep. You may find that you have some extra time in the evening to spend with your partner or older children, or just relaxing and decompressing from a busy day caring for a newborn. And everyone in the household may do better during the day because you’re all getting more rest at night.
Cons of sleep training
Sleep training can have some drawbacks. It can be hard to listen to your baby crying, so you may experience some emotional distress while you work on getting your baby to fall asleep apart from you.
While you may sometimes get some more solid sleep, it won’t necessarily happen every night.
Critics believe that babies are hard-wired to expect shared sleep, that is, sleeping with their primary caregiver (typically mom). That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends sleeping with your baby in your room for the at least first six months of their life but preferably the first year. Research has found this practice helps protect your baby from SIDS. In fact, when mom and baby sleep apart, baby sleeps more deeply (which experts believe increases the risk of SIDS), mom wakes less often but more fully when she does need to get up (making it harder for her to fall back to sleep, and leading to less sleep overall).
If the sleep training program uses any type of controlled crying (letting your baby cry for any amount of time before you ‘rescue’ them), you may wonder if this increases your baby’s stress level. In fact, you may read that eventually sleep for longer stretches because they simply ‘give up.’ Research, however, about this is controversial and hasn’t come to any firm conclusions.
Missing nighttime feedings can lead to a lower milk supply overall, and even to growth problems for your baby, in addition to increasing clogged ducts which can increase the risk for mastitis.
Sleep training can impact breastfeeding
If you are breastfeeding, continuing to follow your baby’s feeding cues - even when they happen at night - is the best way to keep up a good milk supply. In fact, because your prolactin (the milk-making hormone) levels are higher at night, those nursing sessions can be an important part of supply maintenance. Missing nighttime feedings can lead to a lower milk supply overall, and even to growth problems for your baby, in addition to increasing clogged ducts which can increase the risk for mastitis.
If you want to try sleep training
Learn more about the method you’re thinking of using. Search for books and sleep experts that match your parenting philosophy. Some popular methods and titles include: The Happiest Baby on the Block, Taking Cara Babies, The No-Cry Sleep Solution, and the Ferber method among others. Each has their pros and cons, and some impact breastfeeding more than others. Isla-Grace and Ebb+Flow are baby-led, attachment based, gentle sleep approaches that are very complimentary to breastfeeding. Do your research before getting started.
If you’re breastfeeding, most experts recommend waiting until your baby is at least 4- to 6-months-old to try any sleep training program. But you can lay firm foundations for good sleep habits before then by learning your baby’s individual tiredness cues, getting into an evening / bedtime routine, and setting up regular napping depending on your baby’s age. Expect regressions along the way, and don’t take them as a sign that your program isn’t working. Always reassess how it’s going and don’t be afraid to discontinue what you’re doing if it doesn’t feel right to you. You know your baby best, so use your intuition.
You know your baby best, so use your intuition.
How to cope when your baby wakes often
Sleep deprivation is a huge hurdle for all new parents – whether you are breast- or bottle-feeding, whether this is your first baby or your fifth. Here are some tips that can help you get a little more rest even when your sleep in interrupted more than you’d like:
Learn to breastfeed lying down. While you may not sleep, you will get more rest. Make sure that the area is safe for your infant, though, in case you doze off, too.
During the day, try to rest when your baby sleeps. Let your baby sleep in the same room where you are during the day – even if noisy siblings are playing, you’re watching television, or your partner is talking to you. These everyday noises will help your baby start to organize a day/night pattern.
At night, sleep with your baby near you, in the same room. Keep diaper-changing supplies near your bed. This will keep you from having to wake much for those nighttime feedings.
Occasionally, catch up on your sleep deficit. If you’re really struggling, trade off with your partner when you both have a day off. Even a few hours of uninterrupted sleep when you’re sure someone else will be responsible for baby’s needs can make a world of difference.
Get regular exercise and take in some fresh air every day, and eat a well-balanced diet – you’ll feel better even if your sleep is regularly fragmented.
Having your expectations in line with normal newborn sleep patterns will help you better answer the question “Is your baby sleeping through the night?” You can simply say, “Yes, she sleeps like a baby.”
Most importantly, know that this stage will pass. Eventually babies sleep longer periods, and mostly at night. Around age 3- to 4-months, most babies are starting to consolidate their sleep and are sleeping longer stretches at night. In fact, a recent study concluded that babies’ sleep ‘problems’ are typically normal behaviors and are usually resolved by a toddler’s second birthday. Having your expectations in line with normal newborn sleep patterns will help you better answer the question “Is your baby sleeping through the night?” You can simply say, “Yes, she sleeps like a baby.”
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