Gentle Sleep Training is as the name suggests – a gentle approach to getting your little one to settle and sleep through the night. In this article, Meg Faure explores the techniques of Gentle Sleep Training and how to implement them at home.
If your baby is waking frequently at night, you are probably feeling utterly exhausted and at a loss for what to do. We crave a full night’s sleep and will go to almost any lengths to get one. It’s in these moments of desperation, that most parents will consider or investigate sleep training.
In my experience, sleep training is one of those feared terms that creates mental conflict for most parents, who end up researching, deliberating, talking to friends and family – decide, delay, decide again before reaching the point of actually sleep training their little one. It’s a touchy subject – some parents are dead set against it, others are simply so desperate for sleep that the benefits outweigh the possibility of being parent-shamed.
Because mental health is so inextricably linked to sleep and because sleep problems are so endemic in early childhood, I wish every day that I had a magic wand that I could wave to help babies sleep. By the time a mom sees an OT or sleep trainer, they are at the end of the line. They have tried everything and are so sleep deprived that they are grasping at anything to get a full night’s rest.
The good news is that all baby sleep problems can be solved and sleep training can be gentle and powerfully effective.
What is sleep training?
I think it’s important to make the distinction between the blanket term ‘sleep training’ and the cry it out method. Very often the two seem to be synonymous with each other but there are other sleep training techniques that don’t involve the cry it out (CIO) or extinction method. Many describe CIO as the most straightforward sleep training technique. As the name suggests, you will let your baby cry for predetermined amounts of time (minutes) that grow longer as the night goes on. This method is really tough on parents and while it may have the desired result of a full night’s sleep, my feeling is that the method is not ideal for parent or baby.
Lots of parents aren’t comfortable with the CIO method or have tried it and ended up in tears themselves. If you’ve found it doesn’t work for you or you just want to find another route to sleep, I believe that there is a happy medium to be found in gentle sleep training methods.
Bear in mind that the goal of sleep training of any kind is the same – to teach your little one to self soothe or go back to sleep without needing to be rocked, walked, fed, or patted. Essentially, it’s about giving your little one the skills to fall asleep on their own.
Gentle sleep solutions are really a ‘kit’ of tools that, when used together, offer an alternative to very stringent approaches. These methods are covered in depth in my Sleep Sense course.
How to start gentle sleep training
I start with a series of questions to help parents with a broader approach to sleep training. Ask yourself:
- Is your baby well? Never sleep train your baby if you think they might be ill. Have your paediatrician check for Glue ear, which often goes undetected and can wreak havoc on your little one’s sleep. In addition, give your little one a Probiotic if they’ve recently had a tummy bug and give them some extra time and patience if they are teething.
- Is your baby well fed and are all their nutritional needs met? Rule out hunger as a reason for waking at night. As a new mom, it’s sometimes hard to know that your baby is satiated – even when they are gaining weight as they should be. Consider real-world breast-feeding tips and if your little one is starting on solids, use our step-by-step weaning guide for science-backed assurance that your little one is getting enough protein at mealtimes throughout the day.
- Does your baby have a good day sleep routine? It’s a myth that babies who skip day sleeps will be so tired that they will sleep through the night. Overtired babies simply won’t sleep well at night so as part of gentle sleep training methods it’s essential to look at whether they are getting enough sleep during the day. Use the Parent Sense app to establish a routine for your little one so that night sleep is less disruptive.
- Are you spending good quality time with your baby or toddler during daylight hours? Sometimes we get so caught up in the busy-ness of life and the physical care of our little ones that we forget that time is love to little ones. We can kiss and cuddle our babies after a nappy change or on waking from a nap but it’s also important to spend 20 minutes a day simply spending time engaging with our little ones. Play a little game of patty cake or peek-a-boo, go for a walk to the park and spend some uninterrupted time running around, swinging and playing. If you’re feeling at a loss for what to do with your little one, you’re not alone. Lots of adults have forgotten how to play and it’s something we need to relearn when we become parents. If your little one is still an infant, subscribe to Parent Sense for daily, age-appropriate play ideas delivered straight to your phone.
- Has your baby established an attachment to a doodoo blanky? It can be a blanket, taglet, stuffed toy or dummy/pacifier. In my 10 Baby Self-Soothing Behaviours (and How to Teach Them) article, I talk about how to teach your little one to form an attachment to an object that they can use to self soothe. All babies need to have a security object to be able to self soothe in the middle of the night and so it’s essential to ensure you’ve given your little one this tool.
Mastering gentle sleep training
Once you’ve asked and answered these 5 questions, you have covered the bases and are set to start gentle baby sleep training or what I like to call ‘Sleep Coaching.’ I prefer this term because you literally coach your baby to self soothe and settle at night and during the day. It is a gentle, positive approach, but it gives your little one a skill that they will use for years to come.
- Having covered the 5 steps above, you are ready to start sleep coaching. When your little one wakes at night be sure that they have their self-soothing object with them in their cot. Don’t rush to their side the second they start to stir – give them a minute or two to find the object and use it to settle. Initially you may have to get up to give your little one their object – do so consistently in place of picking them up to rock, feed or pace/bounce them.
- Sleep coaching also involves being with your baby while they learn the new skill. Don’t leave the room and let your baby cry it out – this is tough on your little one as they may feel deserted and fall asleep out of exhaustion and not because they’ve learnt a new skill.
- It’s important to remember that while you are probably exhausted beyond what you thought was even possible, coaching is gentle because it is done with an attitude of love, not exasperation. If you feel anxious, angry, or scared, don’t sleep train your baby. Work with your partner or family member to get a few good nights to fill up your cup before embarking on gentle sleep training methods.
- A natural tonic that’s safe to use on infants such as Rescue Remedy is good to have on hand to help your baby settle to sleep quicker on the nights you sleep train.
- Lastly, parenting is tough, and this hurdle is probably one of the hardest we face in the early days. The key to gentle sleep training is to be consistent, calm, and caring (with your baby and yourself!) as you coach your baby to find a new skill.
Remember the key to gentle baby sleep training is to rule out the basic issues, to have a plan that allows you to sleep coach with confidence and to take the time you (both) need to settle into this new way of falling and staying asleep. I wish you plenty of much-needed rest!