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Getting a baby is a wonderful thing, but everybody knows that it is also one of the most stressful periods you’ll experience in your life. No matter how many books you’ve read about parenthood, or how many courses you’ve taken, once the baby comes, it is a completely different story. The chaos emerges, and you finally understand all of those exhausted parents.
Sleep training refers to a series of methods you use to teach your toddler how to sleep well independently. Babies often rely on their parents’ presence and intervention to fall asleep or go back to sleep if they’ve woken up in the middle of the night. To ensure that you and your toddler get the best sleep possible, it is usually a good idea to use one of the techniques to help them learn to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own. Experts proposed many ways to accomplish this, but unfortunately, there is no formula that works in all the cases. Babies, like adults, are all different individuals, so you’ll probably need to try out a few things, and figure out what works best for your child.
Why Should I Try Sleep Training?
Sleep is one of those parts of your life where you should never make compromises. It is essential for our health and well-being, so it might be a good idea to teach your children how to get sufficient sleep from the early stages. As funny as it sounds for such a basic need, it doesn’t come naturally to everybody. Proper rest is even more important for infants, as they are learning about life, their body is developing, and they need adequate rest for growth and brain development. A life of a baby pretty much consists of feeding, playing with caretakers and sleeping. By training them to sleep well you’ll help your baby get the adequate rest, but you’ll also prevent yourself from all the sleepless nights and exhaustion.
When To Start Sleep Training?
It is an interesting question as experts are divided on this topic, and unfortunately, there is no solid scientific research that can objectively say what is the best time to start sleep training. Some experts say that you should start right away, the sooner, the better; some say that sleep training is not necessary at all, and that you should leave your children to develop their comfortable pattern, adjust to them and make sure they are comfortable. However, the majority of researchers agree that you shouldn’t intervene with your baby’s sleep habits before your child is 4-6 months old. They based this timeline on several developmental milestones. You should also remember that every child is individual and that they do things at their own pace, so don’t rush them into anything, and whatever you try, keep a close look on how they behave and if they benefit from sleep training.
For the first three months of their lives, babies have a hard time recognizing whether it is night or day. That is because their circadian rhythms have not yet been developed and synchronized with the environment. The circadian rhythm is a biological 24-hour cycle, like an internal clock that tells our body when is the time to go to sleep, be awake, and do other daily activities.
When our internal clock is working well, our brain produces melatonin, a hormone that tells our body that it is time to sleep. The production of melatonin begins in the evening, a couple of hours before we go to sleep, the levels then raise and peak during the night, ensuring that we stay asleep and allow our bodies and minds to restore during this time. The melatonin levels then drop, and they are low in the morning when we should wake up, and continue to be minimal during the day. In the morning starts the production of cortisol, a hormone that plays a role in our alertness, as well as other signals that tell our body and brain that it is the time to be awake and productive.
The immaturity of the baby’s circadian rhythm is apparent in the first few weeks, as their sleep is spread pretty evenly throughout the day. After that, they start adjusting and get used to sleeping mostly at night. The key is not to worry and try to make it through this period the best way you can. Let your toddlers sleep when they want, feed them if they’re hungry, play with them and keep them occupied during the waking hours.
Another thing that made researchers say that you shouldn’t start sleep training before your baby reaches four months is eating patterns. Newborns quickly digest breast milk and formula, and they need to be fed every two to three hours, which leads to 8-12 meals during the 24 hours. That limits their ability to sleep for longer stretches, and you should feed them whenever they show signs of hunger. At about three months of age, the baby’s stomach has grown a little bit, and they can eat more and be full for a little longer. At this point, they’ll require six to eight feedings per day, and they can likely go 8 to 12 hours each night without food.
Sleep Training Methods
If you have decided to sleep train your child, there are many different techniques developed by sleep experts. These methods are debated a lot in the scientific community, as there are no studies done that can highlight the real benefits and cons of a specific approach. However, they are widely suggested by the pediatricians, and so far, it looks like the anecdotal evidence goes in favor of them. Remember that every child is different, so even if something worked for one of your kids, it doesn’t mean that it will work for others as well. We present you the three most common approaches:
Cry it Out Methods
Some researchers think that crying is an avoidable part of sleep training and that you must endure this to get your baby to sleep well. The human brain is hardwired in a way that you can’t ignore a crying baby, it sets off the alarm in your head, and you can’t focus on anything else. Various methods fall into this category, but most of them include letting your baby cry for a certain period before intervening and offering comfort. The behavioral term for this procedure is extinction, and it is the most commonly suggested approach recommended by the pediatricians.
The idea method this technique is that your baby is well prepared to learn how to sleep on their own; they need a little support. If you have to carry them around or rock them to sleep every time they wake up, it can be very exhausting for all both parents and the child. However, hearing your baby cry and not doing anything about it can be extremely difficult, as people tend to feel bad and like they are hurting their child. Don’t worry, as pediatricians say that the crying is entirely reasonable for babies and that they’ll stop once they acquire the skills to self-soothe and realize that sleeping on their own is okay. Remember that this doesn’t mean that you should put your kid to sleep, shut the door, ignore them completely and open the door in the morning.
First, you want to set an adequate sleeping atmosphere in your toddler’s room. Keep it dark, quiet, and at the temperature that is comfortable for adults. Don’t overdress your baby as heat and sweating are not great for sleeping. Do the regular bedtime routine, put the baby in a crib, say goodnight and leave the room. If your baby starts crying, wait for a minute or two before reentering the room to reassure them. Don’t turn on the lights, keep your voice quiet and soothing, and remember not to pick them up even if they are still crying. This is very important, as you want to kick off this habit. Instead of picking them up, lightly pat them, with reassuring words, and try to calm them. Leave the room again even if they are still crying, and wait a little longer to come back this time. Repeat this routine until your child falls asleep while you are out of the room. Increase absent time intervals a little bit each time, and between the nights. After a week in your baby should be ready to sleep on their own.
There is no answer on how long you should be absent from the room; it depends on your child and also how comfortable you are with them crying. Hearing your precious kid cry is extremely hard for the parents, and that is why most of them give in right on the first night. If you have decided on this method, keep in mind that it needs some time, so prepare for hell during the first week. Also, this method is not ideal if you have other kids, since crying will most likely disturb their sleep patterns, so you should probably look for different approaches if that is the case.
No Tears Methods
If you are not a big fan of the idea of your baby crying, don’t worry, some approaches result in fewer tears. The experts who support this method think that nighttime is a special opportunity for building a connection and getting closer to your child. They feel that the nightly rest should be peaceful, quiet and that you should tend to your baby’s cry right away to maintain that relaxing atmosphere. They believe that “cry it out” techniques create a negative association with the sleep time, and that it can lead to a lot more problems later on. That’s why they want to build this calming sleep environment, and to make positive associations that will lead to good sleeping habits later on.
On the other hand, pediatricians and experts who support the “cry it out” approach, think that crying for short periods isn’t traumatic and that this little sacrifice is needed for the more significant benefit of your baby’s sleep quality. They also think that no tear methods makes toddlers overly dependent on their parent’s intervention, and prevents them from developing self-soothing skills. This dependence can lead to sleep onset association disorder.
These approaches are somewhere in the middle of the previous two methods. It is a more gentle version of cry it out technique, and also suitable for those who think that tending to every noise your child makes is not a good idea. In fading approach, a parent gradually lowers his role in the baby’s falling asleep, giving them room to learn how to self-soothe. For many experts and parents, this is the best method, with least tears and more sleep for everyone.
There are two main approaches to fading: timed check-ins and camping out. With camping-out, the idea is to slowly move away from your baby’s crib until you can leave the room without them minding. You can do this by positioning your chair a little bit further every other night while remaining in your baby’s eyesight. Start right by them, and then slowly move away until you can stand by the door, and after two weeks you should be ready to leave the room. If they cry or fuss at any point, use a quiet shushing sound or a light pet for reassurance.
Timed check-ins require you to put your baby to sleep and then check them after some time to reassure them if they fuss or cry. That interval is usually 5 minutes, but you can make it as long as you feel is necessary. Repeat this until your baby is asleep. This is different than crying out the method as these intervals are fixed, and you shouldn’t make them longer.
How to Increase Your Toddler’s Sleep Quality?
Many pediatricians think that sleep training is essential and that you should start it right away if you don’t want your baby to have sleep problems. But don’t worry, it’s not like that. If you are satisfied with your child’s sleeping habits than there is no need for intervention. It is also okay to wait; there is no need to start sleep training at four months. Wait and see how it goes, and try to create a good sleeping environment and develop healthy habits in your child. Most parents go for sleep training when their baby’s sleep problems persist, and after they are so sleep deprived that they can’t sleep. Here are some tips on how to improve sleep in your toddler:
- Develop routines as children thrive on them. Feed them, play with them, and put them for naps and sleep at the same time every day. Also create a relaxing bedtime routine, like bathing, reading, singing a lullaby, and then kissing them goodnight. Putting your child to sleep at the same time every evening will help set their internal clock.
- Make sure the crib is safe and comfortable, and keep their room dark and quiet. If there is light coming from the street, get the blackout curtains to stop it. You can also get a white noise machine to prevent other disturbances that are coming from the outside. There are some more baby products you might want to consider.
- Stimulate your kids daily. Play with them, get them age-appropriate puzzles to exercise their minds, and shower them with love and affection.
- Don’t compare them to other kids as some are naturally good sleepers, while others struggle with this part. If you have decided for some training methods, stick with them as every routine needs some time to kick in.
- Whatever you want to do, consult with your pediatrician first. They know your child closely, and they can give you the best advice specially tailored to your baby’s needs.
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Dusan is a biologist, a science enthusiast and a huge nature lover. He loves to keep up to date with all the new research and write accurate science-based articles. When he’s not writing or reading, you can find him in the kitchen, trying out new delicious recipes; out in the wild, enjoying the nature or sleeping in his bed.