Source: Indys Child Parenting Magazine

Sleep Training 101: A Primer for Parents
How to train your baby to sleep

by Sarah McCosham

July 01, 2012

Everyone warns of the sleep deprivation that comes with parenthood, but it’s a phenomenon that cannot be fully understood until it’s been experienced. It’s an overwhelming, all consuming, “I’ve-never-been-this-tired-in-my-life” fatigue.

For Jon and Alissa Paasch, developing a game plan was crucial with the arrival of new baby Josie, now three months. Between Josie’s sporadic sleep schedule, Alissa’s constant nighttime breastfeeding, and the random awakenings of their three-year-old daughter, Cleo, Jon says that he and Alissa had to make a “sanity schedule.”

“I take the ‘first’ shift, which runs from about 8-9 pm until the 1:30 a.m. feeding. At 1:30, the torch gets passed to Alissa, who feeds Josie, then covers the rest of the early morning.” While admittedly not ideal, Jon says that, “at least we know when we'll get to sleep, and our bodies have the chance to find a consistent rhythm.”

Jon and Alissa admit they’re nervous to begin formal sleep training with Josie, which, as with Cleo, they plan to start around four months. “It will be interesting to see how Josie takes to sleeping in her own bedroom when the time comes,” Jon confesses.

Let’s put the Paasch’s—and countless other parents’—fears to rest by tackling the topic of sleep training.

Baby Basics

Despite how “natural” an activity sleep seems to be, it’s actually a skill that needs to be learned and mastered by infants.

“Sleep is a natural function; however, babies take a while to regulate their sleep patterns. Generally, most babies will begin to sleep through the night at around three to four months of age,” explains Dr. Nerissa S. Bauer, Behavioral Pediatrician and Assistant Professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Notably, most parents grossly underestimate how much sleep their baby needs. "Adequate sleep depends on the child's age,” says Dr. Bauer. “Infants need approximately 16 hours of sleep per day; by 1 year of age the need is 14 hours.”

Sleep Training Explained

Sleep training is the method of normalizing your baby’s sleep patterns to a more conventional schedule. There are two main approaches, involving either crying or not crying. Simply put, the “cry it out method” advocates putting your baby to bed awake, and letting him cry until he falls asleep. The other method involves no tears. You comfort your child as soon as she cries, with the theory being that your baby will feel more comfortable falling into a routine if she feels nurtured.

Dr. Bauer recommends that parents begin sleep training as early as possible, in order to help your baby learn to self-soothe and develop a healthy sleep pattern.

“When the baby is awake, feed him, hold and talk with him, walk or rock him.” This helps your baby understand what “being awake” means, and to differentiate wakefulness from sleep.

Dr. Bauer continues: “Do the opposite at night – when he wakes, feed him in a quiet, darkened room and do not stimulate him with other activities.” Dr. Bauer advocates putting the baby to bed when drowsy, but still awake, so the baby will learn to self-soothe.

Jon says that this is the same technique he and Alissa followed with Cleo. “At four months, Cleo started sleeping in her own bedroom. “We would go in to sooth Cleo when she woke up, but would leave when she was sleepy so she would learn to self soothe,” he says.

However, Jon admits, “It's hard to listen to your child cry when you first move her to her own bedroom. Going in to comfort Cleo in her crib when she cried, but not taking her out of her bedroom, was really difficult.”

Relatively quickly, though, Jon said that Cleo figured out what to do, and she has been a pretty strong sleeper ever since.

Getting Help

If you’re struggling with sleep training, there are professionals who can help. Nanny services or postpartum doulas are excellent places to look.

Machelle Hartford, founder of Indianapolis’ Solutions Home Staffing, says that hiring a nanny can be helpful for both first-time parents and parents of multiple children. Hartford matches such families with a nanny that specializes in sleep training, which can be on a part-time, full-time, or overnight basis.

In addition, Hartford says lifestyle and schedule are key in developing a course of action for sleep training. For example, if both parents work and the baby needs to be at daycare by 8:00 a.m., there needs to be a set sleeping schedule.

Regardless of the personality or lifestyle of the family, Hartford says that having help can really lift some of the burden and stress for parents with an infant.

Getting a Good Night’s Sleep

Whatever approach you choose, make sure you pick a method that: a) you and your partner are comfortable with, and b) works with your child’s personality. In other words, you need to find an approach that you’ll stick with – even if you have a few rough nights here and there.

Finally, “trust your instincts” as a parent, says Hartford. Learn to pick up on your baby’s cues, and the rest will fall into place, she promises. “There are a lot of books and methods out there,” says Hartford, "but remember, you know your baby best.”