I am a Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant and when I first tell people what I do for a living I am usually met with a blank stare quickly followed by, “Oh my gosh I didn’t know you existed! Please help me!” We are made to believe that as a parent we not only have to raise a well-grounded, compassionate, intelligent human being, but we are to do it on very little to no sleep. Well, I am here to tell you that is simply not true.
Teaching your child to sleep independently is one of the greatest gifts you can give to them. It is something they will use for the rest of their life which is imperative for a healthy lifestyle. Sleep is a complex issue, however, there are some basic steps you can follow to help get your child sleeping through the night.
First and foremost, let’s be clear that no baby, child, or adult will actually sleep through the night. We all have cycles of sleep; some light, some deep, and depending on what stage of sleep you are in it is natural to wake numerous times throughout the night. The key is once you learn how to put yourself back to sleep you feel as though you never woke at all.
So how do you do it? First, you want to make sure your child’s environment is quiet, dark, and peaceful. A crib should be boring, with no mobiles or items which stimulate Baby. Once your child is in a big boy/girl bed there should be no toys in bed; however, a lovey stuffed animal or something similar is just fine.
Early bedtimes are key. I usually recommend a bedtime between 6 pm and 8 pm depending on the age, but usually, aim for no later than 7:30 pm. This helps to prevent overtiredness which is a little one’s worst enemy.
Routine, Routine, Routine! A bedtime routine is extremely important. Setting up a predictable routine helps to cue the body and brain that it’s time for sleep. This routine should be no longer than 20-30 minutes.
Most importantly, DO NOT allow your baby/child to fall asleep during the bedtime routine. They need to be put in bed or the crib while awake. Babies that are nursed or rocked to sleep will then need to be nursed or rocked every time they wake up during the night.
So, when is the best time to start? I say immediately. It is never too early for your child to start learning healthy sleep habits. However, when you start talking about your baby sleeping through the night there are a few things that need to be considered such as weight, major medical concerns, and if they are on a healthy growth curve approved by their pediatrician. If all checks out, then you can begin down the path of teaching your baby to sleep through the night.
So how do you do this without upsetting and potentially traumatizing your child? Some of you may have heard of the cry-it-out method. For those of you that have not, this is when you place your child in their crib/bed, shut the door and then let them cry until they fall asleep. For some, this works, but in my experience, most parents (me included) do not feel comfortable with this approach. Instead, the goal is to support, nurture and gently help guide your child as he or she learns to fall asleep independently. Changing one’s sleep environment will almost always be met with some type of protest, but you do not have to leave your baby to cry or ignore their cries.
Teaching your child to sleep independently or “sleep training” as you may have heard it called sometimes gets a bad rep. Usually, this is because it’s assumed the “cry-it-out” method is used, which I believe I have made clear is not the case.
Let me dispel a few other myths before I wrap this up:
- You can’t absolutely breastfeed and sleep train. You absolutely CAN!
- You can’t co-sleep or have little ones share a room. This is no problem! You can still teach your child to fall asleep and stay asleep independently.
- Sleep training is only for babies and toddlers. Incorrect! I work with children up to 8 years old, and as they get older there is more focus on sleep education.
Finally, what exactly do I do as a sleep consultant? I first get to know your child, learn his or her personality, developmental milestones, schedules, nighttime issues, and naps. With this information, I prepare a detailed and customized plan specifically for your little one. After our initial consult where we review the plan together, you then pick a start date and I’m there effectively holding your hand, step by step while you implement the plan. We are in constant contact celebrating successes, dealing with any setbacks and discussing any questions along the way. Change is hard, as we all know, so accountability around change is important and that is what I offer! By following my plan, we can reach your sleep goals and you will see substantial changes in 2-3 weeks.
If you are struggling with sleep issues, there is help! Just because you became a parent does not mean you have to give up a good night’s sleep.
Tricia Lowman is a Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant and owner of Count Sheep with Me. She is Mom to Jackson and wife to Jake Veldran. Originally from Maryland, she grew up in the Lowcountry and is passionate about helping little ones and their exhausted parents sleep better.