I can still remember the very first time I heard of “sleep training.” I was 7 months pregnant, having a girls' night out with some other mamas, and I remember thinking, “Really, you have to train a baby to sleep?” At the time, I brushed it off thinking the perfect human I was growing in my belly would never have sleep issues; I mean he was perfect, right? WRONG. Well, yes he is perfect, but sleep issues he did have. The idea of sleep training can be a bit overwhelming with so much information out there, but I will break it all down for you here, including when it’s the best time to start and what to expect at every age.
It is never too early to start teaching your little one healthy sleep habits, and that begins with newborns. Though you would not technically “sleep train” a newborn, you can set the groundwork to help them develop independent sleep skills. At this age, sleep is broken up into only 2 stages, REM (active sleep) and Non-REM (quiet sleep). In REM, the brain processes and consolidates information--this is when the brain is developing cognitive and physical skills. In Non-REM the body restores and repairs; this sleep is deep and regenerative. Newborn sleep cycles are only about 50 minutes long and you can expect newborns to sleep up to 18 hours a day. Your goal here should be to achieve a good feed schedule concentrating on a “feed-play-sleep” routine. Great news! At this age, there are no bad habits.
This is when there is a reorganization of sleep! What was once only two stages of sleep now develops into four stages, with the additional stages being those of lighter sleep. With these lighter stages come Baby waking through the night, as we all do, but she does not know how to self soothe! She will look for whatever was there initially to soothe her to sleep. At this age it is important to allow your baby to figure out how to begin the journey into sleep without you. Routines are important, including an early bedtime, as well as consistency. If you start at this age, babies have a better chance of not developing a dependency on sleep props. Keep in mind that when they begin to hit certain milestones such as rolling over, sleep training can prove to be challenging.
This is a great age to start sleep training, though again watch out for milestones! Remember, we all have good and bad nights, so if your baby has hit a milestone and sleep suffers, be patient and stay consistent.
Around this time separation anxiety begins as your baby is now aware that you still exist even though you are not present. Stay the course if you begin sleep training at this age as I recommend extra cuddles to help calm that anxiety!
12- 24 months
This is again a great age to sleep train, but be prepared to start setting those boundaries and stick to them.
Children at this age are natural boundary-pushers so if ever there was a time to be consistent, this is the age. They are extremely persistent and manipulative; however, they LOVE structure and routine. Though sleep training may take a bit longer than when they are younger, you will still see results. A reward system tends to work well at this age, as well as giving consequences for uncooperative behavior.
Your focus here should really be on sleep education, implementing structure and a new sleep routine. These components can take a little longer in older children, so again be patient and stay the course.
The bottom line is it is never too early OR too late to begin implementing healthy sleep habits. I would argue that sleep is just as important as exercise and nutrition when trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Without it you cannot function, so give your child the gift of a great night's sleep and help develop healthy habits which will last a lifetime.
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.