Great Health Guide
Have you sleep trained your baby without realising it?
Sleep training is a controversial topic and one that can get heated on Mum forums. If I asked, ’Have you sleep trained your baby without realising it?’, you may say, “Surely not, I have not tried yet”.
But what a lot of parents may not realise is that the habits that they commence early on, are indeed a part of sleep training. For better or for worse.
To sleep train or not.
It is not uncommon for babies to wake frequently throughout the night. But when they don’t know how to get back to sleep after they wake, it can cause heartache for all concerned. Parents typically consider formal sleep training if their baby is not sleeping well.
As children develop and grow older, they should consolidate their sleep into longer stretches at night, and not wake more frequently. However, when sleep becomes a problem, it is often because parents have already taught their children to rely on falling asleep in a certain way – and this way has become part of baby’s sleep strategy.
How does this work?
Babies become use to what they know. Often as parents we think that we need to put our baby to sleep. It’s not uncommon to use aids to help get them to sleep. But past the newborn stage, this help is what the babies begin to expect and need.
The most common prop is feeding to assist sleep. If they fall asleep with a bottle or breast in their mouth, they start thinking, “Oh, I must need this to fall asleep, as that’s what I do every nap and night”. They start relying on that way to fall asleep as it is what they have been taught to expect. This can also happen with other props, like rocking to sleep or pacifiers/soothers to assist in sleep.
This informal learning becomes a problem when baby has a naturally occurring wake at night. If they are relying on a prop to get to sleep, they need to call you back to recreate their usual bedtime. Just another feed, more rocking, pop that soother back in. Simply because that is what they have learnt. This can happen at an incredibly early age.
Sometimes this informal sleep training works. There are children who can use props to sleep and sleep through the night – often because they’re not that attached to those props. But often this informal training ends in tears.
Most parents who end up saying that they are going to use formal sleep training are actually in the predicament of having a baby who needs to do some unlearning and then relearn a new way to sleep.
The good news is that babies and young children are primed for learning – they have super genius brains that soak up information quickly. This is especially true between the ages of 3 and 6 months, when they learn cause and effect at a startling rate.
How can parents set up good habits?
• Realise that sleep is natural, and that after the 3-month mark your child is equipped with the means to settle naturally – often by having access to their hands to suck on.
• Create a predictable bedtime routine so it is easier to transition to a relaxed state.
• Put them down in their safe sleep space awake (or relaxed and drowsy as a newborn) so they learn to fall asleep where they wake up.
• When at home, put them in the same place to sleep – for naps and night sleep.
• Once they are past the newborn stage, let them practice moving their body. This is the first stage to a child finding their own means to soothe – and it looks different for everyone.
• If your baby seems unsettled, wait first to see what they do, then comfort them if they need it. We all need to be semi-relaxed to fall into sleep – there is no need to ‘cry it out’.
Understand that you don’t need to put your child to sleep – let them learn to put themselves to sleep, while you encourage and support them in the learning process. If you’ve already sleep trained your baby without realising it – well done. Good, consolidated sleep is so important - and well worth the time to support it!
Kim Corley is a certified baby and child sleep consultant with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and pharmacology. She is also a Mum who believes in the healing power of sleep and has helped numerous families solve their sleep issues over the years. You can contact Kim via her website.