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What is Sleep Training?

Ever heard the phrase “sleep like a baby?” 

You’ve probably heard it your whole life. 

Before you had kids, you may have even used the phrase. 

Yeah, I’ve used this phrase too but now that I’ve actually had babies, I’ve realized that this phrase is a scam. Like the vital TikTok video says: “sleep like a baby” is a scam that’s become so normalized we don’t even realize it’s a scam anymore. 

The phrase is supposed to describe deep, dreamy, heavenly sleep that is apparently experienced by babies…? If this was the idea behind this phrase, I guarantee the person who coined it wasn’t waking up every 2 hours to calm a crying infant in the middle of the night. 

Babies, even babies who are considered “good” sleepers do not sleep deeply and do not sleep for a long time. Newborns actually shouldn’t sleep for too long because they need to be fed, burped, changed and checked. 

It is true that night wakings and short naps are normal but after a certain age, sleep training can be implemented to help babies and parents get better sleep. However, even after a successful sleep training program, night wakings and short naps are normal, although they are a lot less frequent. 

What is the Basic Concept?

Great questions – sleep training is any method that encourages a child to fall asleep independently. Sleep training should always involve a holistic plan that includes routine building, establishing a schedule and analyzing a child’s nutrition and daily activities. In short, sleep training is not just about sleep. It’s about the family’s life as a whole. 

Modern sleep consultants have moved away from the harsh “cry it out” method and opt instead for gentler methods that are considerate of children’s mental health. I have written about the different sleep training methods extensively in different blog posts. You can read about the different methods here

Independent Sleep

The feature that characterizes any sleep training program is independent sleep. If your baby can fall asleep without assistance from a caregiver, she is far less likely to have night wakings or short naps. 

Every human being sleeps in cycles and at the end of the cycle, we wake up. This happens several times a night but because we put ourselves back to sleep, we don’t remember. 

Baby sleep cycles are short, so if you’re helping your baby to sleep by rocking, nursing, ect, when he reaches the end of the sleep cycle, he will wake up and need the same assistance to fall back asleep. This is why some babies wake up every 40 minutes. 40 minutes is the length of their sleep cycle. 

I would like to make it clear that rocking, nursing, bouncing or anything you do to get your baby to sleep is not a bad thing. You are not creating bad habits and shouldn’t feel guilty. We all do what we have to do to get sleep. 

Some parents can rock their babies to sleep and then enjoy an uninterrupted night of sleep themselves. Others rock their babies to sleep and after 30 minutes find themselves in the same dark room, rocking their baby again. It depends on the child and so many other factors but one thing is for sure: If your baby is consistently waking up throughout the night and cannot get to sleep without you, it may be time to consider sleep training. 

Encouraging Natural Circadian Rhythm

During the first few weeks of life, babies need to sleep and eat constantly. Their eyesight is still developing and they are just starting to use other senses to interpret the world around them. This is why newborns cannot tell the difference between day and night. 

For all intents and purposes, day and night are the same to a newborn baby. This causes their sleep schedule to get completely turned around from time to time. Parents often tell me that their babies wake up in the middle of the night with big smiles on their faces, ready to party rather than go back to sleep after a quick feeding.  

If parents turn on lights and devices during night wakings, or make lots of noise, even older babies will confuse day and night and not be able to distinguish the two. 

As babies get older and night feedings can be reduced, there are steps  parents can take to help their babies learn the difference between day and night to solidify their natural circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm drives our internal Circadian clock, which is heavily affected by natural and artificial light. 

A good sleep training program will detail all the ways a parent can use dark and light to help babies sleep longer at night and have restorative naps during the day. Simply keeping the lights dim during a night feeding and keeping noise to a minimum will help a baby learn that night time is for sleep. 

The importance of a Routine

During my initial conversations with clients, they often tell me they wish they could get their kids into a routine.

Usually they are trying desperately to establish a routine but because they spend hours assisting their children to sleep, a routine never falls into place. Their own sleep schedules get thrown out of whack and all the other elements of a good routine can’t be established. This is extremely disheartening for a parent who wants to do what is best for their child. 

This is why independent sleep and routine go hand in hand. It takes a lot less time to put a child to bed when she knows how to put herself to sleep. 

At its core, building a routine and sticking to it is about caregivers setting expectations for their children. A good sleep training program does exactly the same thing. It allows a child to understand how her family approaches sleep. It lets her know that after meal time, play time and wind down time, she is expected to go to sleep. 

A good routine, involving scheduled activities, gives a child a sense of control over her world and ultimately gives her the structure she needs to thrive. She knows how the day will go, making her feel safe and secure. The routine doesn’t have to be followed to the letter each and every day. As long as the basic elements are present, the routine will serve its purpose.

Effective sleep training programs will focus heavily on setting a routine. Through repetition and boundaries the child comes to learn what is expected of him and what he can expect from the world around him. I strongly feel that a routine will not restrict parents, it will empower them to be the best parents they can be. 

Establishing a Schedule / Following Wake Windows

Establishing a schedule while sleep training is as important as following a routine. The two are related but they are not the same thing. Think of it this way: a routine involves daily activities, such as waking up, eating and playing. A schedule is the approximate time that the activities will take place. 

A sleep schedule is particularly important for younger babies because they tend to get tired within specific time frames. These time frames are called wake windows. 

For example, most 6 month old babies tend to get tired after 2.5- 3 hours of being awake. Although every baby is different, it is possible to use wake windows to build a daily nap and bedtime schedule. Parents should also look for sleepy cues, such as yawning and rubbing eyes but following wake windows, especially at the beginning of a sleep plan can help shorten the time it takes for babies to fall asleep. In essence, setting a sleep schedule with wake windows usually can help dictate when your baby will be tired but not too tired. 

Sleep training plans will indicate wake windows that are appropriate for the child. It will also give tips on when to lengthen or shorten wake windows and provide an age appropriate nap and bedtime schedule. 

To summarize, sleep training is no longer simply about letting a baby “cry it out.” In my experience, that old school method doesn’t work in the long term and actually leads to more crying than the gentler methods. It’s hard on the kids and hard on the parents. Kids will only fall asleep on their own once their needs are met, including their need for connection, stimulation and love. 

Want help creating a customized sleep plan for your family? Call me at 416-556-3217 or book your complimentary enlightenment call now.