Many parents that I work with actually know what sleep issues they need to address in order for their baby or toddler to sleep better, but what they aren’t sure about is exactly how to do this. What they do know is that they don’t want to go down the Cry-It-Out or Ferber roads, but are stuck, exhausted and starting to feel a little desperate. (Ok, maybe even a LOT desperate!) How DO you persuade an 18-month-old, who’s waking up every 2 hours in the night to nurse, that it’s time for everyone to get a better night’s sleep?! Are there any gentle sleep training methods out there?
Of course, sleep coaching always depends on the temperament of the child, the parenting style of mom and dad, and the family situation in general – there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach – but I just want you to take a deep breath and let me reassure you…
there are SO many gentle ways to help your little one learn the art of connecting his/her sleep cycles throughout the night more independently than they are now. That means longer stretches of peaceful sleep for everyone in the family.
Whew. Wouldn’t that be a relief?
Your child is not a hopeless case, and no, you are not going to have to give up your ideals, and leave your baby to cry hopelessly alone till he falls asleep. I can’t promise that there won’t be some tears throughout the process – that’s just a normal reaction to change. Just like trying to convince your toddler that they can now watch only two episodes of Daniel Tiger instead of three. I bet they won’t be happy about that change either. (Heck, we just moved continents with 3 kiddos under 6 – transition and creating a new normal takes time, and tears flow easily at our house these days. Change is hard!)
HOWEVER…you can minimise your baby’s tears not only by optimising all other factors that affect sleep first (see my blog post about sleep training without tears for more), but also by choosing a settling method that fits you and your child.
Let me share a few of the main gentle sleep training methods that many of our clients choose to implement with their little ones.
Gradual Withdrawal is one of our most commonly recommended gentle sleep training methods. With this method, babies and toddlers who are not capable of falling asleep independently are encouraged to do so by physically moving mom or dad away from baby’s bed gradually over a period of about 2 weeks.
Thus, we’re slowly decreasing the amount of parental reassurance and supporting baby to take more and more responsibility for falling asleep independently. This method is very successful with babies who find parental presence reassuring, even if they don’t get the sleep assistance they’re used to.
However, this is overstimulating (and therefor unsuitable) for babies and toddlers who are highly sensitive, or who do not find their parents’ constant presence calming. These children get even more frustrated by the fact that their parent is right there, but not giving them the sleep aid they’re used to, than they would be about their parent leaving the room.
Gradual withdrawal can be used from about 6 months of age, and is often a great method for toddlers as well.
Pick-up / Put-down
With Pick-up/Put-down the main goal is to work towards more independent sleep, while still reassuring the child intermittently with regular picking up to calm. This approach is ideal for parents of babies who still need a lot of parental assistance and presence in the room to fall asleep, and is often used when weaning off of nursing or rocking to sleep.
The aim is to reduce the amount of soothing that you have to do, just as with Gradual Withdrawal, but with a slightly different tactic – that is, reducing the number of times you have to pick up and put baby down in bed to settle him to sleep.
Pick-Up/Put-Down can be used successfully with babies from 4-5 months of age. This method requires a lot of patience and perseverance, especially at the beginning, and only really works well if you, the parent, can stay calm during the entire process and are not too stressed by a little bit of crying. Otherwise baby will sense your emotions and have an even harder time settling.
For some babies, the frequent picking up may become too stimulating. In this case, gradual withdrawal might be a better option. Also, if working towards breaking a nursing-to-sleep habit, it may be more successful for dad to implement this method, as it may be too distracting for baby to have mama (and the milkies!!) right there, yet not being allowed to nurse to sleep as usual.
Slow transition: (80%-60%-40%-20% Principle)
With the “Slow Transition Method”, the goal is to slowly encourage more independent sleep and to wean off unhelpful sleep associations. This is an ideal approach for parents who aren’t comfortable with much crying, yet still want to take some steps in the right direction when weaning baby off holding/nursing/rocking to sleep. It’s also a great method to use when transitioning from bed-sharing to a crib or moving baby into his own room.
Slow transition is a very gentle method which works well from about 2-4 months of age. Just like it’s name indicates, the “Slow Transition Method” is the slowest and least structured of all the methods. This method suits babies and parents who have high anxiety around sleep, and a low tolerance for crying. It may not be very successful with older babies (over 1-1.5 years), as the slow changes may end up being very frustrating and confusing for the child, depending on the their personality.
While we always work out the nitty-gritty of the implementation of each of the above methods during the sleep coaching process, I hope the above descriptions have given you more clarity on the different gentle sleep training methods that are available if you’re looking to make changes, but worried about all the crying that seems to be a part of sleep training!
If you need more guidance and support in weaning your baby’s unhelpful sleep habits in a respectful and responsive way that suits your family, join our Ultimate Baby & Toddler Sleep course for ages 4-24 months. This course will give you all the informations and practical tools you need to get your little one sleeping through the night or with minimal night feeds (as they are able to)! We also offer a fully supported individual coaching option with the course, which is great if you want an experience sleep coach guiding you through the process.