Sleep training a baby

Every now and then since our first born son was 4 months old (when we were not too tired or sick), hubby and I would ask some friends to house-sit for us while we spend some couple time out of the house (a.k.a. a date!). Our boys have their bedtime around 8pm so dates at night have been possible. Upon returning home, our house-sitters would give us an incredulous look (if they were there for the first time) and ask us questions along the lines of “What did you do to the kids/ baby? Drug them/him? Hit them/him on the head with a hammer? I mean… you just said good night and closed the bedroom door and they/he just went to sleep!! And they/ he didn’t fuss the whole time we were here!!”

Our response would always be 2 words: Sleep training

You may wonder… has sleep time always been this blissful? Both of our babies were nocturnal to begin with (awake and crying a lot at night and wee hours of the morning but dead to the world during the day) and although sleep time was peaceful after they were sleep trained, something happened when our elder boy was around 5 months old. He couldn’t settle down to nap one day and hubby went to pat him until he calmed down and fell asleep. From then on, he needed someone to pat him to sleep for naps (thankfully not at bedtime!). What began as a time I looked forward to (some me-time or time to cook/ do housework) became the time I dreaded most each day. On good days, the baby would fall asleep within 15 minutes of patting. On some days, it took as long as half an hour of back-breaking patting (I had to lean over the crib to pat the baby), only to have baby wake up and cry 30-40 minutes after falling asleep. What had been a blissful one-and-a-half hour’s worth of nap became a painfully short half an hour nap. What had been a peaceful transition from dreamland to the waking world became a traumatic awakening filled with tears and wails. After 5 months of this stressful situation, I finally decided to steel myself and sleep train the baby for naps the same way as I did for his bedtime several months ago…

 

What is sleep training?

Sleep training means teaching the baby to fall asleep on his/her own without parental intervention. It does not mean training the baby not to wake up in the middle of the night because most babies do. But he/she is capable of falling back to sleep on his/her own without having to wake up mummy or daddy after being sleep trained. Since many sleep-deprived parents are waiting for the day that baby can sleep through the night, I will share what I know about how to help the baby to sleep through the night as well. I write mainly from my own experience of sleep training my boys and from other families that I know of since I am no pediatric sleep expert. Therefore as with everything you read on the internet, please exercise discernment 🙂

 

Why sleep train?

In the words of Gina Ford “…it’s no exaggeration to say that broken nights can turn the sanest of human beings into complete wrecks.” Most of us have gone through periods of sleep deprivation and find it hard to function during the day. Imagine being in this state not just for weeks but months and even years on end! How is it possible to enjoy your relationship with your spouse or kids in this state? We have heard of stories of parents taking their kids for a car ride every night to put them to sleep or a mum who has to lie down with her daughter every night so that she can sleep (even at the age of 8!). How is it possible to have time and energy for date nights or even intimate moments with your spouse? In my own experience, once the baby is sleep trained, I am able to have much more rest, have time for hubby/ friends, join a weekly Bible study and enjoy being a mum much more. Having more me-time may sound like a selfish reason to sleep train a baby, but the me-time is necessary so that I am not a wreck that can’t function to serve my family. Having more time AND energy for my hubby is necessary for the marriage to continue remaining strong even with the arrival of little ones. A strong marriage in turn benefits the kids as they can grow up in a loving and secure environment.

You may say “But I am a working mum and it’s my maid/ parent who is taking care of the baby at night.” Perhaps it would still be good to sleep train the baby for the well-being of the caregiver. But having said that, if everyone is comfortable and perfectly happy with helping the child sleep every night, by all means continue helping the child sleep :). Only be mindful that at some point the child has to learn to be independent and habits are easier to break earlier rather than later in life because they are less ingrained. Most of the time it is the parents who are not ready to let go of what they are comfortable and familiar with to sleep train the child, and not the child who is not ready. I am writing as someone who did not give up patting a baby to sleep for naps for 5 months.

 

Teaching baby to fall asleep on his/her own

There is a whole lot of information out there on sleep training so I will not go into the details. The different sleep strategies range from crying it out at one end of the spectrum to co-sleeping at the other. Although hubby and I are in favor of the former method, some parents may be more comfortable with the latter, (you can read about arguments for and against crying it out here). We made this choice because it is honestly the least exhausting in the long run although the crying can get on my nerves at times. (For mums who want to know… I used to leave baby in the crib, close the room door and made myself a cup of rose tea while listening to the muted cries and screams. I felt much more well-equipped to deal with the crying after staying away and taking care of myself first.) But how we applied this method was different for both boys because one was a full-term baby and the other was a preemie. In training my full-term baby, I used the classic Ferber method. I went into the baby’s room after set time intervals of crying (ranging between 5-15 minutes) to console him by talking softly and placing a hand on him for 2-3 minutes, and then repeating the process as necessary. Within almost a week of this, there was a noticeable reduction in crying times. The crying gradually reduced and finally stopped after 2-3 weeks of training. As the baby was still very young, the process was complicated by knowing whether to feed him or not but I will cover this in the next section. Training my preemie was different due to his higher risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), low birth weight (needed to feed more often) and availability of rooms. Instead of leaving the baby’s room to let him cry, I laid down next to my baby but out of his field of view. It was more restful as I did not have to walk in and out of the room. He too cried noticeably less after about a week of training. Even my mother-in-law who was staying with us at that time noticed it. Prior to sleep training, both boys were capable of non-stop eardrum blasting crying from 2-5 am in the morning. We closed the room windows so as not to disturb the neighbors.

Whatever the choice is, the key to successful sleep training is consistency. Switching between methods is going to confuse (and perhaps traumatize) the baby and be really unhelpful and therefore prolonging the process of training. All sleep strategies have some things in common:

-Establishing short and sweet nap/ bedtime routines

– Making daytime feeds social and lively (night time feeds in quiet environment and dim lighting)

– Putting baby to bed while he/ she is still awake as far as possible

All these done from day one when baby comes home from the hospital.

Although most experts advice using “crying it out” methods only when babies are older E.g. 6 months or 9 months old, we found that it works for our babies even when they are a month old. Based on anecdotes, parents I know of who enjoy close relationships with their well-adjusted kids who are able to fall asleep on their own (and sleep through the night) before 6 months old do allow their babies to cry. My boys slept through the night without a feed for 7-8 hours at 8 weeks old for my full-term baby and 3.5 months old (corrected age) for my premature baby. I made sure that they were not crying because they were hungry (although it can be very tricky especially for new mums to tell the difference between hunger and needing-to-be-soothed cries) so there was never a danger of starving them by accident (routine feeding is very helpful in this aspect). For parents who are afraid of harming their babies (psychologically/ emotionally/ physically) with this method, perhaps it would be useful to know what goes on in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Premature babies are perhaps seen as the most fragile of all babies. But at the NICU, all preemies are fed 3 hourly if they weigh more than 1kg and 2 hourly if they weigh less. In between feeds if the babies cry, the nurses do not rock/ pat/ carry etc. to get them to settle down. At most, they check if everything is fine with the crying babies and a pacifier is given to larger babies who are able to suck. In her article “Why French Parents Are Superior”,  Pamela Druckerman mentions this “… the French babies I meet mostly sleep through the night from two or three months old. Their parents don’t pick them up the second they start crying, allowing the babies to learn how to fall back asleep“. So it seems that there is already an existing culture of letting babies cry when teaching them to sleep that yields astounding results (for many parents, having babies who sleep through the night by 2-3 months of age is an impossibility).

For the “crying it out” method to work (other than consistency), I personally feel that the caregiver has to give the baby as much affection and attention as possible during the times he/ she is supposed to be awake to avoid any possible harm done by the crying. Tracy Hogg warned that using the “crying it out” method to sleep train babies will result in severe separation anxiety in kids later on*. I have not seen it happen to my boys. Perhaps it is because while I was the one who sleep trained them, I was also the one attending to their every other need. My hubby and I are skeptical of articles that condemn letting kids cry or feel upset as it will harm them psychologically. Lori Gottlieb wrote an article worth reading that reflects our sentiments. Here are some excerpts from her article:

Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA who came to speak at my clinic, says… based on what he sees in his practice, (he) believes many parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment—“anything less than pleasant,” as he puts it—with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong.”

” In fact, by trying so hard to provide the perfectly happy childhood, we’re just making it harder for our kids to actually grow up. Maybe we parents are the ones who have some growing up to do—and some letting go.”

 

Getting baby to sleep through the night

Sleeping through the night is defined as sleeping at a stretch of 5 hours. This is hardly long enough for sleep deprived parents! My own definition would be closer to 7-8 hours at a stretch. Helping baby to sleep through the night without a feed is very much dependent on the baby’s weight, although the baby needs to be capable of falling asleep on his/ her own. The heavier the baby at birth, the earlier he/ she is capable of sleeping through the night. That was why my full-term baby who weighed 3.36kg at birth could sleep through the night much earlier than my preemie. Smaller babies have smaller stomachs so they need to be fed more frequently in smaller amounts. And with that, night time feeds will have to continue until the baby gains enough weight to be able to last for long stretches without a feed.

Babies (both big and small) need to be sufficiently fed during the day so that they will not tank up on milk during the night. To encourage this, Tracy Hogg came up with a guideline on how often to feed babies during the first 3 months based on baby’s weight*:

– For babies weighing 2.25 – 2.95 kg, feed every 2 hourly during the day and at most go for 4 hours without a feed at night.

– For babies weighing 2.95 – 3.6kg, feed every 2.5-3 hourly during the day. These babies are capable of lasting for 4-5 hours without a feed at night.

– For babies weighing more than 3.6kg, feed every 3 hourly during the day. These babies are capable of lasting for 5-6 hours without a feed at night.

Both my boys managed to last for 7-8 hours without a feed at night when they weighed between 5 – 5.5 kg.

Babies should only be fed on demand if they are breastfed for the length of time needed for the mother to establish her milk supply. Beyond that, it would be best for baby to be fed on routine. From 4-6 months onwards, babies should be fed 4 hourly during the day with one late night feed between 10pm – 12am, which can be eliminated once he/ she starts eating 3 solid meals a day. Having said all that, as parents we have to be mindful of the needs of individual babies. My full term baby could follow this guideline to the letter but my preemie was still fed 3-3.5 hourly until he started solids at 5.5 months (corrected age). Some parents (especially new parents) may mistake baby’s other cues for hunger (especially the need for comfort) and therefore feeding more often than necessary. While feeding the baby more frequently to tank up before bedtime is helpful in helping him/ her sleep through the night without a feed, resist the urge to overfeed. You know you have overfed a baby when he spits up a respectable amount of milk during or soon after a feed, especially when feeding times are every 2 hourly or less than that. I should know that because my dear elder boy started spitting up more milk when I tried to tank him up by feeding every 2 hourly instead of 3 hourly when he was about 4-6 weeks old a few hours before bedtime. If baby takes well to “tanking up” before bedtime without spitting up milk, by all means do so. If baby still seems to need a night feed despite good routine feeding, try increasing baby’s intake at each day time feed. Baby may be going through a growth spurt. If the baby is nearing the 5-6 month mark, it may be time to start the baby on solids as milk may not be sufficient to sustain him/her. This may be especially true for large babies.

While practicing “crying it out” after routine feeding was established during the day, I fed the baby no less than 3 hours after the previous feed during the night (after the last late night feed at 11pm) to discourage the baby from tanking up at night but at the same time, ensuring that the baby is not starved. That was why my babies cry at most for almost 3 hours at a stretch during sleep training. Babies who are fed too often at night will not want to drink much milk during the day.

Besides ensuring that the baby is sufficiently fed during the day, nap times have to be limited to no more than 2 hours at a stretch during the day. Some parents may think it is cruel to wake a sleeping baby during the day to feed. But this may be necessary for preventing the baby from turning nocturnal. It may be necessary to shorten naps to no more than 1.5 hours at a stretch if keeping it to no more than 2 hours does not help. I remember trying really hard to keep my nocturnal babies awake during the day. Diaper change, moving baby’s arms and legs, talking and singing loudly to them… all the standard ways of waking baby up did not work sometimes and I just gave up for that round. But by persevering in making sure baby does not sleep too much during the day, I eventually managed to turn my babies’ body clock around. This combined with good routine feeding, patience and God’s care helped my boys sleep through the night when they were physically ready.

 

For Christian daddies and mummies

The Bible doesn’t tell us whether or not to sleep train our babies. Neither does it tell us whether or not to feed the baby organic food or send our toddlers for enrichment classes. Instead, it tells us not to exasperate our children but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). There’s so much information and choices out there that sometimes we don’t know what is best. We really need to pray for wisdom and discernment to make choices that help us to fulfill our God-given roles in a way that glorifies God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Some questions to ask ourselves would be “How does my choice help me to be a more godly parent?” or “Does my choice help my child to love and fear God/ love others more?” As James 1:5 mentions, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” Pray for much needed strength and patience as well for taking care of our little ones and you will find that God always provides 🙂

Hubby and I chose to sleep train our boys using the “crying it out” method because:

1) It was the least exhausting method in the long run and therefore I would be more physically able to love people around me, including the baby, as soon as possible.

2) Everyone is a sinner (it’s about I-me-myself all the time) from birth and our cute little bundles of joy are no exceptions. The child needs to learn that the world does not revolve around him and although we love him, he can’t have his way every single time. He has to learn that when he needs us, we will be there but if he simply wants us, we may not respond. It’s an independence that every child has to learn and what better time to start teaching this than right at the beginning of his life? In the process of sleep training our boys, we never abandon them (although proponents of attachment parenting will beg to differ) because we will always make sure that we reassure them of our presence and our love but at the same time, tell them that they have to learn that time to sleep means time to sleep and crying will get them nowhere. The child has to learn that there is a tempo in life that he has to be part of since he is living in this world.

Hubby – Essentially we have to see things through a different set of lenses – that of the Bible and of God, rather than of our own sinful selves. What we have done is what we believe to be the best possible compromise. But in kingdom terms, all this does not matter except that we must measure up how much of our interactions with our children bear the mark of our wanting to retain control, and how much of it is surrendering to God, while still bearing the responsibilities in love that God has given us. If you feel that you have successfully navigated that minefield, then whatever approach you use does not matter. This worked for us, and our children understand that there is an authority in this world, even if they do not understand who God is yet. And from there, we pray that with our love and affection balanced with firm discipline, along with regular Bible time and prayer as a family will plant the seeds that will one day culminate in their personal surrender to God as Lord and Saviour.

 

*Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems: Sleeping, Feeding, and Behavior – Beyond the Basics from Infancy Through Toddlerhood

2 thoughts on “Sleep training a baby

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