A frequent question parents ask me is: “Why won’t my baby sleep?”
The number one reason is the baby or toddler does not know how to sleep. Children must learn many skills after they are born. Sleep is a skill they need to learn.
A newborn baby does not know how to get themselves to sleep. The newborn will cry when tired. They need someone to help them get from the awake state to the sleep state. Around the age of three months, babies learn how to control their hands and bring those hands up to their mouth. Prior to that it is random when they are able to get those hands into their mouth or if they will hit themselves with those hands instead. The ability to get their hands in their mouth is the beginning of the ability to calm themselves. That is an important milestone.
At four months major sleep development happens in the baby’s body and brain. The disorganized light sleep of a newborn changes to sleep cycles similar to adults. The important learning curve for each baby is to learn how to connect those sleep cycles. When a baby has the skill to connect sleep cycles, they are able to sleep through the night. Without that skill, a baby will wake up in between each sleep cycle and cry for help to get back to sleep. In portions of the night a baby might be waking up every hour. Frequent wakings are frustrating and exhausting for parents and babies .
How does a baby learn the skill of sleep?
Parents sometimes accidentally sabotage a baby trying to learn the skill of sleep. Loving parents want to help their child. When a child is frustrated about the inability to sleep, the parent might try to help the child by rocking, bouncing, walking, nursing or holding. All of those parent help attempts might work in the moment but they prevent the child learning their own skills.
I recently worked with a mom who was walking and patting her nine month old to help her sleep. As soon as she laid her little girl in her crib, the child began to scream. So mom would pick her up and walk and pat some more until she was asleep. Mom would again attempt to lay her down. After several tries there might be success for another hour of sleep before the process repeated. The result was a very tired mother and a baby that didn’t feel rested either.
There is a better way to get baby sleeping through the night. The words “Sleep Training” are often used to describe the process of a child learning to go from the awake state to sleeping without assistance.
What is the best way to sleep train?
1) There are books to read or lots of information on the internet to tell you how to sleep train a child. Some parents are able to use that advice and teach their child to sleep. Some parents feel overwhelmed and confused after reading all that information. One mom contacted me because she was totally confused after reading everything she could on the internet. She said, “I don’t know what would work for my baby.”
2) Some parents use trial and error to sleep train their child. I tried that with my daughter. I tried one method for a few days and then when it did not seem to be going well, I tried another method. It was difficult to be consistent when I was not really sure if I was doing the correct thing for my child.
The biggest mistake is to quit sleep training after a few days due to not seeing immediate results.
3) Some parents hire a professional sleep consultant.
- A sleep consultant will help find a sleep training method that fits your child’s temperament and your parenting style.
- A sleep consultant will write a specific sleep plan to give guidance on how to work with your child. Consistency is the key to success in sleep training. It is very difficult to stay consistent when you do not have a plan to follow.
- A sleep plan should include four parts:
- what to do at bedtime
- how to deal with middle of the night wakings
- timing of sleep
- the timing and length of naps
- A sleep plan should include four parts:
- A sleep consultant will answer any questions, give support and encouragement to help the parent reach their sleep goals.
Learning the skill of sleep leads to a well rested child. Setting good sleep habits is beneficial for health, development and happiness.