New motherhood didn’t come easy to me. A challenging delivery, (undiagnosed) postpartum depression, and a high-needs baby made for a difficult adjustment. Let’s just say, becoming a mom rocked me to my core. Within a few weeks, I barely recognized myself and a heavy cloud settled in. Sleep was a constant stress, and as is typical for most babies, naps and night-sleeping were scarce and unpredictable. Within months, I was floundering. No, scratch that. I was drowning and I needed a life vest. Stat.
Enter: gentle sleep training.
Once our baby was a few months old, my husband and I had decided that we needed to try sleep training techniques for my own sanity and so that I could be the mom I wanted to be. Armed with advice from Dr. Marc Weissbluth, a leading researcher on baby sleep who wrote the book “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child,” we were committed to creating healthy sleep habits for our baby—so the entire family could get the sleep we needed. We created a plan (during the daytime, not in the middle of the night when we were exhausted and not thinking straight) that relied on gentle sleep training (or sleep coaching, as I recently read).
What is sleep training?
Sleep training covers a wide range of intentional efforts to instill healthy sleep habits in your baby. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Nor is it a one-and-done technique. As reported in NPR, “the term ‘sleep training’ is an umbrella term that refers to a spectrum of approaches to help babies learn to fall asleep by themselves.” It is what works for your family and your baby.
Most sleep experts and pediatricians don’t recommend sleep training until a baby is at least four months old. After four months (or so), babies are generally old enough to self-soothe and may not need night feedings. Before this point, it’s survival mode. Do what you need to do to get some sleep. Call in reinforcements. Take all the help you can get.
Sleep training covers a wide range of intentional efforts to instill healthy sleep habits in your baby. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.
It's important to be clear about what sleep training is and what it is not, because there are still a lot of misconceptions out there. Sleep training is not an archaic and merciless parenting strategy. It isn’t neglecting or ignoring your baby. It isn’t cruel or damaging to the health and well-being of your baby.
Myths about problems with sleep training have been widely debunked. According to Duke Department of Pediatrics, multiple studies show that not only are there no negative consequences to the parent-child bond with sleep training, but it can actually improve security between parent and child. There is also no evidence that sleep training has long-term risks, but multiple studies have shown short-term improvements in sleep quality for babies and in the mental health for moms.
What is gentle sleep training?
There is no specific definition for gentle sleep training, but it generally covers a wide range of techniques, tips and tactics so your baby (and you!) can get more consistent sleep with minimal emotional discomfort for anyone.
For my family, gentle sleep training meant paying attention to his natural sleep times and building sleep routines around those times. Before putting him in his crib, we would feed him, change him, rock him for a while, turn on a white noise machine, and if he still needed some time calming down, I would do some baby massage. (Side note: studies have shown that baby massage can increase mother-child attachment. And, personally, I found it to be just as calming for me as my baby.) Then we would put him in his crib in his own room when he was drowsy but not sleeping.
The first few nights, he cried for a little while and then eventually fell asleep. If his crying escalated to the point where it was clear he wasn’t going to be able to settle down on his own, we would calm him down—lots of shushing and rocking—and then try it again. At no point, did his crying go on for hours as you hear some people describe. When he woke during the night, we would give him some time to settle down on his own before going to him. Because he slept in his crib in his own room (across the hall from my and my husband’s room), we could turn off the monitor and trust that cries that weren’t loud enough to wake us (I’m a pretty light sleeper) didn’t require our attention.
Was sleep training worth it?
Was is easy? No. Building those bedtime routines took a lot of time and it took patience not to rush into his room at whimpers or a few cries. But was it painful? Absolutely not. And was it worth it? You bet!
At no point did I think we were doing something that might harm our bond. On the contrary, with gentle sleeping training, the cloud started to lift and I was able to be a better mom to my baby. Bedtime and nap time went from being a stressful situation to a peaceful bonding time that I looked forward to.
While there were setbacks and sleep regressions over the years (which are totally normal), for the most part, our baby’s sleep habits continued through toddlerhood and the school years. Bedtimes have been relaxing and stress-free, with no night-awakenings or little visitors to our bed in the middle of the night. There are plenty of snuggles and attention during the day, and I have a strong bond with both of my kids. Sleep training didn't harm our mama-baby bond; it made our relationship better because it made me a more relaxed and confident mom. The extra sleep didn't hurt either.
Of course, all babies (and all children) are different. Some babies will sleep for 10-12 hours a night at a young age; other children will awake a couple times a night through the toddler years (or beyond). If you’re concerned about your child’s sleep, talk to your pediatrician.
But assuming there are no health concerns and you’re desperate for sleep, gentle sleep training may be an option for you. You can put aside the mom guilt. If your baby is safe in their crib or bassinet, if they are getting sleep, if they are well-fed, if they are getting snuggles during the day, then rest assured your baby has everything they need. And if you’re getting some sleep, they’ll also have a healthy and happy mom too.