Does this sound familiar?
Cue the scene: it’s Tuesday night at 7:30pm, time for your 6 month old to go to bed. A feeling of dread creeps over you when you start to think, “will my baby fall asleep in one hour, or two tonight? And how long until he wakes up and needs me to help him back to sleep? Will he make it to midnight, or will he be up again 3 times before 4am?”
Does your baby need 45 minutes of perfectly pitched shushing and rocking to fall asleep each night? Or do you find yourself bouncing at just the right speed for hours while trying to coax your little one to sleep? Maybe your toddler ends up slipping into your bed unbeknownst to you in the middle of the night every night. Or maybe you find yourself nursing more than you think you should be each time your babe wakes up crying. If any of these questions sound like they’re addressed to you, you are not alone. I repeat: you. are. not. alone.
So many parents experience these situations when raising their little ones. As important as sleep is for children, it’s not always that easy which is where we come in! If you want to learn more about teaching your child to become a better sleeper, this post is for you.
Setting context: Understanding newborn vs post-newborn sleep cycles
We all learn how to sleep at some point in our lives. As adults we may need to be in a certain position to fall asleep, have the window open, or socks on our feet. Whatever it is, we’ve developed our own strategies to fall asleep and stay asleep to get the rest we need.
In the first 3-4 months of life, sleep is made up of 2 stages: REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement). During this time, it is possible to “assist” a baby into REM sleep by rocking, nursing, bouncing, or holding and still expect them to get some sleep. After the newborn period, sleep becomes more biologically complex and is made up of 4 stages. The first of these stages is what we know as “drowsy”, when we begin to drift off but still have some awareness of the outside world.
When adults complete one sleep cycle and move on to the next, we may wake up briefly but are most often able to put ourselves back to sleep in a split second. This ability to connect one consecutive sleep cycle to another is what we call the skill of sleep independence. It is a learned skill that we have acquired over time through practice and experience. Babies, however, are not born with the skill of sleep independence. They must learn how to connect sleep cycles on their own, or they will wake between cycles at nap or in the middle of the night looking for “assistance” from a parent to get back to sleep. Parents use a variety of sleep props to help get their children back to sleep.
Sleep Props: What they are and how they prevent sleep independence
Before a child learns the skill of sleep independence, she may be reliant on a “sleep prop” in order to fall asleep initially, as well as to fall back asleep when she wakes during the night. A prop is a dependency or association that your child depends on to fall asleep and get back to sleep. Props can include feeding to sleep, rocking, bouncing, holding, co-sleeping, cuddling, stroller or car movement, swaddles, sleep suits, other infant sleep aids, and pacifiers. These props require action or intervention from a parent, which hinders a child’s ability to learn to sleep on their own.
Not all props will prevent your child from acquiring the skill of sleep independence. For example, a prop completely within a child’s independent control, such as sleeping with a lovey or a blanket after the age of 12 months, is actually beneficial to learning the skill of sleep independence because it helps to provide security and comfort without requiring any external intervention from a caregiver.
If your child is 3 months or older and shows signs of dependence on a prop to fall asleep and stay asleep, it may be time to teach her how to sleep independently.
Science supports teaching sleep independence
Babies need A LOT of sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation, babies between 4-11 months need 12-15 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period. As children get older, sleep needs do decrease some to 10-13 hours by 5 years of age.
During sleep is when most of our babies develop. Their body grows, their brain develops, learning and memories are consolidated, and their immune system is formed. According to a study by Academic Pediatrics cited by Harvard Health, babies who get insufficient sleep are more likely to have problems with attention, emotional control, and peer relationships in mid-childhood.
For children to get the amount and quality of sleep their body needs, it’s important they learn to sleep independently. The skill of independent sleep leads to better sleep with longer stretches, less disruptions and more opportunity for consolidation of learning, memories, and brain development. Children who sleep independently as babies are usually better sleepers than older children who never acquired the skill.
OK, this all makes sense, so how do we teach sleep independence?
If you’ve decided to take on the task of teaching your child to sleep independently, follow these steps.
The first step is to establish a bedtime routine. A sleep routine can begin at any age, even in the newborn stage! The routine cues your child that she is preparing for sleep, so being consistent at each sleep period is key. An appropriate bedtime routine may include a bath or wipe down, changing into pajamas, teeth brushing (toddlers and older), reading a book, singing a song, reciting prayers or positive affirmations, and then lights out. A nap routine should be a shortened version of this. Have your child use the potty or change their diaper, switch into pjs, read a quick book, and lights out. Cueing a child for sleep at any sleep period is important as it provides predictability and builds confidence. Don’t skip this!
The second step to independent sleep success is to make sure you have set up the sleep environment optimally. This includes removing any sleep props before sleep onset. Ensure you’ve considered all barriers that might be hindering your child’s ability to fall asleep on her own. Remember, anything external to your child may be a sleep prop, including a bottle before sleep, or any interaction like rocking or laying with a parent. Even pacifiers can be a prop, especially if every time it falls out your baby wakes and needs you to replace it (the AAP recommends pacifier use at sleep onset for babies until 6 months).
Aside from removing all props, place your baby in an empty crib (or bed for children over 3) in a dark, quiet space with a temperature between 70-72 degrees. Ensuring your child sleeps in an optimal sleep environment will contribute to the ease of learning to sleep independently.
Our routine and environment are good to go, now what?
The third step in teaching your child to become an independent sleeper is to put your child to bed in her sleep space entirely awake. If you recall the beginning of this post, after 3-4 months of life stage 1 of sleep is drowsy. So, a parent doing the work to get their child from awake to drowsy will prevent them from learning to sleep independently.
Once your child is placed in her sleep space awake, provide time and space to practice the skill of self soothing. Although it is instinctual for parents to run to soothe their child immediately if she cries out, keep in mind that protesting is the only way your baby knows how to communicate that she dislikes something. Because you’ve just made some big changes to her sleep process and laid her down awake instead of drowsy, she is communicating to you that she isn’t a big fan of the change. This is okay! It is a natural response. Allowing her some time and space to self soothe is exactly what she needs to be able to develop the skill of falling asleep on her own.
The more a child practices self soothing, the better she will get at it. It may take a few nights, but try to refrain from interfering with the process too often. We recommend committing to teaching independent sleep and sticking out the process. Offering some comfort is okay, but returning to the old sleep habits and doing the work by putting your child to sleep will only end up confusing her and make the process harder the next time you try.
An independent sleeping child is a happier, healthier child
Studies show that children who develop healthy sleep habits early on in life are healthier and happier later in life. Sleep is miraculous, and it’s not something to be taken lightly. At The Sleeper Teachers®, we believe sleep should be prioritized at all ages. If your child is not getting enough quantity and/or quantity of sleep, teaching the skill of sleep independence is a great place to start.
Support is available to those who need it
Sometimes teaching your child to sleep independently can be complicated. Maybe your baby isn’t responding well to the changes, or you can’t seem to keep your toddler out of your bed no matter what you try. Maybe you’ve tried all the ways, and nothing is working. Or maybe you feel like you could use some support, accountability, and guidance in reaching your family sleep goals. Whatever it is, please know there is help and support available to you!
At the Sleeper Teachers® we love nothing more than to be the newest member on your family’s sleep team. We have accompanied over a thousand families on their journeys to teach their little ones to become great sleepers. It has been truly life changing for so many families, and we’d be honored to guide you on your sleep teaching journey as well. Head over to this link to book a free sleep evaluation call with one of our pediatric sleep consultants so we can get to know your family and chat about how we might be able to help you.
And if you’re still in doubt, head over to our reviews page to read how impactful teaching independent sleep was for our clients. Lives change when everyone in a family sleeps!