Guest post by Amy Lage, Sleep Expert
Want your child to sleep through the night, but can’t stand the thought of letting him cry it out? I have good news: you can teach your child healthy sleep habits and self soothing skills without compromising your parenting beliefs and morals.
As a mom of two young children, I am part of a few online ‘mom’s support groups.’ They were a priceless support system in those early days, when everything about having a baby was Greek to me. Nowadays, I still peruse them from time to time to offer advice and occasionally reach out for assistance with my child rearing questions. If you are part of these groups you know that the topic of sleep comes up A LOT. Sometimes it stays civil and the inquiry receives well-balanced, supportive advice, but often the conversation gets heated and inevitably leads to the hot topics of sleeping through the night and letting one’s baby cry. Mud is slung as everyone voices their robust opinions.
This pains me for two reasons: First, if a fellow Mom (who is likely exhausted and sleep deprived) is asking for support on something that is already very hard to do, she should not be judged or made to feel like a bad parent because of her decision. We join these groups to help one another and not to play mommy wars. If you have something helpful to add – by all means join in, but if it is a topic that you don’t care for – simply stay out of it. As we learned when we were young, if you do not have anything nice to say – don’t say anything at all. Second, I have a public service message: Sleep training and/or teaching your child to sleep through the night, does not equal “Crying it Out.” Yes, you read that correctly.
I am very tired of this misconception. Sleep training is simply the process of teaching your child healthy sleep hygiene. In short, it is making sure that your child is sleeping at the correct times, in the appropriate environment, and has the ability to put himself to sleep. That last part is what most people hang on to – TEACHING MY CHILD TO PUT HIMSELF TO SLEEP! While this is one of the most important skills you can teach a child for his health and well-being, most people cringe at the thought. Why? Because as a society we equate teaching babies to sleep with hours of letting them cry. This misconception is not true. If the CIO method does not work for you – then don’t do it! But do not use it as a reason to not teach your child self soothing skills which are vital to him (and you) getting the sleep he needs.
This article is not about whether or not it is ok to allow your child to “Cry it Out.” Instead, my goal is to explain that no matter what your parenting philosophy may be – you can and should teach your child to be a healthy independent sleeper who is able to himself to sleep at bedtime and naptime, who sleeps through the night (when his belly is ready), and who gets in all of the sleep he needs.
Why is it so important that you teach your child this skill?
Your Child’s Health & Well Being
Gazing at your beautiful baby or toddler as he sleeps, you wouldn’t guess that internally his body is anything but at rest. However while your baby sleeps, his reduced physical activity enables his brain to carry out vital jobs that cannot be as efficiently accomplished during wakefulness. Sleep gives his brain a chance to turn its attention to the important job of consolidating memory and learning. Making sure your child gets good, sound sleep ensures he or she will have a sound foundation for proper mind and body development. The American Academy of Pediatrics has linked babies’ insufficient sleep to everything from future obesity and behavior problems in kids. As Marc Weissbluth, MD, the author of “Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child,” explains, children who don’t get enough consolidated REM sleep have shorter attention spans, so they don’t learn as well. These babies also release more of the stress hormone cortisol, setting them up for frequent night wakings and stunted naps. In short, sleep = brain power and nourishment for the body.
Additionally, children who get the sleep they need, behave better and are generally more enjoyable. A baby who has skipped a nap is usually quite fussy and unpleasant. And imagine the toddler who has not gotten in his needed sleep for the day – phew tantrums ensue, watch out! This is because when we don’t get the sleep we need, our body and brain are stressed and for a child it is easy to see how that can lead to poor behavior. While this relationship between lack of sleep and crankiness is generally accepted as true, there have recently been many studies on the topic that offer further proof. For example, this study from the University of Colorado Boulder measured the sleep patterns of toddlers aged two to three and a half and found that for toddlers “missing even a single nap causes them to be less positive, more negative and have decreased cognitive engagement.” I think this quote from the study’s author Professor Monique LeBourgeois sums it all up: “Just like good nutrition, adequate sleep is a basic need that gives children the best chance of getting what is most important from the people and things they experience each day.”
To be a healthy well functioning adult, you need to get enough consolidated sleep. And chances are, if your kids aren’t sleeping then neither are you! Sleeping is a basic human need, like eating, drinking, and breathing. Sleep deprivation can cause fatigue, clumsiness, decreased cognitive function, impaired motor skills and weight loss or weight gain. Additionally, sleep deficiency is linked to many chronic health problems, including heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, obesity, and depression. Lastly, several studies have shown that moms with infants who do not sleep are at a higher risk of postpartum depression. The good news is that when baby’s sleep improves – so do mom’s symptoms of depression. I know that many parents suck it up and endure their loss of sleep because they think they are doing the best thing for their kids, but in reality you are not doing yourself or your little one any favors. To be the best parent you can be, you need your sleep.
All right, so back to this Sleep Training thing. As I mentioned above, the process of “sleep training” your child is all about instilling healthy sleep hygiene. Here it is broken down WRB Style:
Sleeping At the Right Times – Why is a schedule so important? For a few reasons: First, it is important to have your child on a sleep schedule that is in sync with their inner biological clock or circadian rhythm, because this ensures that they will have the easiest time falling asleep and staying asleep. Sleeping at these correct times will also allow your child to get the best quality and most restorative sleep possible. Second, having a schedule and a consistent routine allows your child to understand what to expect. Children truly thrive on routine and this is no different when it comes to their sleep. Lastly, sleeping on the correct schedule for your little one’s age will allow them to remain well rested and not to become dreadfully overtired. A child who is overtired has a harder time falling asleep and staying asleep. This is because when we become overtired we release the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline and noradrenaline. This is a primitive fight or flight response, which is intended to keep us going. While this was probably helpful to cavemen, it is not when it kicks in for your baby and he gets a “second wind.” When this response occurs on a regular basis these hormones actually build up in your baby’s system and are present when his sleep cycles shift during the night. Their presence does not allow a child to easily roll right into his next sleep cycle and actually stimulates him to an awake state. In fact, the build up of these hormones are the cause of most middle of the night and early morning wakings. Therefore it is our goal to get your baby to sleep before he has the chance to become overtired and these hormones are released.
In the Correct Environment – Life would be much easier if we could tote our kids anywhere, at anytime and expect that they will get the sleep they need, but unfortunately that’s not the case. Babies and toddlers will achieve their very best sleep in their bassinet, crib, or bed, and it should be your goal for them to do the majority of their sleeping in this consistent location. This is especially important when they are overtired or learning to self soothe, but is a good practice whenever possible. As your child is becoming a more social being, he will have a harder time sleeping out and about and on the go. Sleeping at home in his own cool and darkened room will make sure there are no distractions. Also, babies and toddlers have better quality, more restorative sleep when they are sleeping in a stationary location like their own bed. Vibrations or motion during sleep (think strollers and car seats) force the brain into a lighter sleep state and reduce the restorative power of the nap. It’s similar in comparison to the sleep that you get on an airplane: ok, but not really restful. A nap on-the-go here and there is fine, but most naps and all night time sleep should occur in your child’s bed. This does make you a bit of a slave to your house but ask anyone who has kids – that first year flies by. Before you know it you will be out and about and personally, I would rather stay in and have a well-rested child than be out with a cranky, overtired baby.
Additionally the proper sleep environment for your baby or toddler is critical – a dark room (black out blinds and no sources of light) free from distractions (mobiles, toys, music), with white noise and a temperature between 65-70 degrees.
Teach Your Child to Fall Asleep On His Own – As is one of the main points of this article, CIO (cry it out) isn’t the only way to teach a child self soothing skills. You can gently teach your child this skill while staying with him and reassuring and guiding him along the way. It does require the above items to also be in place and it will require time, patience and absolute consistency, but in a short time it will all come together. Do an Internet search for the terms Camping Out method, Pick Up/Put Down Method, or Fading. Decide which one is for you and then come up with a solid plan that you feel comfortable implementing. These are all gentle methods where you can be with your child all the steps of the way. I suggest writing out your plan of action, so you always have it in writing and are able to stick with it to a T. If you feel like you cannot go at it alone, enlist a certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant to support you through the process. Remember that this is simply the final piece of the puzzle – in order for your child to achieve healthy sleep they must also be sleeping at the correct times in a consistent environment that is conducive to healthy sleep.
The Tip Take Away: No one likes to hear their baby cry. I do not think that is up for debate. And no one takes the decision to do so lightly. The bottom line is: if allowing your baby to cry alone in his bed does not work for you and your personal beliefs and parenting philosophies – then don’t do it. BUT you can and should teach your baby this extremely important skill as there are several gentle and effective ways to achieve the same goal.