07 July 2013

The Zombie Parents' Guide to Sleep Training

Disclaimer: I am not an expert on sleep. I am not a doctor and I am not a psychologist. I do, however, have five small kids who sleep great, take long naps, share rooms and go to bed without issue. There are many books out there that will say this better than I can. This is a sort of compilation of everything I've learned over the past 7 years.

You're probably reading this for one of three reasons. 1) You're tired and you want that little stinker to sleep already! 2) You read everything I write because you're my mother. 3) You've exhausted your Facebook feed. If you're here for sleep help, read on!

So, sleep training. It sounds so mean. Who on earth would make a helpless child cry when they could just rock them to sleep? I know. I thought that too, once.

Why Sleep Train? Kids thrive on routine. My three eldest girls eat the same thing for breakfast, watch the same movie every morning, eat the same thing for lunch, say the same prayers with Daddy, sing the same songs in the car. Bedtime routines are important. For a baby under a year old, consistency is absolutely key. Giving them another piece for their routine is such a service to them! They need to know that when they get in bed, they're going to see the same results every time they wake. When it's dark, they sleep and when it's light, they can get up. They nap for at least an hour, and they settle down and close their eyes when it's time for sleep. They don't rock to sleep in one of five different places, they don't fall asleep in two different sets of arms, they don't hear a different lullaby every night. What's fantastic about sleep training is that while it gives Baby freedom to understand bedtime and get a good night's sleep, it also gives Mama and Daddy the freedom to have time together at night and to live something of a normal life for just a few hours each day. Being able to leave Baby with a sitter long enough to have dinner and catch up without sweeping up Puffs and pacifiers is exactly what will recharge you and get you through these tough early years. How much nicer would those dates be if you knew that your poor sitter wasn't trying desperately to get Baby to sleep?

Sleep is so, so, so important. Baby needs it to keep her body strong and healthy and to hit milestones on time. You need that time in the evening. You need that stretch of sleep at night. You need that nap during the day. A happy, well-rested child is pleasant to be around and brings joy to the home. A child who has slept in her bed all night is one that you miss and greet warmly on the other side. It's really hard to find the patience during the day (and in the middle of the night!) when you've been dealing with a cranky, overtired kid without respite.

Our own breaking point came early with our firstborn, as she was a terrible sleeper who refused to sleep in her crib for more than two hours at a time. It took months for us to finally buckle down and just do it already. It's hard, no doubt. Some parents don't hit the desperation stage until 18 months, 2 years, etc. Some don't reach that point until their second child. But I can assure you, that point comes at some point for every parent. Many parents go with, "Well, they'll sleep eventually, right?" Eventually? Wouldn't you like them to sleep by, say, next weekend?

When can I start sleep training? Six months. There is some margin on either side, but generally six months is a good age. They can understand that you'll come back, you know them pretty well and they're big enough to get the job done and sleep through. Before six months, you really need to be attending to their every whimper and cry. There are steps to raising happy, secure kids, and making sure that your young baby feels absolutely safe and happy is the key to successful sleep.

Is this about cry-it-out training? Yes.

How long does it take? Anywhere from 3 nights to 3 weeks, but in my experience, 3 nights is about it. If it takes longer than about 3 or 4 nights, you're probably missing something in the consistency. Babies are smart. If you're 100% consistent, they'll get the hang of it very quickly.

What can I do before 6 months to prepare for sleep later? 
  • Establish a bed-time routine and make bedtime nice and early. Babies need a LOT of sleep. A 6:30 bedtime is completely normal.
  • Put them down awake but drowsy. 
  • Do and say the same things every time. "Time for sleep! I love you! Goodnight!" 
  • Dark room, noise machine, closed door. Every time! We try to keep the bedroom side of the house completely dark with the exception of the cracked closet door for the girls. It's important that the babies go to sleep in the same environment in which they'll wake later. Can you imagine falling asleep at the noisy dining room table and waking up in complete, quiet darkness an hour later? You'd think you'd been kidnapped. 
  • Keep the room cool and the air circulating. We keep a fan on in the nursery and try to keep it nice and cool. Once our kids start to heat up, the bad dreams and waking begin. 
In my experience, the best thing you can do before 6 months is know that it's a short time period. It feels long and everyone's fried, but it really will be just a blip before long. 

My kid is 6 months old. Now what? 

Okay, here's where it gets fun. (No, really! You're almost there!) No one likes to hear their kid cry, but you can do this. Most importantly, your KID can do this. If you haven't tried a "drop them and run" approach to sleep yet, you might be shocked to find that your baby just lies there for a minute and goes right to sleep. Our first baby was a nightmare. Our second popped right into her crib at 6 months and loved her crib from that first night. Never a tear. Our third yelled for about 20 minutes and figured she was better off unsupervised anyway. Our fourth cried for 45 minutes the first night and about 20 minutes the second, with a few night waking issues. Our fifth was a night-waking-banshee who still has a night here and there. Our fourth and fifth are identical twins who sleep in the same room, so that took a little longer than normal. It just depends on the kid. (I should note that they are currently 7 months old and we're still dealing with a few refreshers here and there.) Here we go. 

The Process

1) Choose a block of nights where you can stand to lose a little sleep. We usually try to plan out a Thurs/Fri/Sat/Sun over a holiday weekend or something similar. 

2) Light your hallway with red night lights. If you do need to get up, the red light isn't as jarring and will help you get back to sleep sooner when you return to bed. Also, use a little Pam or WD-40 on the nursery door and make sure you can get in and out without noise. They can hear that tiny squeak above the noise machine - I have no idea how. 

3) You need a noise machine. Make it nice and loud - you'll probably have to listen to it all night, so pick a swooshy sound. The heartbeat noise will give you nightmares. Make sure your monitor and your noise machine are on opposite sides of the room, or your noise machine will drown out the baby and  you won't be able to hear the baby noise over the swoosh. 

4) Pick the parent who can deal with the crying better. They can take the first shift. If you're at risk of running in and scooping Junior out of his crib, this would be a good night to catch a movie or visit a friend. 

5) Put baby down about 3 to 4 hours after he wakes up from his latest nap. This is a good window. You want to get him into bed before you start seeing the yawning or eye-rubbing. 

6) Once baby has been fed and changed, pop the paci in, turn off the light, hand him his lovey and put him in the crib. Say, "Time for sleep! I love you!" Walk out and close the door. 

7) Wait ten minutes. This may be the longest ten minutes of your life, or he may just roll over and go right to sleep. 

8) If Baby is still roaring at the ten minute mark, walk in long enough to hand him his paci, pull him back to the middle of his crib and say, "Time for sleep! I love you!" Walk out, close the door. Doing the exact same thing every time is key. 

9) If Baby refuses to calm down, I almost always go in every ten minutes. After two or three ten-minute spurts, they're usually winding down and I space more time between the paci-visits. Some sleep experts call this "extinction." 

10) If you're worried that something else is wrong, consider Baby's mood when you put her down. She was probably perfectly happy then, right? If you're really concerned, pick her up for a minute. If she immediately stops crying, it's probably pretty clear that she's crying for one reason and one reason only, right? Gotcha, Mama! 

11) If, by some chance, Baby makes it to the 45-minute mark and is still very upset, this is a good time to consider what her cries sound like at this point. A 6-to-9 month-old baby doesn't really understand manipulation and will usually just cry because they want Mama and Daddy to come back in. Past the younger baby age, you're much more likely to hear your little sweetie sounding pretty mad and offended in there!  Assuming you're dealing with a younger baby, I would pick her up, console her and distract her for a little bit. You can always try again later. If Baby is quieting for longer intervals I usually leave them, but I try not to let them full-out scream for more than an hour. I can handle crying for awhile, but my mama instincts usually tell me to go in and cuddle them at this point. They've done their time and are ready for some reassurance. Reaching the one-hour point is where most parents crack and decide that their baby just can't handle "Cry It Out" or "CIO." Try again tomorrow. And the next night. And the next. I can promise that Baby will start to understand what's going on. 

Night Wakings - I treat night wakings just like bedtime, with the exception of checking diapers. If Baby is dry, I replace the paci and say, "Time for sleep! I love you!" and walk out. The twins aren't really happy about us just walking back out when they wake up at night, but they're starting to get the hang of it now.

Should I do naps first, nights first or both at once? Both at once. I usually start with a nap only because I'm here during the day and Baby can get a little practice in before it's really important. And, if naptime just doesn't happen because Baby can't quite figure it all out, I have a better guarantee that he's probably going to crack and go to sleep that night.As far as naps go, Baby needs to sleep for at least an hour per nap. If he doesn't do an hour, he hasn't had a nap. You can use short naps to "practice" his sleep training, which is what I usually do. If the boys fall asleep in the car, it doesn't count. I keep them up for an hour and then put them down for a real nap. If I put them down in their cribs and one of them "wakes up" after 20 minutes of sleep, I scratch it from the board and assume he needs to "start over."

What about pacifiers? Honestly, this is a great time to wean from the pacifier. Might as well, right? If, however, you're just not up for two challenges at once, that's fine. Do a night or two and figure out how many times you're going in to replace the paci. If it's more than you can handle, ditch the paci. My firstborn was a nightmare with the paci. She needed help finding that thing constantly. Our four since her used to it to fall asleep initially and then self-soothed in other ways throughout the night. If I had another like Lucy who was constantly waking for the paci, I'd take it away cold-turkey and be done with it. Hindsight and all that...

But I just feel so bad!  NEVER BE APOLOGETIC. If you walk in and start whimpering, "I know baby...Mama's so sorry! I know this is horrible!" you're not just confusing the poor kid. You're apologizing for doing something that is in place for their own good. Would you apologize for pulling her out of the way of an oncoming car? Would you apologize for teaching her to be wary of strangers? No, sir! Teaching Baby to sleep is incredibly beneficial to their emotional well-being and their physical health. This should be a positive and cheerful time. Even if your nerves are frayed and you're really doubting this is going to to work, give Baby a happy voice and a little pat and walk right back out. You will feel like a champ when it's all over.

You can do this, friends. On the other side, your happy, confident, fantastic Baby will be waiting for you with a big high five!

1 comment:

hales1123 said...

You're such a good mommy! Thank you for sharing your tricks with us noobs.