Surprise! We’ve had to sleep train our son (the one who inspired this website)…again! Can you believe it? Well…actually, I’ve stopped calling it “sleep training” and think more of it as teaching him new habits when the ones he’s established aren’t working anymore. And, this has changed over time.
Last week, we talked about how inertia can keep you from sleep training and the discussion was interesting. One commenter suggested that perhaps night-waking is normal and there really isn’t a “problem” to fix. I can see why she would say that. If all these babies have sleep problems, doesn’t that just make it normal and sleep deprivation is just a part of parenting?
I answer with a resounding “No!”
Our children do not come out knowing what to do in many areas (actually it surprised me all the little things I take for granted that I now have to teach!). Back in caveman days, I’m sure our ancestors taught our children how to hunt. Just because a baby doesn’t come out knowing how to hunt doesn’t mean we didn’t teach him. And, our children certainly do not come out with manners, either. We teach them how to say “please” and “thank you.” To me, it’s like saying since most kids like sweet foods that they should have a diet high in sugar and we have no influence over establishing healthy eating habits. Habits are just those. And, the way we parent our children can change those habits in a big way!
Does this mean your child should never wake at night? Of course not. There is a huge difference between a newborn waking 5 times a night and a 2 year old. There is a huge difference between a 10 month old eating once or twice a night and a 3 year old. And, there is a huge difference between a 4 month old waking every two hours and an 18 month old. Waking once a night for 18 months may be manageable for some, but waking EVERY two hours for 18 months would hardly be manageable for anyone, I can imagine. Even 6 months was too long for me and I am simply a worse parent when I am sleep deprived!
I know that many people believe that children will outgrow their sleep problems and perhaps some do, but these are long-term habits that can be very hard to change, if they don’t. This is similar to how hard it would be to teach a 6 year old to eat broccoli when he hasn’t eaten it for the first 5 years. I recently worked with a family of a 3 year old waking every 2 hours for a pacifier. That is not “normal,” that is “habit.” And, we influence our children’s habits just like we teach them to wash their hands after using the potty. The longer you have a habit, the harder it is to change.
So, what is your goal in sleep training? It’s not sleep!
As I mentioned above, we recently had to teach our son new sleep habits yet again. Here’s what happened:
It all started as nightmares back when he started Kindergarten last Fall. Understandably, he was nervous and the transition had him feeling a bit more anxious. Over the months, he’d have ups and downs and nothing major to worry about. Nighttime fears are very common after the age of 3 or 4, by the way, so it’s likely that your baby or toddler will go through something similar. When my son was 3, he had a fear of dinosaurs (no matter how many times you try to explain what “extinct” means :)). I’ve had clients with toddlers afraid of a variety of things from monsters to the dark, and it’s not always rational.
During this past Spring, things started really getting out of hand with night-waking every night and more and more fear. It started out as me trying to be understanding and comforting and then I decided I was only feeding the fear and I had to do something. But, you wouldn’t “sleep train” away fear, would you? Well, that’s exactly what I did, but first, you have to stop and redefine what “sleep training” means. And, you’ll see why it worked!
First, I decided I was reinforcing this fear, rather than empowering him not to be afraid. This was a very important realization for me. After all, I rationalized that one day he would outgrow this fear, right? I didn’t want to wake up one day to a 10 year old with phobias, but I wanted to be a comforting mom and for him to know that I was always there for him. And, that’s what I did, only he no longer “needed” me, he had new habits of being afraid. This is the same way you might be reinforcing your baby’s need to be rocked, fed, bounced, or pacifier’d to sleep (yes that’s a word, I think). By continuing to do the same thing over and over, you only instill the habit even more and reinforce their “need” for it. It’s possible he wouldn’t be ready, but it didn’t hurt for me to try, much like a 4 month old may not be ready for sleep training, but maybe another 6 month old would.
So, I started talking to my son more and more during the day and at dinnertime about his fears and we started “Operation Brave” and we talked about ways he can be brave. I talked to both he and his brother about this and they both came up with their own ideas. It was also important that I not minimize his very real feelings of why he was afraid. Instead, we talked about them and faced them and thought of ways to empower all of us, so we didn’t have to be afraid (such as talking about how we make sure all the doors are locked before we go to bed).
The other thing I did was I stopped laying with him as long at bedtime as that had become a recurring sleep association and I hadn’t realized just how much that was becoming a new habit for me to stay longer and longer. To “sleep train,” I started out simply leaving 1 or 2 minutes earlier than I recently had been and I said something like “You are so brave.” and I would leave for two minutes or so and then come back to check on him, give him a hug and a kiss and positively reinforce how brave he was being. We started VERY slow (as I most often recommend to anyone sleep training) and we did all of this with no crying. No tears whatsoever (which I can’t say was the case years ago when we first sleep trained or subsequent times after that!). After 2-3 weeks, he was doing soooo much better and since then I have only heard him say “I’m scared.” one or two times. Phew! 🙂 We are currently in our longest stretch of good sleep since I can remember, actually (knock wood!).
The bottom line? Whether you have a baby, toddler, or older child, your focus in sleep training is NOT sleep! Your primary goals of sleep training are increasing self-confidence, improving skills with practice much like learning to walk or ride a bike, avoiding reinforcement of poor habits and, going back to the comment, instilling good routines and sleep habits. Nothing is a problem until it is one, but that doesn’t mean you sit back and wait to see if a problem goes away. Be sure that you DO have the wisdom and influence on your child’s habits, sleep or otherwise, and it’s an ongoing process.
Focus on the above goals and sleep, my friends, will follow!
What are your goals in sleep training?
Please be sure to pick up your FREE copy of 5 (tear-free) Ways to Help Your Child Sleep Through the Night, our e-Book with tear-free tips to help your baby sleep better. For those persistent nighttime struggles, check out The 3-Step System to Help Your Baby Sleep (babies) or The 5-Step System to Better Toddler Sleep (toddlers). Using a unique approach and practical tools for success, our e-books help you and your baby sleep through the night and nap better. For those looking for a more customized solution for your unique situation with support along the way, please consider one-on-one baby and toddler sleep consultations, where you will receive a Personalized Sleep Plan™ you can feel good about! Sometimes it’s not that you can’t make a plan. Sometimes you’re just too tired to.