As a parent of an infant, you may often find yourself marveling at your baby’s sweet and scrumptious head-to-toe perfection. That is, until he displays his equally amazing ability to voice loud and unrelenting protests each and every time he’s placed in his crib for a nap or bedtime. Will your infant ever learn to nod off without the aid of mom or dad?
When it comes to infant sleep, timing really is everything. For one, trying to sleep train your infant before age 4 months is setting yourself and your baby up for failure, because at that age, he’s technically neurologically incapable of self-soothing (a key component to lulling oneself to sleep). Ultimately, it’s not fair to you or your baby, says pediatric sleep coach Brooke Nalle, a contributor to the bestselling e-book Ready, Set, Baby! The Watch and Learn Guide to Your Baby’s First Year.
Once your baby reaches 4 months old, she’s developmentally ready for success in the sleep department. For the best odds at making this work, Nalle suggests devoting a weekend to sleep training your infant. You and your partner can alternate shifts. Your goal: “To teach your baby to learn to associate falling asleep with being in her crib, not in your arms,” Nalle says.
The 3-Rule Weekend Plan
From Friday morning through Sunday evening, you have three bedtimes and six possible naps, or nine opportunities, to reinforce this new association of the crib—not your arms—for signaling sleep. Friday will be the toughest day, but by Sunday, if you follow the three rules outlined by Nalle, below, your infant will have noticeably improved habits and be well on her way to becoming a pro at falling asleep on her own.
Rule # 1: Go to bed tired, not wired
In order for sleep training to work, it’s imperative that your infant hit the sheets when she’s tired and not overtired. An overtired baby is essentially on the brink of a total meltdown, and is physically and emotionally incapable of being taught a new skill.
Here’s how to spot an overtired infant. He or she will:
- Cry loudly and intensely
- Flail his arms around
- Eat fitfully; he may pull off the bottle or your breast mid-way through the feeding, arch his back (all that crying pulls more air into her belly, which creates painful gas)
- Nod off before he finishes his feeding, only to wake a little while later due to hunger. This also creates a feed-to-sleep pattern. Essentially, your baby comes to rely on the breast or bottle to fall asleep.
Once your baby is overtired, you’ve missed your window for effective sleep training. Wait for the next sleep opportunity.
Recognizing Tired Signs
Look for these signs, which show that your baby is getting sleepy:
- Rub her eyes
- Tug at her ear
- Yawn while sighing and vocalize during the yawn
- Seem distracted and purposely turn her gaze away from you as a way of reducing parental stimulation
- Push her head up against your shoulder or push on you—something she also did in utero—to help calm her for sleep
These are all signals that you should begin the 15-minute wind-down. At this point, you will already have set the stage for sleep. (See Rule #2.)
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Rule # 2: Set the stage for sleep
At least an hour before bedtime, create a calm environment by lowering the lights and turning off the TV. Discourage visitors during this time. Initiate your family’s sleep routine, whether it’s a gentle bath and a book, or a light massage and a song. The purpose of the sleep routine is two-fold. Your baby gets to wind down for sleep and also begins to associate the steps with sleep.
Here’s one of the most critical parts of the sleep training: 90 percent of the routine should be done before your baby shows signs of being tired. Once she does begin to show signs, you have 15 minutes to wrap things up.
So, the hour before bedtime might look like this: Move to the nursery, prepare a bath, do a gentle massage, change into PJs, do a feeding. Budget about 45 minutes for these activities. Forty-five minutes in, your baby will likely begin to show signs of being tired, which means you have 15 minutes to top her off with a book, some cuddling and soothing music.
Sticking to the 15-minute window will insure that your baby doesn’t go from tired to overtired or over-stimulated. Do an abbreviated version of this sequence for naps. At a minimum, every baby needs at least 15 minutes of wind-down time leading up to being placed in the crib. And remember: no loud voices, no tickling, or stimulating games like peek-a-boo.
Rule # 3: Seize your sleep opportunity
When you know your baby is minutes from falling asleep—again, rubbing eyes, looking distracted—gently place her in her crib and walk toward the door of the nursery.
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One of three things will now happen:
- You hear nothing. Leave the nursery and go fold some laundry or check Facebook. The idea is to distract yourself so that you don’t interfere with her attempts to fall asleep on her own. If 10 minutes have gone by and all is quiet, break out the champagne flutes. You may have just reached a new milestone.
- She immediately starts to fuss or cry. The cries are consistent, but not frantic (around a 5 on a scale from 1 to 10). Walk away from the side of the crib and stand at the doorway of the nursery while reassuring her with soothing shushing noises. Just hearing your voice may be enough to lull her to sleep. If her cry starts to calm and there are intervals of no crying for a few seconds or more, walk out of the room. The pause is a signal that she’s working on doing this herself.
- Crying escalates to the point where it’s loud and sustained (like a car alarm). In that case, pick her up. Stand by the crib and count to 100 in your head. She should soon begin to calm down and feel heavy in your arms. Place her back into the crib. Note: You may need to pick her up as many as ten times on Friday.
The end goal here and ultimate marker of success is that come Monday, your baby falls asleep easily and calmly in her crib (and not your arms.)
Maureen Connolly is Executive Producer at KnowMore.TV and the author of the e-book Ready, Set, Baby!, a 2014 Digital Book Award finalist for best new app.
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