baby sleep tips + tricks
q + a with Kimberly Walker, pediatric sleep therapist
Q: What exactly does sleep teaching or sleep training mean?
A: Sleep teaching and sleep training mean the same thing: teaching your child the skills needed to put themselves to sleep without your help. This means they can go to sleep without being rocked, bounced or walked, without you re-inserting the pacifier all night and without having to feed in order to fall asleep. It means you should be able to put your baby down awake at bedtime and nap time and that MOST of the time (of course, there are always bad days/nights), they can put themselves to sleep in a reasonable amount of time—about 20 minutes or so. It does not mean that your child will LIKE going to bed, that they pass out the second they hit the crib or that they will never wake in the night. The goal when teaching your child to sleep is that they learn how to put themselves to sleep at bedtime/naptime and how to put themselves back to sleep should they wake in the night.
Q: I have read tons of books about sleep teaching/ training and there are many different approaches. How do I know which one is best?
A: Best is what feels right and works for you. I sometimes hear things or read things that I disagree with when it comes to sleep, but that does not mean I am right. A lot of what you read or hear is just someone’s opinion. I have my opinion, but it is not right or wrong. It is just what I believe based on my experience. It is a little like saying what’s the BEST recipe for cookies? It’s impossible for someone to answer this. All families are different and what works for one parent and baby may not work for another. This is OK! The best advice I can give you is do what feels like it will work for you. This does not mean it has to feel GOOD. Lots of things parents do in a child’s best interest do not feel “good,” but you do what you feel like you and your child NEED and try not to think about what is right and wrong. There is not one RIGHT recipe!
Q: Can I teach my baby to sleep if they are still swaddled?
A: YES! If your baby is not yet rolling over and still needs swaddling, you can teach them to sleep with it. The swaddle is not the same as rocking or sucking because it doesn’t give babies “skills” to fall asleep. They are still closing their eyes by themselves and putting themselves to sleep. In fact, some babies physically need the swaddle to stop the startle reflex, and if you take it away too early, it could be very hard for you to teach them to sleep without it. People also worry that if you teach a baby to sleep with a swaddle that you will have to teach them to sleep all over again without the swaddle. This is usually not the case. Once they can roll over or can do without the swaddle, they should still have the skills to fall asleep by themselves. You may have one or two nights of a transition period as they learn to roll around in the crib, but this may happen once they learn to roll regardless of the swaddle.
Q: My baby doesn’t like to be swaddled. Am I doing something wrong? Is there another way to get them to sleep?
A: First, if your baby is rolling over, you should stop swaddling. Second, a swaddle does usually help babies to sleep better, but it will not give them the skills to put themselves to sleep. I work with lots of young babies whose parents tell me their baby does not like to be swaddled. What this usually means is that when they try to swaddle the baby, the baby fights it, is not sleeping well or is breaking out of the swaddle. People often think these things must mean the baby does not “like” to be swaddled, but it may just mean they need to learn how to sleep. I recommend trying different swaddles and different sizes because one may work better than another. Also try swaddling with both arms IN and down by their side, not across their chest. And only use the swaddle when it is sleep time or when they are having a hard time calming down. Any other time during the day, your baby should be unswaddled.
Q: Can you help with me a bedtime routine that does not take forever?
A: Oh my goodness, yes! For babies, I suggest something simple like:
- Bath (on bath nights)
- Diaper and PJ’s
- Feed with lights on or low, not OFF. (Once you are going to teach them to sleep, do not let them fall asleep eating.)
- Read ONE short book (I recommend the same book every night because it becomes a visual sleep cue. It’s great because you can also use it for naps and take it when you travel. It is only read before sleep.)
- Put on swaddle or sleep sack (if you are using one)
- Turn on white noise (if you are using it)
- Say goodnight to a few things in their room: goodnight to stuffed animals, goodnight to outside, close the blinds…
- Take them over to the lights and turn the lights off and say goodnight to the lights
- Snuggle them on way to crib and tell them you love them, time for sleep, etc
- Lay them in the crib
- Leave (if you are at this point in sleep teaching)
Q: Does my child have to take a bath as part of bedtime routine?
A: Absolutely not. Many people think that if they do not bathe their baby the baby will not know it is sleep time. This is not true. There are tons of babies that do not bathe every night due to physical reasons, skin conditions or simply because their parents work late and a caregiver may bathe them during the day to save time. These babies still go to bed. You do not have to kill yourself trying to bathe a screaming, tired baby because you think you HAVE to. If you keep everything else in their routine consistent, they will be totally fine!
Q: What is the point of hiring a sleep therapist by phone or to come to my home? What can you do that I cannot do?
A: The main point of hiring someone is to get support, guidance and experience. The truth is, I don’t have magic potions to be able to make your baby happy about learning to sleep. I do however have 16 years’ experience, and have taught hundreds of babies how to put themselves to sleep, so it may be easier for me to tell what seems “normal” and what seems “off.” Most importantly, sleep consultants can bring a calming, confident energy to the sleep teaching process. Many parents may be nervous and anxious about sleep teaching, not to mention also sleep deprived themselves. I can guide you through the logistics of what to do when, but also I can emotionally support you if you go through uncomfortable thoughts and feelings throughout the process. Sleep consultants can also help navigate issues between you and your partner during what can be a stressful time.
Q: What if I don’t sleep train, will children eventually learn to sleep by themselves?
A: You don’t usually hear about a grown woman sleeping with her mother and father because she was never sleep trained… so, yes, eventually everyone learns to put themselves to sleep. However, at what point in life your child will learn to sleep is very unpredictable. There are plenty of toddlers and older children who can’t/won’t fall asleep unless someone sits with them or lays in bed with them. I have worked with 2 year olds who still get up for a bottle in the middle of the night and I have worked with 11 year olds that sleep with their parents. Some parents do not mind their child coming into their bed in the middle of the night or having to wake for years to give a bottle. I do not tell people what is right for their family, I am only here to help them if they want change.