Many of the principles discussed in my blog on tiny babies still apply in older babies.
However, usually the issue with older babies and toddlers is that they’ve already created sleep associations that aren’t working for their parents. It’s OK to admit this, no matter how much we love our children, we need to be able to function and if you aren’t getting enough sleep and are getting depressed then you need to change things.
Sleep-training is essentially devoted to trying to break the associations that parents aren’t happy with. Here we discuss how to teach a baby to self-soothe when they already have strong sleep associations in place.
These are just a couple of techniques that worked for us, the entire business of sleep training is essentially devoted to this topic so this blog is just a couple of examples of things I wish I’d known earlier.
When I say ‘self-soothe’, I simply mean helping your child to fall asleep naturally when they’re ready, I’m not a fan of forcing them in to anything or allowing them to become distressed.
Controlled Crying/CIO – It wasn’t for me
Methods for sleep-training range from the gentle to the somewhat off-puttingly named ‘cry-it-out (CIO)’ methods. Parents tend to swear by whichever method they used and there is a temptation to criticise those taking a different approach. Depending on who you speak to, CIO can be sanity-saving for mum and thus better long-term for baby or completely damaging.
If you’re coming under pressure to use a method that you don’t want to, it’s worth bearing in mind that if there was one successful strategy then there wouldn’t be so many conflicting opinions. The problem with teaching babies to self-soothe is that essentially, babies are little humans – they’re individuals and what works for one doesn’t necessarily work for everyone.
This exact debate has been going on for generations – my gran vividly recalls being advised by her midwife when she had her first child that because she refused to leave the baby in a pram at the bottom of the garden for four hours until it needed to be fed that her daughter would be ‘spoiled and would never sleep’. Nowadays that would be considered neglect, yet the principle still seems to permeate our collective consciousness. Several times I was advised to leave my eldest, L, to cry for varying lengths of time.
The evidence for the effectiveness of this is limited, but like everything I suspect it depends on your baby’s and your temperament.
L is like me, my mother and grandmother – she’s stubborn and determined and I didn’t feel controlled crying or CIO was for us, so I can’t give any insights to it as I have no personal experience of using it.
Breaking the feed-to-sleep pattern
Most babies need to feed at least once overnight until they are about four to six months old and many need to feed for longer. However, breastfed babies in particular frequently fall asleep whilst feeding and it can rapidly become their favourite sleep association.
This works for a lot of people, breast milk is cleverly designed to help your baby fall asleep quickly and easily at night so many people find feeding to sleep a useful association. We used it frequently with my eldest L and I actually really loved a lot of our sleepy feeds.
After a few months though, she was waking hourly and not so much feeding as having a quick milk snack to fall back asleep. I was getting exhausted and although I didn’t want to stop feeding, I needed some rest! I tried just not feeding her but she became distressed and then by the time I gave in and fed her she’d been awake too long and we’d spend hours trying to settle her back down.
Nights were the hardest, so I tackled day first and started feeding L when she had just woken up from her naps instead of just before them. Sometimes she fell asleep again but a lot of the time she’d stay awake and interact. I needed her not to automatically associate feeding with falling asleep.
At night, I quickly realised that when she woke up and wanted milk to go back to sleep, I couldn’t be there – I was essentially ‘the one with milk’ to L and it understandably pissed her off to have milk right there and not be given it. I started gradually reducing the frequency of feeds during the night and when she woke up in between them my husband G went in to settle her.
I’m not going to lie, it was a gradual and slow process, but over the next few weeks we got the night feeds down to a level that I was happy with – I didn’t need her to give them up altogether, that happened naturally after she started solids at six months.
When my youngest J came along I made sure to feed him on waking from his naps from the start. He quite often feeds back to sleep during the night, but it’s one of his many sleep associations so he doesn’t rely on it.
Breaking the rock-to-sleep pattern
If L didn’t fall asleep feeding then she was rocked to sleep. Again, initially I really loved this – rocking my baby and singing lullabies was one of those pictures I’d had in my head of what being a mum would be, so I kind of encouraged this. Same problem though, when her sleep patterns matured and she was waking all the time but not knowing how to fall back asleep without feeding or being rocked, it started to wear me down.
This was really hard to adjust, I needed to work out a way to help her to self-soothe and learn to fall asleep that didn’t involve feeding or rocking. I used some sleep aids – Ewan the sheep helped a bit (although see my post on infant sleep aids for why he also annoyed me quite a lot) – and I read a lot of baby sleep books, from Gina Ford to Dr Sears to Elizabeth Pantley.
The one that worked best for us was the no-cry sleep solution, which was very much a slow-and-steady approach but did work and I wanted something that didn’t cause her distress. We also tried the pick-up-put-down method (you pick the baby up when crying and put it down as soon as it stops) but it just didn’t seem to work with L.
A lot of the advice in these books is common sense – make their cot a happy place, help them to form associations that work for you (for us this was a dummy and white noise). We gradually moved to L finishing falling asleep in her cot (this is where ‘drowsy but awake’ comes in to play and it’s a real pain), then to her going in to her cot awake and us stroking her hair or patting her until she fell asleep, then finally to her going down tired but awake and falling asleep with us staying in the room and just sitting beside her bed.
With J this process happened much younger and more easily, partly due to the next-to-me crib, which allowed him to see us and feel we were still connected then gradually move to his own space (I wish we’d had one with L, it would have saved a lot of grief!) and partly because we understood sleep associations earlier with J.
There wasn’t really a magic to teaching L to self-soothe, it was largely a case of patience and persistence. It was like teaching her any other new skill, it took a while. You probably need to try a few different techniques to find what works best with your child.
Don’t let anyone make you feel that you need to do more
L started sleeping through the night when she was eight months old, but even now she’s not a great sleeper and her routine is easily thrown off, unlike our son J who has so far been a really good sleeper.
We have a dinner, bath, stories and bed routine. Most days now she falls asleep quickly after her story – she lies in bed and me or my husband sit in a chair in her room and read our kindle (or nap) until she falls asleep. Sometimes we sit outside the room if J isn’t asleep yet.
I’ve had a lot of grief about this. People keep telling me that we shouldn’t sit in the room with her and that she needs to go to sleep alone. They may well be right. But at the end of each day she tells us all the best and worst parts of her day, who she played with, what upset her that day. She tells us that she loves us and sometimes she still climbs on to our lap for a snuggle before she gets in to bed.
I love these moments and I am happy to sit in her room until she falls asleep. Sometimes when we’re sitting in the dark she unexpectedly comes out with something from the day that has worried or upset her and we talk about it. She knows that she’s safe and loved and we’re all happy with the situation.
If we weren’t happy then yes, of course we could work on her going to sleep without us in the room, but these years are finite. Soon she’ll be grown and she won’t want us in the room with her. We as a family get to choose what sleep associations work for us and we shouldn’t be pressured in to changing them.
So by all means, do what works for you to get your child’s sleep to a stage that you’re happy with, but trust your instincts and don’t let anyone push you in to changing how your child sleeps unless you want to.
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