Posted: Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009
For exhausted parents everywhere, babies can be divided into two categories: sleepers and non-sleepers. After 8 months of waking up at all hours of the night, one thing was abundantly clear to me: I did not, by any stretch of the imagination, have a sleeper. Working at Education.com, I have some of the best experts in the world willing to take my phone calls. So I decided to bring in the big guns, two gurus who make a living teaching parents like me how to get a baby to sleep through the night. I’m a few days in now, and incredibly enough, it’s working.
First, some background. I met my sleep gurus, Noelle Cochran, PsyD and Lele Diamond, MFT, both specialists in infant and toddler mental health and child development, because I was writing a story on preschoolers and kindergarteners who refuse to stay in bed. They run a Bay Area practice called Symbio but parents from across the country come to them for help… especially with sleep.
When I decided I was done waking up multiple times per night, I knew they were the ones to go to for advice. What I didn’t know, was how fast things could change. In just a few days, my baby went from waking up 4-5 times a night, to sleeping from 7 PM- 5:15 AM. I haven’t had this much sleep since George W. Bush was President…
What they advised me to do to get my baby to sleep worked so quickly, and so dramatically, that it would be just plain mean not to share. Here, with their blessing, is exactly what they told me:
The 10 Things You Need to Know to Get a Baby to Sleep Though the Night
- Understand why what you’re doing is important. Listening to your baby cry is incredibly difficult for most parents. Cochran and Diamond emphasize, though, that the process of training a baby to sleep through the night isn’t a selfish endeavor. True, many parents try it because they’re plum exhausted. But what’s really going on is a passing of the torch. “It’s a transition between you soothing her by picking her up and her learning how to soothe herself.” Cochran says.
- Lay the groundwork for success. Decide on a date to start and mark it on the calendar so you’ll commit to it. If you’re doing this with a partner decide in advance who will go in to baby in the middle of the night. Plan things out ahead of time, so you’re not trying to decide what to do at 3 AM, when you’re exhausted.
- Close the kitchen and choose a sleep threshold. If your child is older than 6 months and you’re still feeding her multiple times per night, it’s time to close the kitchen. “Yes” Diamond says, “She will be hungry for a night or two, but her body will adjust and she’ll learn to get more of her calories during the day.” Cochran and Diamond don’t recommend going cold turkey. Instead, they recommend phasing out the feedings. “Pick a time in the middle of the night, for example, midnight, and commit to the fact that before midnight you will not feed you’re your child when she cries,” Diamond says, “Then every two or three nights, move the boundary back by two hours.” For example, move it to 2 AM, then 4 AM, then 6 AM. “If you pull a feeding,” she says, “Your child is going to be hungry, but you need to distinguish between a physical need and a habitual need.”
- Go in based on the cry, not based on the clock. Most sleep training books advocate going in to your child at timed intervals, such as every five minutes, then extending those intervals gradually. Cochran and Diamond say to ignore the clock and focus on the cry. “On the first night, at the first cry, go in within the first five minutes, so your baby knows you hear her,” Cochran says. After that, and forever more, go in somewhere between 5-25 minutes, right at the height of the baby’s cry. Before you open the door to the nursery, listen to the quality of cry—if it’s deescalating or starting and stopping, your baby is starting to self-soothe. Don’t go in unless the cry starts to work up again.
- Don’t stay too long. The ideal length of time is between two seconds and one minute. Never stay longer than a minute.
- Eliminate the pacifier. Sometime between four and six months, the physical need for sucking goes away. If your baby is older than that and still using a pacifier, the challenge is getting to the point where she doesn’t need you to help. “If she can find the pacifier and put it in her own mouth, I’m okay with it,” Cochran says, “But it’s not okay for you to have to come in during the night to put it in for her.” Start working on putting it in her hand for her, rather than in her mouth. And have a plan for phasing it out completely. They don’t recommend doing that at the same time as the rest of the sleep training, though! One thing at a time.
- Don’t expect to calm baby down. When a parent goes in to the room, they’re often hoping that going in will soothe their child, Diamond says. But it’s important to have realistic expectations. Not only will you likely not make your baby stop crying, but the crying is likely to jack up, not lessen, since you’re refusing to do what your baby wants, which is to pick her up or feed her. The point of going in is to say “I get it, you’re upset, but I know you’re okay. Nothing has gone wrong. It’s not that I don’t hear you. But I know you can do this and I’m here to support you.” Parents often say, “This doesn’t help—I made it worse by going in.” What they need to understand is that going in is not meant to soothe the baby, just to reassure her.
- Know there’s no tough love required. Although the sleep books often warn parents not to talk to their child or make eye contact, Cochran and Diamond disagree. “You can look at them, talk to them, say you love them, “Diamond says, “Eye contact is okay. Patting is okay. Some kids hate to be touched or talked to, so know your kid tempermentally”, but if you think it will help, feel free to do it, as long as you don’t pick them up. As for going in the room, you can phase out these visits whenever feels good to you, Cochran says.
- Set a clear boundary and stick to it. When a baby cries, she’s signaling you. There’s a contest going on. Your baby is saying, “I’ll cry to make you do what I want you to do,” Diamond says. And when you start sleep training, you’re changing all the rules. That’s why it’s important to keep what you do consistent, so she knows what to expect. “Picking her up sometimes but not others, or rocking her to sleep when you’re at your wits end, but not at other times, isn’t fair to her and it actually makes things harder on her,” Diamond says. Once she knows, “Okay, I can get you to visit me, but I won’t get rocked or nursed to sleep,” she can learn how to soothe herself.
Want to know the step-by-step gameplan? Tune in tomorrow for details, plus the nitty-gritty of one parent’s night-by-night experience.