As I was driving home from my son's most recent doctors visit, I was overwhelmed with so many emotions after his pediatrician told me that I should consider sleep training my baby. At first, my thoughts revolved around the notion that sleep training contradicts my beliefs on nighttime parenting; but after much reflection, I found that notion to be false. Lets define the purpose of nighttime parenting and sleep training.
Nighttime Parenting: Parenting a child by engaging in any activity that the child needs for him to build enough security to fall asleep.
Sleep Training: Teaching your child the skills needed to sooth himself to sleep.
I completely agree with both of these definitions; and if I agree, then why is it that I have rejected sleep training? Well, what I have come to realize is that I have not rejected sleep training; but rather the current commonly used sleep training methods available. The methods that I have encountered:
The goal of sleep training is to teach children the skills required to successfully self-sooth; and helping them learn these skills involves nighttime parenting, time, patience, practice, and trial and error. This is why I am proposing a new option that combines nighttime parenting and sleep training; what I have named the Individualized Nighttime Parenting Sleep Training Guidelines. Thus far, I have not encountered any sleep training program that offers suggestions on how to help parents create an individualized sleep training program for their child. As an early childhood educator, to ensure that every student succeeds academically, teachers must individualize lesson plans based on two very important considerations: the skills that each child has already mastered; and the best way to foster each child's strengths and needs. The same principles should apply to sleep training. The sleep training methods currently available will be successful when using them for children who have a specific type of temperament; but there is a whole population of children who are not accommodated for. If you are looking for another option, follow the Individualized Nighttime Parenting Sleep Training Guidelines below.
Before creating a Individualized Nighttime Parenting Sleep Training Program:
- Set realistic expectations for your child. This program is not meant to be a quick solution. This is a gradual process based on a program that caregivers will design to meet the needs of their child. Remember to be flexible; remain patient; smile; stay positive; and praise even the smallest progress.
- The goal is to teach children the skills needed to self sooth.
- Nighttime parenting is required.
- Answer the following questions:
- - What is your child's temperament? (i.e. easy going? strong-willed?)
- - Is your child able to communicate when he is hungry, has a soiled diaper, or needs comfort?
- - What self soothing skills has your child mastered? (i.e. sucking on fingers? sucking on toes? placing pacifier in own mouth?)
- - If the child has mastered self soothing skills, do these actions actually sooth him?
- - How is your child currently soothed to sleep? (i.e. breastfeeding? bottle? rocking? singing?)
- - What are his sleep associations?
- - Where does your child currently sleep? (i.e. crib? co-sleeping?)
- - How does your child react when he is placed in the crib? (i.e. happy? reluctant?)
- - Do you have a nighttime routine in place?
- - Is your child ready for sleep training?
- - How do you know that he is ready for sleep training?
- - Is your child teething?
- - Is your child about to reach any developmental milestones?
- - Is your child experiencing separation anxiety?
- - Any other considerations about your child before sleep training?
- - What is the end goal for your child? (i.e. sleep in crib all night? sleep in crib half the night?)
Creating an Individualized Nighttime Parenting Sleep Training Program:
- Establish a bedtime routine. A calm and predictable bedtime routine helps children transition into a sleepy state.
- Help the child create positive associations with the crib. This may take time. Place your child in the crib and immediately provide verbal praise. Then partake in a reinforcing activity such as reading a book or engaging in fun social interactions. Do the activity for as long as the child will tolerate it. The goal is to gradually increase the time spent in the crib until the child intrinsically enjoys it. If the child spends only a second in the crib today; aim for a second and a half tomorrow.
- Determine whether your child is ready for sleep training. After the bedtime routine is established and the positive associations have been created with the crib, determine whether your child is developmentally ready for sleep training by reflecting on your answers to the above questions.
- Transfer or establish positive sleep associations. If a child is accustomed to sleep associations involving parental support such as nursing or rocking, then these dependent sleep associations need to be slowly replaced with other sleep associations independent from you. When deciding what type of sleep associations to replace established ones with; ask yourself "how is my child currently soothed to sleep?" This will help guide you when choosing new associations. For example, if you decide to replace nursing with a security item, such as a blanket or a toy, then this blanket or toy needs to be used during every nursing session until the child associates the item with the nursing experience. This process will take time and will involve trial and error. Just remember to work on replacing one sleep association at a time.
- Slowly Fade Away. After the new sleep associations are successfully created and the child has developed a positive association with the crib, it is time to slowly fade your presence. This will also take time.
- Give your child the support he needs. Even if your child has made progress, expect there to be nights when he needs extra nighttime parenting. Do not do the program when your child is about to reach a developmental milestone or on nights that your child is experiencing teething pain, separation anxiety, or insecurities; rather, focus on providing your child with the comfort that you are fully present when he needs you.
- Provide lots of positive verbal and physical reinforcement. Make the nighttime routine a positive experience to encourage the development of a positive attitude towards transitioning into a sleep state and staying asleep.
If you strongly agree with nighttime parenting or sleep training and have not yet discovered a sleep training method that works for you; follow these guidelines to create a successful Individualized Nighttime Parenting Sleep Training Program for your child.