Updated article july 2021
You have to train your baby to fall asleep alone without always having a parent present, ensuring that they develop trust and a sense of security before starting anything to promote your baby’s sleep autonomy. Many studies put into perspective that parental behavior has a great influence on the development of independent sleep in their child, with a view to preventing sleep problems later in life through the creation of winning conditions. The important thing to remember is that parents’ expectations regarding their child’s sleep must be realistic, children must sleep enough to maximize their development and also remember that each child is at his own pace of learning, but often needs his parents to do so.
Both parents must be ready to combine their internal strengths, their tolerance, patience to help each other to succeed. The experience I have had with families indicates an acceleration in the baby’s autonomous sleep process when both parents offer mutual support in joint decisions, and when the father quickly gets involved in the new routine, especially if the mother is still breastfeeding. All this in a coherent and complementary role between the parents, so that the baby knows what to expect, no matter if it’s mom or dad who comes when he calls.
It’s essential to know that if you want to start a process to help your child’s autonomous sleep process, and during this process, you return to your former patterns, your baby will do the same. It will cause much frustration regarding expectations and efforts for all those involved. Basically, trusting your baby and yourself is just like transitioning to solids or learning to walk your baby. Helping your child to sleep better is helping him to grow up, it is one more step towards autonomy and independence. Consistency and persistence are the ingredients to success.
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Several simple methods and techniques are available to help the baby start their autonomous sleep process.
Starting a sleep routine:
Start the nightly routine, including feeding, a bath, massages, placing the baby in their bed, adding a small cover, their comforting object (after two months) and then go!—sleep in their bed. If you rock them, they must not fall asleep in your arms. The baby must be put in their bed awake. You can reduce lighting, external stimuli. Maybe use a background noise that often contributes to helping the baby fall asleep, such as the sound of an aquarium motor, a fan or a dehumidifier. You can then place a chair near their bed, sit down and softly caress them, sing and look at them for the time it takes for them to fall asleep. Then, each night, you gradually will reduce the time you spend with them before leaving their room.
The intervention of parents:
You shouldn’t react too quickly if the baby is in their latency phase of sleep or if they’re whining a bit. Also, if you have their crib in your room or close to your bed, increasing the distance between the two can help with distancing. When you go and see them, you shouldn’t always give them their pacifier or pick them up, rock them or feed them, as they will come to expect that. Keep your actions and the associated stimuli to a minimum. At night, don’t talk to them a lot, or sing, keep lighting to a minimum, so that they can note a difference between their sleep routines, waking at night and naps during the day.
Is the baby really hungry?
If the baby is between 4 and 6 months and still wants to feed at night, you must evaluate if they’re really hungry and if they’re waking up as a routine. If they have already slept for five hours straight (that is a night for them) by falling asleep by chance, it means that they can repeat it. We know that at the physiological level, they no longer need it. Of course, they could continue to want to feed as a routine, as a programmed reaction, like us eating at noon when we really aren’t hungry. Changing an automatic routine is a gradual process. If they wake up and feed for a very short period then fall asleep again, you have your answer. If your baby falls back asleep with their pacifier or when rocking them, they’re not hungry.
Gradually diminish the time you’re present:
At night, you can gradually decrease the time you’re with your baby. For example, we can reduce breastfeeding time by giving one breast instead of two and stopping when they’re drowsy but not fully asleep. We can also replace the breast with a bottle or glass with Dad depending on their age. Also, we can gradually reduce the quantity of milk in the bottle or glass and return the awakened baby in their bed with their comforting object—a blanket, a safe, soft doll, a stuffed animal… Don’t forget that you’re creating a significant change and it requires time and perseverance. Being consistent day after day, you will note that they will wake up less during the night and your baby won’t be upset—they will be better rested. The chair technique and the progressive waiting technique are also possible alternatives.
The chair technique:
The chair technique is a way to gradually sever the presence of the parent from the older baby in their room when putting them to sleep. You have to take into account that babies have physical discomforts, such as gas, reflux or intolerance. These symptoms greatly influence the quality of their sleep and falling asleep. As such, you have to consider their health condition and help the symptoms before trying to improve their sleep. That is why the chair technique is suggested for later when the baby has a more regular sleep cycle, and their health is excellent.
The nightly routine must be stable and include feeding, a bath, massage, placing the baby in their bed or adding a small cover, etc., while maintaining a calm physical environment. If the baby seems uncomfortable, you can caress them, reposition them, offer them a comforting object (after two months) talking to them softly (but not a lot). Your first reflex shouldn’t be to pick them up each time, as they will quickly make a false association in their mind: I cry, mommy or daddy picks me up, I feed, and I fall asleep.
They will then always expect to be consoled in the same way. If the action is repeated too often over a long period, it will create a routine.
You will always place the baby awake in their bed with their comforting object, and you will sit in a chair close to the bed. You can put your hand on their body to reassure them and rock them a bit to calm them so that they fall asleep by themselves. Day after day, this technique should allow the baby to fall asleep on their own faster, and you will spend less and less time in their room so that they can do so.
You can’t get discouraged during your first tries. It will take about 3–4 days to see a transformation in your baby’s ability to fall asleep alone. Some babies have temperaments that will require more time, as they’re more reactive generally. However, consistency in your approach will make the difference and will reassure them over time.
The progressive waiting technique (5-10-15 method):
The progressive waiting approach is an alternative developed in 1956 by Dr. Richard Ferber, a Boston pediatrician. It also helps the baby fall asleep alone without their parents. Used starting from around 4 to 6 months and even later, up to 18 months, this technique teaches the baby to fall asleep alone. Once again, the sleep routine should be followed to the letter, then you place the baby in their bed and close the door, diminishing light, stimuli, external sounds. A background sound can be maintained, like the chair technique.
The first night:
The parent doesn’t wait in the room near the baby, they leave. The baby will probably cry, and from this point, the progressive waiting process starts: wait 5 minutes, if you can, before returning to the baby, then after 10 then 15 minutes. You shouldn’t pick up the baby or talk to them. Limit what you do to the minimum and as quietly as possible. Softly reposition the baby in their bed, cover them up if necessary, softly caress then leave the baby’s room. If 5 minutes of crying seems too long, you can go slower with progressive waiting from 1 to 3 minutes at the start, depending on your tolerance. Then move to 5 or 8 minutes, then 15 minutes. You have to consider your limits as a parent. At this time, adapt the technique’s wait time but always remain consistent and coherent. Return every 15 minutes as long as the baby cries and hasn’t fallen asleep. It’s a good idea for the father and the mother to alternate, especially if the mother still breastfeeds during the day. This technique has shown that the length of time the baby cries will be less with the presence of the father rather than the mother. The first night will be rather hard as the baby doesn’t understand what we’re trying to do. Your sporadic presence will reassure them, but at the same time, they will learn that they need to go to sleep alone. You will likely hear their best, loudest cries and don’t forget, it’s their way of expressing themselves. It’s normal—they’re not happy!
The second night:
Continue your evening routine to initiate your baby to sleep at night. Then, when you place them in their bed, leave the room like the previous night, but wait 10 minutes before going back if they cry. If you prefer waiting for a shorter period, choose 5 or 7 minutes. Then, calculate 5 more minutes each time before returning, up to 20 consecutive minutes. Then repeat every 20 minutes as the situation requires.
The third night:
The third night should already be easier. Restart your evening routine, place the baby in their bed awake and leave the room and wait for 15–20 minutes. Often, your visit will no longer be necessary as the baby is already asleep. By repeating the technique, persisting day after day, the baby will understand that they now need to go to sleep alone. Over time the speed will increase, both when they’re put to bed at night and when they wake up. When their sleep is good, you can start the nap routine, which will be different from the night routine but with the same regularity and recurrence.
To learn more, please watch the video about Baby’s Sleep.
The Baby Expert
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