There’s nothing a new parent loses more sleep over than the difficult decisions surrounding sleep training (or the lack thereof) of their little ones. At one extreme are methods such as the “cry it out approach,” which involve babies learning to soothe themselves to sleep in their own crib. As the name suggests, it’s not for the faint-hearted!
At the other end of the spectrum are parents like me who have tended to nurse (or bottle-feed), rock or walk around to put their babies to sleep. This form of “accidental parenting” eventually catches up with us when a child’s ability to drift off is inextricably linked to that particular association, leading to “sleep-onset association disorder.”
The problem is as real and complicated as it sounds, with the child awaking easily through the night, each time requiring the same crutch to fall back asleep. In my case, we reached a stage, at twelve months, when Jr was waking up innumerable times through the night (sometimes as often as five times in the span of a couple of hours!).
As with most areas of parenting concerns, neither the problem nor the solution is black and white.While how your baby or toddler falls asleep is still of utmost importance, sleep consultant and author of “Sleep Baby Sleep,” Kerry Bajaj is emphatic that sleep training doesn’t have to be traumatic for either the child or the parent.
As a starting point, her approach recommends gradual weaning rather than abrupt changes. For instance, if your little one is being rocked to sleep, Bajaj would suggest rocking them for the first few minutes and then gently switching them to their crib (or bed) and patting them instead. From there on, it’s a smoother transition to “chair method” of sleep training, which involves a parent sitting on a chair beside their child whilst they fall asleep, gradually moving the chair away over time and leaving the room altogether.
As I learned through experience, the real key to winning any bedtime battle lies in finessing a child’s schedule and sleep environment, both of which are also high priority for Bajaj. She notes that schedules can be cleverly calibrated to find a child’s sweet spot, putting the perfect amount of pressure for them to easily drift off.
Timing your child’s nap-times and “awake windows” are pivotal to this calibration. If naps are too closely timed, a child will naturally find it more different to sleep without any aids such as rocking. Conversely, if a child is awake for too long between their last wake-up and their next nap-time, they are likely to be more cranky, again requiring soothing actions to help them go to sleep.
It goes without saying that every schedule requires incremental adjustments in line with a baby or toddler’s growth, often even month-on-month, with awake windows progressively increasing as a child gets older.
A bedtime routine is equally important, albeit without any pre-fixed formula for the perfect routine. Instead, focus on being consistent with feel-good bedtime rituals that work for your family and are age-appropriate too. Ours involve Jr’s favourite books, sound-tracked by soothing instrumental lullabies. For others, it might be a short massage and a night-time bath, followed by prayers led by the parents. Needless to say, stimulating activities (including screen-time) should be avoided right before bed.
Setting a conducive sleep environment is the last piece of the puzzle. A dark room is the most obvious cue, but can be supplemented by nuanced measures such as white noise to drown out household noises, and even a “lovey”—a special toy, blanket or object—to help the child feel secure and safe.
Whichever the approach to sleep training you adopt—the nightly rituals you set or the cues you implement in your child’s sleep environment—the holy grail is to have your child falling asleep independently at bedtime, thereby connecting their sleep cycles and reducing their night awakenings.
The benefits are manifold. After all, uninterrupted sleep is a medium for uninterrupted growth while also ensuring harmony for us over-tired and over-worked parents.
Ayushi Gupta-Mehra is an economist, F&B consultant, self-taught cook and founder of The Foodie Diaries®. Follow her adventures on Instagram @The_FoodieDiaries and @Mummylogues