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Sleep training and sleep regression. Put your warrior gear on! We're going in!

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

Sleep. The illusive joy that takes on a whole new meaning once you have a baby. Doing it and trying to get your baby to do it at the time you want and for the amount of time you want is a huge part of early parenting. Whether your child is a good sleeper or not, it's something you are often thinking about.


After reading, comment with your sleep training wins, struggles, or questions!


Sleep Training


First of all, I don't have the answers but I will try to provide some context and strategies as well as share my own experiences for you to learn from. My baby girl didn't sleep completely through the night until she was almost 18 months old, but she was a good sleeper. It sounds like an oxymoron but its the crazy truth of sleep.


Baseline variables

Make sure these variables are covered before trying any additional tactics. Night time routine, temperature, sound, your level of freaking out about it, and other needs are met.


Night time routine

  • No other sleep training strategy matters or will work if you do not have a night time routine. You MUST have a calm night-time routine. If baby understands that bedtime is coming, he/she understands that means you will leave and it is time to sleep. If baby doesn't realize that you are about to leave them there, they freak out. This reaction is normal behavior. You might be thinking, "Well why wont baby just learn that if I put them in their crib, that means they have to go to sleep?" Baby can't regulate from fully awake to ready to sleep that quickly. Your night time routine has to help them get to the point to be ready to go to sleep. Then they learn that everything will be okay. They are tired and want to fall asleep and know that when they wake up, you will come back.

  • Sometimes being ready to go to sleep looks a lot more active than we think it "should." Sometimes before my daughter crashes to sleep, she has this random last blast of energy and she'll start talking and wiggling around. Whatever the behavior may look like, you do your night time routine the same everyday with no flexibility around the fact that when the last step is done, you will put the child down in their crib and it is time to go to sleep. Read more about specifics of what night time routine steps in my Consistency and Routine blog post.

Temperature

  • Make sure that baby's room stays at or above 70 degrees and make sure that baby has warm enough pajamas on. The baby cant calm if he/she is cold.

Sound

  • Babies are used to the sounds in the womb and consistent white noise at that level continues to comfort them for a long time after birth. One of the most interesting things I learned while figuring out this sleep stuff was that the volume in the womb is somewhere between a vacuum cleaner and a lawn mower. That's pretty dang loud! I would highly recommend a good sound machine and turn it up probably louder than you think. I have the Hatch. I use it every single time she sleeps. We have a certain sound that is used when she sleeps at night and a different sound that we use when she naps. Every. single. time. The sound also works really well to drown out other noise that happens outside the baby's room while he/she is asleep so that the baby doesn't get waken up.

Your level of freaking out about it

  • As with anything with your child, try your very best to stay as calm as possible in order to encourage the baby's calmness. The baby feeds off your emotions so if you are feeling really overwhelmed and elevated, the baby will too. If you stay calm, even when the baby is crying before bedtime, the baby is much more likely to calm down. If you feel overwhelmed and elevated, it's honestly best to give it up for the moment and ask someone else to step in or start to feed the baby so you can take a second to chill. I always just tried to focus on the fact that this was normal behavior and the more calm and consistent I could stay with my expectations of bed time, the quicker it would be stop. Your smiles do wonders for baby :)

Other needs met

  • I have to at least mention that you have to ensure that all baby's diaper is dry and he/she has eaten enough.

Other Factors to Consider

Some other things to consider as you plan for sleep training.


Sucking

  • My husband and I attended a "Happiest Baby on the Block" training before having our baby. One of the five S's for this technique is Sucking. Sucking is proven to calm babies. It's why babies often fall asleep while breast or bottle feeding. I am a supporter of finding a pacifier that your baby likes. I find it to be a very helpful tool for calming baby when they are very young and helping them to regulate. Yes, the process of removing the pacifier from the child's life sometime shortly after their first birthday is a process you will have to face later but it is a very helpful tool for assisting with regulation for that first year. After that, they have the ability to develop other regulation strategies. Some people have told me that they've tried many kinds of pacifiers and their baby just doesn't want a pacifier. If this is the case for you, I'm sorry.

Talking

  • Keep talking to the baby about what is happening and the fact that he/she is okay. Beside the fact that baby loves your voice, it also continuously reinforces that everything will be okay. "You're okay baby. Mommy is going to put you down so you can go to sleep. Relax your body and rest so that tomorrow we can have even more fun together. When you wake up, I will be here to pick you up." You can literally say something to that effect over and over. You can talk about what your going to do the next day even. It gives you something else to think about and it makes the baby want to quiet down to hear your voice.

Sleep Training Strategies

Ok so you planned for at least those baseline adult behaviors. Now what? There is no "one size fits all" solution but there are several strategies that are definitely worth a try. Here are the 5 most used types of sleep training:


Fading - You help baby fall asleep less and less over time

Pick up/Put down - You pick baby when upset until he/she calms back down and repeat this until baby falls asleep.

The Chair Method - You sit in a chair close to the crib and move it further and further away over time until you are out of the room.

Controlled Crying - Letting baby cry for set intervals and then going to check on/calm them.

Extinction/Cry It Out - Put baby to sleep and no returning for checks or comforting.


Sleep Regressions


They are real. Your child will not necessarily experience all of the common ones or any regression at all. The most common sleep regressions are 4 months, 8 months and 18 months. Generally the regression is aligned with times of an incredible amount of cognitive growth that is amazing to watch during the day and can really throw the baby out of wack at night. There is some much happening in their brain, they just kind of lose the ability to regulate their sleep for a short period of time. Sleep is also the time that their brains are actually most active because there are so many synapses and other neurological elements being created so their brains are just on fire all the time for those periods. In the best way possible. They are some of the greatest times to watch your baby grow. Hopefully that keeps you fueled enough to stay positive during the night. They have to basically be re-taught your routines at night and/or that we sleep through the night.


Most important things to keep in mind about sleep regression:

  • The earlier you start a night time routine, the easier everything will be.

  • It is temporary.

  • It is normal.

  • Baby is not choosing to do it to be defiant.

  • Keep your routines as much as possible.

  • Keep yourself together while your with baby.

  • Ask for help when needed.

The Bumpy Road (optional story telling section)


My daughter slept at all the right intervals; 2 hours chunks to 3 hours chunks...only 2 wake ups at night...and so on and so forth through the typical progression of baby sleep. Every time I went to the pediatrician, she would tell me how lucky I was. Honestly, I always felt lucky. Even though she didn't sleep through the night until 18 months, she generally went to sleep well and was easily put back to sleep at night. Even though she woke up every night, there was not huge drama around it. (Until her 18 month sleep regression. More about that later.)


I have literally tried all of the strategies above to some extent at some point. Not out of desperation, but different things just worked (or didn't work) at different times. Our process looked a little like this...


I used Fading as I transitioned her from falling asleep in my arms when she was very young. I started a nighttime routine when she was about 2 months old around 7:00 p.m everyday. During the routine she would still fall asleep in my arms or be just about to sleep when I put her down. Over time, somewhere around 6 or 7 months, I would make sure to put her down before she was asleep so she had to actually fall asleep without me. By the time she was about 8 months old, I was putting her down when she was still mostly awake so she could learn to fall asleep on her own.


Around that 8 month mark, she experienced a sleep regression. She was crying more than normal when going to sleep which is a typical behavior during a sleep regression. We didn't want to give in to this new, extra crying at bedtime and let her night time routine get all out of wack. I used Controlled Crying. For controlled crying, you can get pretty specific about the different amounts of time you wait before checking on the baby. There amounts of time get longer over time. I started with a short period of time, 2-3 min, and would go in and comfort her and try to put her down again. Two minutes of her crying felt like torture to my husband and I. After just a couple days, she got the point and cried for less and less time until there was no crying before she went to sleep. The fact that the strategy was working was super helpful because it was really hard to let her cry. Also, I knew that if I went in to comfort her right away, her understanding of bedtime becomes, "Mommy puts me down, I cry, and then she comes back" rather than, "Mommy leaves but she will come when I wake up so its okay to go to sleep now."


After that sleep regression, she was "sleeping through the night." She really wasn't completely sleeping through the night but when she momentarily woke up a few times in the night, she wasn't screaming and didn't require being picked up. So the first iteration of "sleeping through the night" was really that she stayed in her bed throughout the whole night. She would do the thing where they barely wake up but they whine until you roll and get up to give them the binky/pacifier. (We'll talk more in another post about the dreaded "binky extinction".) She went back to sleep right away though and I got used to it. This was how it was until about 12 months.


When she was a year old, we moved from New Orleans to Pennsylvania. In between moving from our old house to the new house, we stayed at my in-laws for 3 weeks and then stayed at my parents for 3 weeks until we closed on our house. Shockingly, her sleep stayed pretty consistent with one or two wake ups for the binky. At this time, she was also still sleeping in our room in her crib.


When we first moved in to our new house, I kept her crib in our room for a week or two. I didn't want to transition her to her own room right away because I was afraid she would associate the new house with the separation. So she was about 14 months old when we transitioned her to her own room. It went smoothly. She was still having one wake up a night at this time but easily put back to sleep.


Until SH*T HIT THE FAN!


THE 18 MONTH (or somewhere around there) SLEEP REGRESSION! That thing is a DOOZIE!


She was about 15 months old. She would go to sleep fine but she would wake up anywhere between 2:00 and 4:00 and would.not.go.back.to.sleep! She was then up and "raring to go" at 5:00. At first I was so confused about why this was happening until I used the trusty Google and found out that the 18 month (or sometime around 18 months) sleep regression was a real thing. I was very comforted by this because it meant the it was normal and that it was temporary. But man was it a tough time for our family.


For this sleep regression, I started with Pick up/Put down. I would pick her up, hold her, and comport her until she calmed down and then put her back down. My impression is that, generally, the pick up/put down is a relatively short period of pick up and comfort and then put back down. GIRL! Sometimes I was fighting with a screaming baby and holding her for an hour and a half until she was calm enough to put her back down! Pick up/Put down was not going to cut it.


This was truly the hardest part of being a parent thus far. It was so much stress due to having to exhibit so much of my own emotional control. She would scream even more if my husband tried to hold her so it was all on me. Sometimes he would sit behind me while my back was screaming at my from holding and rocking her for so long and he would rub wherever I asked him to rub. The worst was one night when him and I decided to be rebellious and were up watching a movie until like 12:30. At 1:00, the devil emerged in the form of a screaming child. It took an hour and half. It was now 2:30 in the morning. I knew she would be up at 5:00. I was already sleep deprived from all the previous nights of this sleep regression. It had taken so much emotional control not to get so angry at her for her crazy behavior. Now, I was only going to have 2.5 hours to sleep. This was the first night I cried from parenting overwhelm.


The 18 month sleep regression is supposed to last 2-6 weeks. She went the whole six weeks. I read recommendations that the best thing to do is to try to keep routines as normal as possible even during the sleep regression so that you don't create other habits you have to break later. For example, I could have given up on her crying and brought her downstairs to watch her favorite show. But I refused to have to break the habit of watching TV in the middle on the night as well as trying to get her to stay asleep. Then where does it end? What if she wants to start playing, what if she wants to eat? It's all way too much fun that she would want to do it every night. NOPE! So I would stay in her room while comforting her, talk to her about what was happening and what we were going to do the next day after she went to sleep, sing to her, rock her, bounce her until she calmed down and was ready to go back to sleep.


As she was transitioning out of the sleep regression, she would still wake up in the middle of the night and stand up and cry. She wasn't screaming and becoming as awake as she previously was. At this point I did The Chair Method. After laying her back down, I sat right next to the crib. If she was crying, I would not attend to her. This worked very well. Each might I moved a little more toward the door until I would completely out of the room and she was fine. It took about 5 nights of me sitting in that chair for about 20 minutes.


Once I was laying her back down and she was going right back to sleep without me in the room, I started using Cry It Out. When she would wake up in the middle of the night I would not go in to her room. It took 2 nights of her crying for less than 5 minutes before she stopped waking up and was FINALLY actually sleeping all the way through the night. It felt like some kind of euphoric freedom! Of course I was now so used to waking up in the night that I still wasn't sleeping through the night but it was still glorious!


(End Scene)



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