Sleep Training 101

Expert tips on making it through the night

Expert tips on getting baby to sleep through the night

It’s late. It’s dark. You’re exhausted after a day of working and caring for your family. But instead of sleeping, you’re rocking your baby back and forth, looking resentfully into the pair of wide-open eyes peering up at you through the darkness.

Sound familiar? If so, you’re like the many parents who, at some time or another, have had difficulty getting their child to sleep. “Everything is stressful when you’re tired,” says Lisa Graziano, a Kingston mother of two. 

Heather Sullivan, a mother of two from LaGrangeville, agrees. “It’s frustration at the highest level, because you’re tired and you want to relax, and they’re not letting you.” 

While some parents are fortunate enough to have babies who sleep well from birth, most will need to commit to teaching their child how to soothe herself, or the whole family may become chronically sleep-deprived. 

A few short months ago, I was one of those parents. From birth until almost 10 months, my son Edwin was incapable of putting himself to sleep, whether at the beginning of the night, at naptime, or during his multiple night wakings. On a typical night, Edwin would wake up every hour or two, crying for us to help him get back to sleep, a process that often took an hour or more. 

Leanne Sowul tried everything from co-sleeping to crying it out in order to get her son Edwin (left) to sleep.

Diagnose the issue

If this scenario sounds familiar to you, the first thing to do is diagnose your child’s biggest sleep issue. Does she have trouble falling asleep? Is he incapable of sleeping more than a couple of hours at a time? If so, is he waking up hungry, or just out of habit? Is she napping enough? List all the problems you are having, and target them in priority order.

Next, do some research. Try reading books, articles and blogs, or ask other parents for suggestions. Then do what works best for your family and lifestyle.

“Take 10 percent of everyone’s advice and make your own decision based off that,” says Michael Tiskowitz, a Newburgh father of two. 

Commit to a plan

Whatever route you take, the key is to commit to every step in your plan. For several days or weeks, you may need to focus much of your time and attention on your child’s sleep. That may seem impossible, especially for working parents, but it will pay dividends when you have your baby sleeping well and predictably. At that point, you will get back all of the hours you spent training him.

“As a working mom, your sleep is just as important,” says Hollis Bakke, a Poughkeepsie mother of one (pictured at right).  “You have to get sleep in order to be both a mother and do your job.”


Co-sleeping and beyond

During Edwin’s first few months, I didn’t think much about sleep training or even a schedule; I got sleep whenever I could, prioritizing bonding with my new baby. But after three months of feeling permanently jet-lagged, I started to realize that things were not going to get better on their own.

I was co-sleeping with him in a sidecar-style bassinet, but even that was not comforting enough for him, so I started bed-sharing for part of the night. I knew bed-sharing was not recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, but I found alternative research to support it in Dr. William Sears’ book, "Attachment Parenting".

A combination of co-sleeping and bed-sharing enabled my son and me to get more sleep (and bonding time) for the first several months of his life. It’s not for everyone, though, and it isn’t a permanent solution, unless you’re comfortable with the possibility of a 7-year-old sleeping in your bed!

READ MORE: Understanding baby's sleep rhythms

‘Cry it out’

Throughout those months, I also referred to Elizabeth Pantley’s "No-Cry Sleep Solution", hopeful that Pantley’s gentle techniques would help eliminate Edwin’s night wakings as we transitioned him to a crib in his own room. Unfortunately, his night wakings increased again, and I started to feel as if I’d never get a full night’s sleep.

One night, I was rocking him, and when I thought he was totally asleep, I put him down. As often happened, he woke and began to cry as soon as his head hit the mattress. I picked him up again and looked into his eyes. His expression became suddenly clear: it was as if he was saying, “Mommy, I want to go to sleep, but I don’t know how.” 

Desperate, I did what I’d never imagined I’d do: I read Dr. Richard Ferber’s "Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems", and, impressed by the science behind it, decided to try letting my son “cry it out.” The first night, he cried for nearly an hour; the second night, less than five minutes. Within a week, he was able to fall asleep without tears and go right back to sleep whenever he woke. It felt like magic, but I still wasn’t happy about the way we’d accomplished it.

As a teacher, the idea of letting a child cry until he figured things out on his own seemed abhorrent to me, as ridiculous as giving a kid an advanced math problem with no guidance and no teacher in the room to help her solve it. I am grateful, however, to have finally achieved a consistent good night’s sleep for everyone in my family.

There are many options for building healthy sleep habits, but whatever route you choose, remember that all babies are different, and it’s important to take time to understand your baby’s personality before deciding on a sleep system.

“I feel strongly that a parent needs to bond with her child, and go with her gut,” says Robyn Guillen, a Poughkeepsie mother of four. “Do what consoles them, and take baby steps.” 

Consult an expert

For those who feel overwhelmed by all the conflicting information on infant sleep, or simply don’t have time to read it all, hiring an expert is another possibility. 

“You’re not born knowing how to sleep. You have to be taught, and we as parents need to learn the tools,” says Karin Masina, a mother of two from Hurley who is a certified Gentle Sleep Coach. Masina trained with Kim West’s “Sleep Lady” system, which she describes as “a middle-of-the-road approach.”

One of the many things Masina learned during her training is that babies go through shorter REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and non-REM sleep cycles than adults do. As adults cycle in and out of these patterns, they experience partial awakenings that they aren’t even aware of. Children with sleep issues, however, often wake up fully between cycles and are unable to put themselves back to sleep without help from some sort of “sleep crutch,” whether it be a parent, a pacifier or her own thumb. 

The goal of the Sleep Lady system is to slowly eliminate sleep crutches and teach the child to self-soothe.

As a sleep coach, Masina works with the family to decide on an appropriate plan and how to implement it, and then guides the parents through the process.

“We all need support,” she says. 

Leanne Sowul is a freelance writer living in Poughkeepsie. Read her blog at Words From The Sowul.