By Kim West, LCSW-C, The Sleep Lady®
Do you long to find that magic moment when your baby is put in the crib without fussing or fighting, and peacefully drifts off to sleep? Most sleep methods can bring your baby to that place, but some methods are gentler than others.
Our children are not born with the knowledge of how to put themselves to sleep, and it is our responsibility as parents to teach our children how to fall asleep without assistance from us. Additionally, we need to help our babies create positive sleep associations to replace any established sleep crutches, such as rocking, feeding, or patting, that may be present.I like to think of my gentle sleep coaching method, known as The Sleep Lady Shuffle, as a happy middle ground. This type of sleep coaching helps your baby adjust to the change in their routine over a period of time, rather than be put into bed one night to be left alone, wondering what happened (and probably screaming out of frustration with the sudden change).
Are You Tired Yet?
The first 6 months of parenting is a challenge. A fun challenge, yes, but it’s definitely a test of your mettle. I understand that by the time you’ve been up and down nearly every night for 6 months, you probably just want the night wakings to stop. With The Shuffle, you will take small, incremental steps to teach your baby to fall asleep without your help. Going to sleep by yourself is an important life skill, and one that your baby cannot learn without your coaching.
The Shuffle is my gentle sleep coaching method that gently and effectively teaches your baby that she doesn’t need to be rocked to drift off to dreamland, nor does she need to be bounced, fed, or sung to before nodding off each night. All of these were fine while she was an infant, but once she’s developed the ability to self soothe (somewhere between 4.5 months and 6 months), you can gently and effectively transition her away from these habits all while staying with her and offering her reassurance
Some Crying Is Normal
It is important to understand that some fussing is normal during a period of change or challenge-which is exactly what will happen when you begin to sleep coach your child. Mild fussing (whimpering, grunting, or frustrated cries) is normal while your baby learns a new skill. Hysterical crying is not normal, and you need to calm your child if this happens.
I know how hard it is to listen to your baby cry. When my two girls cried I could not just leave them alone. . For little ones that are non-verbal, crying is often how they communicate discomfort, or frustration (or even that they just want to be moved to a different position). Gentle sleep coaching is about providing the tools and support so that your child can be successful at learning to sleep with your support and guidance. This is NOT cry-it-out. I encourage you to stay with your child and offer physical and verbal reassurance, and as they learn the skill you reduce your “interventions”.
Be Your Child’s Sleep Coach
I use the term ‘sleep coach’ because I believe that parents should act as sleep coaches for their children, giving them positive examples and lots of chances to figure it out, rather than stepping in and doing it for them. When parents practice The Shuffle, they are coaching their child in good sleep habits, and providing verbal and physical encouragement along the way.
From Good Night Sleep Tight:
“We want to strike that balance between security and support, confidence and freedom. We need to let our children learn, slowly and gently, to deal with emotions such as frustration, excitement and anger and with behaviors such as sleep to self-regulate. We can’t do this for them, any more than a coach can get out on the field and play for his team.”
Who Can Learn From The Shuffle
My method, The Shuffle, works for children 6 months to 6 years and can be tailored to meet your family’s unique circumstances. Many people assume that if they co-sleep, roomshare, or breastfeed that they can’t sleep coach. That is simply not true! Regardless of your sleeping arrangements, you can teach your child to sleep using The Shuffle.
When To Start
You will want to wait till your baby is at least 4.5 months, or (some babies aren’t ready until they are 6 months old) before you begin sleep coaching. Practically speaking, plan to begin The Shuffle when you have a full three weeks you can devote to it without being away from your child at bedtime.
Be sure your baby is very well-napped for a few days before beginning the process. Finally, start by training your baby at bedtime, not naptime (children have a more difficult time falling asleep during the day).
The Sleep Lady Shuffle
Most people don’t realize that there are actually three distinct types of sleep coaching: extinction, gradual extinction, and fading:
Extinction (most commonly associated with Dr, Weissbluth) is truly “cry-it-out”, where you would put your baby in their bed awake and leave, not to return until morning.
Gradual extinction (or The Ferber Method) involves timed checks, so you would allow your baby to cry and check in on them every 5 minutes, gradually lengthening the time between checks every day.
Fading is where The Shuffle falls. This is where I found the “sweet spot” for sleep coaching. It’s the gentlest approach, and usually involves minimal crying. When you do The Shuffle, you aren’t just leaving your child alone. You are there to support and encourage through touch and verbal reassurance while your child learns this important new skill.
Before you begin sleep coaching, be sure that:
- Make sure that your child is well-napped. This means that if you need to stick them in the stroller and go on an hour long walk, do it.
- Start with a focus on nighttime sleep, as it’s the easiest time of the day for everyone to fall asleep.
- Encourage melatonin production by keeping lights dim and turning off electronics about 30 minutes before you start the bedtime routine.
- If you know that your child has a feed-sleep association, move the feeding to the beginning of the bedtime routine to help begin to encourage independent sleep.
- Expect some fussing. You are teaching your child something new. They’re going to be frustrated.
- If your child begins to cry, it’s okay to pick them up to calm them!
With The Shuffle, most families report that they see improvement in as little as 4 days when they follow the program.
Trouble In Paradise?
Most families see a positive change in their baby’s (or toddler’s) sleep habits within 7 to 10 days. However, I find that families who don’t see results in the first few weeks generally need to reexamine how they’re doing The Shuffle. Usually I find that either mom or dad has created a new sleep crutch in place of the old one they used before or there’s a lack of consistency in response to their child’s awakenings at other times.
If you’re not seeing the results you expected then closely examine your method for any new sleep crutches you might have adopted. Then check your consistency. You may have to backtrack a few days in your Shuffle to make sure that your child is truly learning the skill of putting herself to sleep.
If neither of these are the issue there may be an underlying medical problem that should be addressed at the pediatrician’s office.
Stick With It
As long as you are consistent in your sleep coaching, your child will learn how to fall asleep without the rocking, patting, feeding, or other crutches that you’ve been using. And then your whole family can finally get some much needed sleep!
KIM WEST is a mother of two now teenage girls and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been a practicing child and family therapist for more than twenty years. Known as The Sleep Lady® by her clients, over the past seventeen years she has helped tens of thousands of tired parents all over the world get a good night’s sleep without letting their children cry it out alone.Kim has appeared on the Dr. Phil, Today Show, NBC Nightly News, Good Morning America, TLC’s Bringing Home Baby and CNN, and has been written about in a number of publications including The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, Baby Talk, Parenting, The Baltimore Sun, USA Today, The Telegraph, The Irish Independent and the Washington Post.
Kim is the author of three books: “GOOD NIGHT, SLEEP TIGHT: The Sleep Lady’s Gentle Guide to Helping Your Child Go to Sleep, Stay Asleep and Wake Up Happy”, the “Good Night, Sleep Tight Workbook” and “52 Sleep Secrets for Babies”.
Dedicated to providing tired parents with excellent sleep advice and coaching, she started training Gentle Sleep Coaches® all over the world in 2010.