By Kim West, LCSW-C, The Sleep Lady®
If you are a working mom you probably already feel like you are daily climbing Mt. Everest! Your mind is full, your schedule is maxed, and your body is tired!
But now that your child is near the 6-month mark you may be ready to take that next step: sleep coaching your child so that he can go to sleep all by himself and even sleep through the night. Oh, how wonderful that will be!
Then, you immediately worry that this will mean less sleep and more effort for you and more crying for baby (which translates into frazzled nerves for you – and we all know that is the opposite of what any mom wants!).
Hmmm, you think, is this really worth it? Can I do this?
It’s Worth It!
Let me assure you on a few fronts.
Yes, you may sacrifice a little sleep on the front end of sleep training, but what you gain back is so wonderful that it is hardly worth comparing. Once your child is sleep trained, you will have a much more rested child who experiences more stable and positive moods. A well-rested child will also be able to focus and learn more readily according to his developmental age. Doesn’t that sound great?
While you are sleep coaching, yes, your baby may fuss a little more than usual because you are helping them learn a valuable life lesson: how to cope, adapt, and soothe herself to sleep. But if you follow my method you will be near your child, comforting and assuring them when they are struggling, so that they are not left alone. If they begin to cry hysterically (a rare occurrence when you follow my plan) you will immediately pick him up and calm him down before laying him down in the crib again. There is no need to let your child cry uncontrollably in order to sleep train him.
Sleep coaching also doesn’t take as long as you might think. Most families see dramatic changes in their baby’s sleep within two weeks of consistent coaching.
Lastly, at the risk of stating the obvious, you will also get more rest and personal enjoyment of your child once he is sleep-trained!
Are you convinced that sleep coaching your child, even while working, is worth the cost up front? If so, let’s look at how to get prepared.
It’s All About the Prep
If you have ever undertaken a major paint job you now know that most of the work is in the preparation. Painting the walls is the final, essential step that will either go on easily and look terrific or be terribly difficult to do, depending on how well you have prepped the room. Are the walls clean and clear of all dirt, wallpaper glue, grease, or handprints? Are the outlet covers off and wiped clean? Is the ceiling already painted? What about those gouges in the wall? Have they been spackled, dried, and sanded down?
#1 – Do Your Prep
Before you dive into sleep coaching you want to do the necessary prep work so that you set yourself and your child up for success when it comes time to begin sleep coaching.
Check with your doctor.
Ask your pediatrician if your child is ready to sleep through the night with or without feeding. If your child is waking up to feed several times a night, it would be good to make some adjustments on that front first. Are there any underlying medical conditions that may be contributing to your child’s sleep problems? See the next step.
Create a feeding plan.
Does your pediatrician say that your child is old enough (typically 6 to 8 months) to drop her middle of the night feedings? If so, you could do a dreamfeed at about 10 p.m. or do a set-time feed for three nights in a row and then drop the nighttime feeding altogether.
If she wakes at night at times other than the set-time feeding, just soothe and comfort her. Then feed her again at 6 a.m. The important thing here is to be super consistent. If you cave in it will be even harder to eliminate nighttime feedings moving forward.
Develop a soothing bedtime routine.
Children crave a routine, even ones as young as 3 months old. Take some time to think through what is reasonable (what you can consistently maintain each night) and soothing for your child. Your routine may include:
- A warm bath (Some babies are calmed by baths at bedtime. Some are annoyed; baths are better saved for awake times for these children!)
- Playing soft, soothing music or singing a lullaby
- A snack (nursing or a bottle)
- Reading a board book
- A snuggle and kisses
Do these things in the same order each night. Use a low, soft voice and dim the lights in the room. These will all begin to serve as sleep cues. As his body starts to secrete melatonin (the drowsy making hormone) his body will know that sleep is on the horizon.
#2 – Make Arrangements for Sleep Coaching
Now that you and your partner are ready to tackle this next phase of sleep coaching your child, here are some initial steps:
- Dedicate Some Time. Meet with your spouse and plan together when you can dedicate 3 weeks to sleep coaching. Clear your weekends of outside commitments so that you can support one another and catch up on sleep while the other is on duty.
- Make Meals Ahead of Time. Put away some freezer meals so that you can spend less time on meal prep and use that energy for your child at night. This may sound like a pain but you will be so grateful for that frozen platter of enchiladas you can pop in the oven when you get home from work!
- Adjust Your Work Schedule. Ask your boss if you can come in a little later and home a little earlier for a week. You could ask to make up the time in a few weeks when you are well-rested and are able to do even better work.
#3 – Begin Well
There are two things you can do to begin sleep coaching really well.
- Begin With Your Child Very Well-napped. The ideal way to start your child’s first night of sleep coaching is to be sure he is well-napped. In order to do this you can break all the rules for a couple of days and not feel bad about it! Why? You want him to start as well napped as possible, so that he is not too cranky and out of sorts as you introduce a new way of going to sleep.
This may mean asking his caregiver to rock him to sleep for his naps or take him in the stroller or car if necessary so that he gets in his full measure of naptime the two days before you begin sleep coaching. At the same time, you will want to wake him 2 to 3 hours before his bedtime so that he will be drowsy but awake when you begin his bedtime routine and sleep coaching.
- Start On A Weekend. Since you have gone back to work you will need the extra support during sleep coaching. Start on a Friday night so you have the weekend to begin a new routine and grab some extra zzzzs when your partner is available to watch the kids. It is terrific to be able to lean on one another for getting the extra sleep you need the first few days. If you are a single mom enlist the help of a faithful friend that first weekend.
#4 – The Nuts and Bolts
So, how exactly do you sleep coach your child?
At the heart of my sleep coaching method is something called The Sleep Lady Shuffle. I developed The Shuffle because I want you to be near your child, gently coaching them to soothe themselves and go to sleep on their own. There are several sleep training methods out there that will work if done consistently, but it was important to me to be close enough to comfort and reassure my child that she is not being abandoned to cry it out until she reaches exhaustion.
My book, Good Night, Sleep Tight, also provides all of the details about The Shuffle and so much more you will need to know and it is all in one place. Also, my blog is full of free articles on all facets of sleep coaching so be sure to take a look around for help with your particular situation.
If you prefer a more personal approach, we also have a terrific new resource to walk through all of your questions called Gentle Sleep Solutions. This course provides instructional videos as well as individual teachings to listen to on the morning commute.
#5 – Communication Is Key
It is so important that you communicate regularly with your child’s caregiver. As you make a new sleep schedule for your child, your communication with your caregiver is critical. Work with them so that they are putting your child down for naps in the way you want them to and on the schedule your child needs.
For example: Does your pickup time (if your child is being cared for away from home each day) allow you enough time to get home, feed him, spend some time together, and do your soothing bedtime routine before he zonks out on his own? This will be something to watch for so that your child is drowsy but truly awake when you go through your bedtime routine. Otherwise, he is not learning to cope and soothe himself to sleep. Rather, he is collapsing into sleep because he is exhausted!
If this is happening, your child will likely wake up at night, not know how to put himself back to sleep, and cry out for you.
Figuring out the best schedule may take some trial and error so keep communicating with your caregiver as you need to.
A Job Worth Doing
Working full-time and mothering is no small task. It is not, as they say, for the faint of heart! Adding in several dedicated weeks of sleep coaching may feel downright overwhelming. But I know that you can do it well with some planning, prep, and good communication. You will be so glad you climbed this mountain once you are on the other side!