Sleep coaching your child is the key to everyone getting a good night’s sleep
A well-rested child is a happy child and a well-rested household is a happy household. Unfortunately, sleep is sometimes very elusive, and this is where we can use sleep coaching techniques. The key to success lies in sleep coaching to teach your child to self soothe to sleep by gradually decreasing their dependence on you to facilitate sleep. Sleep is a learned skill and needs our coaching just the same as children learn other skills from us, like learning to walk, throwing a ball or riding a bike. Each family is unique and needs to consider what sleep coaching strategy feels right for your child and for you.
This article discusses the basics of sleep coaching training and briefly explains each sleep coaching technique.
This article covers
What is sleep coaching?
The science and importance of sleep
What happens when we need a change to sleep patterns?
Which sleep training coaching method to choose?
Listen – wait – plan – respond model
5 Common Sleep coaching techniques
General coaching tips for each age
Looking after yourself first
This article is designed to be read in conjunction with our ‘Understanding the science behind children’s sleep’ article on our Kids College website.
What is sleep coaching?
Getting a good sleep is very important. Children need to learn how to sleep from the adults in their lives. This is where sleep coaching training can be a crucial tool in your parenting tool bag.
The key to getting a good sleep lies in the ability to understand how sleep works and to teach your child to self soothe with sleep coaching. Sleep coaching is where you gradually teach your child the skills of self-soothing to sleep becoming less dependent on your actions.
It is normal for all babies, young children and adults to wake a number of times each night if only for one or two minutes. Learning to self-settle and go back to sleep quickly is the secret to a rested night’s sleep.
Children do not just sleep through the night in the beginning and it is misleading to describe a baby or a child as ‘sleeping through the night’ or conversely as a ‘night waker’. It is more accurate and helpful to describe such children as a ‘self-soother’ able to resettle themselves between sleep cycles or as a ‘child requiring assistance to resettle’. Like all skills a child learns sleeping is another skill they need to learn.
The science and importance of sleep
Knowing the science and importance of sleep allows us to utilise sleep coaching techniques which teaches us adults how to teach the children to sleep. Science tells us children are growing physically while they sleep. They are literally building the pathways in their brains during sleep. Children learn emotional regulation during nap times. Science has also proven that a child who naps learns more effectively and a good daytime sleeper is usually a better nighttime sleeper.
Sleep is a flow of different types of rhythms. We all have sleep cycles with REM and Non-REM sleep. Babies are born with no concept of day and night and need help developing their circadian rhythm. Sleep associations and routines are of paramount importance to facilitating good sleep patterns. We also need to understand how sleep differs in each age group and what challenges could appear.
What happens when we need a change to sleep patterns?
Before considering any changes have a good think about your family’s current situation, expectations on sleep and what you would like to achieve. Making the change and planning the steps to adjust or develop sleep patterns
- What do you want to achieve? Is your child ready for the next step and are you?
- Start by setting one small goal at a time. Sleep is a learned skill that needs to develop like other skills, slowly one at a time with time to adjust and practice.
- Break that goal into achievable steps. Know what it will look like to have achieved your steps in your goal.
- Keep a diary to see how much you have progressed and celebrate
- Ensure all family members are as healthy as possible. This is a family commitment
- Decide on your child’s sleeping place
- Arrange for support from friends, family or professionals
- Free up some time, it takes time and effort to teach the skills needed
- Choose the right time for your family. Starting on the weekend could afford you more time and more help from your support network.
Which sleep training coaching method to choose?
There is no right or wrong method of sleep coaching training; it all comes down to your unique baby and your unique parenting style. What works well for some babies does not work well for others, so do not be surprised if the techniques your friends or family members recommend don’t work the same way for your baby. The bottom line is to choose a technique that you feel comfortable with, and that you think will work well with your baby’s temperament.
What age for sleep training?
Most sleep coaches say the ideal time to start sleep training is based on your baby’s development, but is usually somewhere between four and six months, when your baby hasn’t had much time to get used to nursing or rocking to sleep. At this stage, most babies are also developmentally ready to learn the skill of falling asleep on their own, explains Jennifer Garden, an occupational therapist who runs Sleepdreams in Vancouver. Around four months of age, some babies go through a sleep regression because their sleep cycles change and there are longer periods of lighter sleep per cycle. “It’s a great time to work on independent sleep skills,” says McGinn. Other babies’ slumber derails around this time because they are working on new skills, like moving around and rolling. Some parents choose to wait until things settle down before embarking on a sleep-training method, but you don’t have to, says McGinn.
If your baby is older than six months, don’t worry, McGinn says: “It’s never too late to develop good sleep habits.” Dickinson says he finds nine months to be a bit of a sweet spot for parents in terms of getting babies to sleep through the night. “They are at a good age for understanding routines and don’t need to eat during the night,” he explains.
Which technique for which age?
The age of your baby might determine what kind of sleep-training method you choose, though. You could try a gentle shush-pat technique with a five-month-old, but you’ll likely have to leave a one-year-old in the crib as they protest (cry or scream) about the new bedtime arrangement.
Don’t attempt a formal sleep-training method before four months, until your baby is able to go longer in between feeds and their circadian rhythm starts to develop. (Many babies this age still feed in the night—contrary to popular thinking, sleep training isn’t synonymous with night weaning.) Four-month-old babies are biologically able to go through the night without a feed, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respond and feed them if other methods of calming them aren’t working. Since every situation is different, we recommend checking with your doctor before withholding your baby’s night-time feeds
Changes over time
As your baby gets older and their sleep needs change, make sure that you’re adjusting wake times, naps and bedtimes accordingly to help them continue to easily fall asleep and stay asleep. Some parents think of sleep training as a “one-and-done” endeavour: You endure a lot of crying for a few days and your prize is a perfect sleeper.
But it’s really a lifestyle change—once your child has the skills to fall asleep, they’ll still need routines, consistency and help adapting when life throws curveballs, like starting childcare, the arrival of a new sibling or going on a trip (where they may have to sleep in a different space or crib). Colds and illnesses, as well as time changes, can also throw a wrench in your perfect schedule. The trick here is to get back on track as soon as possible. If you start allowing or enabling the old, bad habits and sleep associations, it will take longer to return to the regular routine.
McGinn likens it to riding a bike: Sure, kids are a little wobbly when you get the bike out after the winter, but soon they’re riding like pros again. “You never have to re-teach the skill of falling asleep,” she says.
Take a moment to plan
Each method can be used by itself or in conjunction with aspects of other methods and can change over time. Take a moment to consider what you are comfortable with and plan around that. Remain flexible. Whist it is important to be consistent naturally you will find the need to make subtle adjustments to keep on track and in response to how your child’s needs change. If you make an informed choice it is easier to keep on track and be proactive instead of reactive in the middle of the night when you are all tired. Remember the aim is to coach your child into a self soothing technique of sleep by using a planned approach. You wouldn’t just hop in a car whilst learning to drive and make it up as you go along. Similarly, you need to take a moment to learn what you want to teach your child and how.
Listen – wait – plan – respond model
No matter which coaching technique you use, the Listen-wait-plan-respond model acts as an umbrella over your coaching and allows us to take a moment to respond in a considered manner according to your plan and in response to your child’s needs in that moment no matter which sleep coaching technique you choose.
We promote gentle, responsive settling, the: Listen – Wait – Plan – Respond cycle.
- Listen to the cry: What are they trying to tell you? Be aware of fussing cry that don’t need your immediate attention and distressed urgent cry which would need your attention urgently
- Wait and watch: Wait outside the room or in the room for enough time to assess the cry and plan your response. Does the body language and cry match their behaviour? This could be when they briefly wake during a sleep cycle and will drift off back to sleep.
- Plan: Take a moment to plan your actions according to your sleep coaching technique plan.. Make sure you display calm, firm, kind body language, so your baby knows you are confident and that it’s sleep time.
- Respond: appropriately respond based on their cry and your sleep coaching plan.
5 Common sleep coaching (training) techniques
- Fading (FIO)
- The Chair Method
- Controlled Crying/Ferber/Graduated Extinction
- Extinction/Cry-It-Out (CIO)
1. The Fading Sleep Training Method (FIO)
This is a very gentle, no-tears/no-cry (or very little cry) method of sleep coaching where you “fade it out” (FIO). With the Fading method, you continue to help your baby fall asleep (by rocking or feeding to sleep, for instance), but over time, you gradually do less and less of the ‘work’ to put your baby to sleep, and your baby does more and more. For instance, if you normally rock your baby completely to sleep, you may shorten the amount of time you rock each night until you are rocking for only a few minutes only as a part of the bedtime routine. This method requires quite a bit of patience on the parent’s part, in some cases, but it’s great for families who want to minimize crying as much as possible.
What age for The Fading Method?
Our recommendation is any age over 6-8 weeks old. Since it’s a gentle method, you can try it with any age baby or toddler and you can go as fast or slow as you want for younger babies. That said, a mobile baby will be more difficult in some cases. However, it never hurts to try!
2. The Pick-Up-Put-Down Sleep Training Method (PUPD)
This is another gentler technique. The PUPD method works just the way it sounds: when it’s time to sleep, and your baby is fussing or crying in his crib or bassinet, you pick him up and comfort him until he’s calm and drowsy. Then, you put him back in his crib to sleep, repeating this cycle until your baby is finally asleep. PUPD is another method that requires quite a bit of patience, depending on your baby, and it won’t work for every baby; some babies find being picked up and put down so often over-stimulating, and they gradually become frustrated and worked up, instead of relaxed.
What age for The Pick-Up/Put-Down Method?
Our recommendation is any baby over 6-8 weeks old. Since it’s a gentle method, you can try it with any age baby or toddler. That said, a baby who is getting heavy can hurt your back to pick them up over and over, of course. For some temperaments, this method makes them angry, though, and is more irritating and frustrating than comforting.
3. The Chair Sleep Training Method
This method involves more tears than the previous two; however, you don’t leave your baby unattended in the room at all. Here’s how the chair method works: start by doing your normal bedtime routine. Then, put a chair very near the crib, bassinet, or bed and sit on the chair as your baby falls asleep. The goal is not to help your child fall asleep, nor to help her calm down necessarily, depending on how you implement it. You are generally not supposed to give your child any attention. The reason you are in the chair is only to reassure them that you are there with them and have not left them alone. Each night you move the chair farther and farther away from the crib until you are right outside the door until eventually, you no longer need the chair at all.
As you might suspect, this method can be very difficult, depending on temperament, and can take many days or weeks. It can be difficult to avoid engaging with your child (and “watching them cry” is very difficult), and it will likely be a little confusing to the child (particularly younger ones) when you don’t. However, with time and consistency, this can be a good option for parents who do not want to leave their child alone to cry but who haven’t had success with other methods, either.
There are variations to this method (such as Kim West’s Sleep Lady Shuffle) where you do tend to the baby periodically, verbally and/or physically, and then go back to your chair. As with many things, finding what works best for you and your child is key.
What age for The Chair Method?
Our recommendation is over 3-6 months old, depending on how severe the sleep disruptions have been. Since it’s a gentler method, you can try it with just about any age baby or toddler. Of course, if your toddler is already in a bed of which he can get out, this might not be the easiest to use.
4. Controlled Crying Sleep Training Method aka Check-And-Console aka The Ferber Method/Ferberizing aka Graduated Extinction
This is considered a ‘cry’ method of sleep training. This technique entails allowing your baby to cry while checking on him at intervals. The goal here is to reassure him every so often that you are nearby and to reassure yourself that he is okay. When you go to check on your baby, you are not “supposed” to pick him up nor engage him much, but simply reassure him using your voice and a loving pat for 2-3 minutes, tops (watch the clock!). With this sleep training method, the goal is NOT to help baby fall asleep – that is what he is learning to do on his own! Instead, the idea is that he falls asleep on his own, in the same “environment” in which he will awaken periodically throughout the night. The knowledge of how to fall asleep unassisted at bedtime will pave the way for him/her to go BACK to sleep throughout the night. Over time, you gradually increase the amount of time between your ‘checks’.
What age for Controlled Crying or The Ferber Method?
Our recommendation is over 4-6 months old and up to approximately 18 months old, depending on the situation, but encourage most families to try a gentler method first.
5. The Extinction Sleep Training Method (aka ‘Cry It Out’ or CIO)
This sleep training technique usually involves quite a bit of crying on your baby’s part for the first couple of nights, but some say it tends to be less crying, overall, since sleep training is ‘done’ faster (for many, but not all, people). The way it works is simple – you do your bedtime routine, put your baby to bed awake, and then leave the room without returning for checks. If your baby cries, you are not supposed to go in to check on her; instead, you let her ‘cry it out’ on her own.
he thinking here is that if you allow your baby to cry for a period of time, but then go in and ‘rescue’ her, you have all but guaranteed that she will cry for that amount of time the next night because she will expect you to come and “rescue” her again.
What age for Cry It Out?
Honestly, in our personalized consultations, we try to avoid this method as much as possible. If you are going to use cry it out, we recommend your baby is at least 6 months old, but preferably 10 months or older, when we expect almost all babies to be able to get through the night without a feeding. It is not for the faint at heart. We find that laying a foundation in the beginning with other strategies and techniques can reduce crying even if this method is used in the end, however.
General sleep coaching tips for younger children and babies
- Support by remaining close. You may wish to sit nearby on a chair of place your hand on your child’s back, stomach, leg as a temporary step in helping them to self soothe
- Avoid stimulation by minimizing eye contact
- Avoid talking in loud or excitable tone. Some parents find ssssh’ or humming can help
- Once you have successfully settled your child a few times, gradually do less so they they learn to self settle themselves
- Try as much as possible to remain sensitive to your child’s verbal and non-verbal cues and respond appropriately and confidently.
- Wiping your baby’s face with a damp flannel can sometimes help to calm and re-focus their emotions if they are upset.
General sleep coaching tips specifically for older children
- Have quiet time first with minimal distractions and no screen time
- Encourage self help, allowing the child themselves to get ready, get dressed, arrange bed, get comfort toys and settle into bed
- Use a clear and positive statement “its time to go to sleep. Lie down, close your eyes and relax.
- Teach your child a few breathing techniques to self-calm
- A droning or rhymical noise in the background can help
- When you leave them in bed try to put up with whining, calling out or any other vocalisations as you may not need to go in
- Avoid getting into discussions or arguments
- If your child is really distressed go into the room and use a calm brief message of support ‘it’s time for you to sleep now, I will check on you soon.’ Repeat this calming phrase when needed.
- If the child leaves the room quietly and calmly walk them back and repeat your phrase whilst tucking them back in, s may times as you need to.
- Avoid sitting on the bed but rather stand or sit on a sperate chair. You can move the chair bit by bit out of the room in stages.
- Avoid using bribes
Discontinue settling your child
- They are due for a feed or seem hungry
- They show signs of being unwell
- They become distressed
- You start to feel stressed take a break and share the load with another caregiver if you can
- You become angry or distressed leave your child in a safe place (like a cot) and ring a supportive friend, family member or health professional.
Remember to set your own pace. This can be a difficult process and might require a few revisions. Do praise everyone’s efforts the next morning when they fall asleep and stay in their own beds.
Taking care of yourself first
Before you can contemplate anything, you need to make sure you are taking care of yourself. Have you ever noticed how airplane demonstrations tell you that in the case of an emergency you should put on your own oxygen mask before assisting your child? You need to take care of yourself first in order to best take care of others. The same applies to getting enough sleep and to caring for yourself and your family in general. Prioritise taking care of yourself as if you were one of your own children or a friend. You cannot pour from an empty cup, as they say.
Helping your child to make changes to their sleep pattern may be difficult. Seek support, plan in advance and gradually help your baby make changes. Sleep patterns will improve and your whole family will begin to feel, cope and function much better.
Tips and suggestions for taking care of yourself
- Accept help and share your workload
- Stay hydrated and try to drink at least eight glasses of fresh water each day
- Take as many cat naps as you can during the day
- Keep some quick and easy to prepare, healthy food in your fridge.
- Have a calm down plan
- Try to maintain an activity that you enjoy.
- Join a mothers group or playgroup
- Make a calming plan of what you can do if you feel overwhelmed.
Before you make any changes consider the level of tiredness you and your family may be currently feeling and whether your family is ready for a change. Making any change can be a difficult and stressful time. It is worth taking a moment to really think about a calm down plan of ideas that can help you calm yourself in a stressful moment.
Tips for that could be on your calm down plan:
- Close your eyes
- Take slow deep breaths
- Think about another activity to distract you
- Make a mental to do list
- Use a few yoga poses to relax yourself
- Try to remain positive
- Practice positive self-talk encouraging yourself and reinforcing positive feelings
- Have a relaxing music play list at hand
- Arrange a special activity for an older child to reduce interruptions
- Turn all telephones to off and post a ‘child sleeping’ note on the door
- Move pets if their noise disturbs your child’s settling
- Take a time out, pop baby somewhere safe and take a few moments to practice some calming techniques for yourself
- Discuss your plan with a friend or health care professional
- Keep a list of who to call if you need to just reach out and hear a calming voice
If you become upset or distressed at any time while caring for your child, remember to put them in a safe place and call for help, take the time to calm down.
Use relaxation techniques when you need to but if you feel overwhelmed or are often upset – more often they you feel is normal – make an appointment to see a health professional today.
Foer more information on the science of sleep please see our article ‘Understanding the science behind children’s sleep’ article on Kids College website.
At Kids College we have had sleep management training with Ngala.
At Ngala they have a range of community and residential services across Western Australia which support local communities.
Services range from private consultations to access to their Parenting Line which is available for all parenting queries 7 days a week from 8am to 8pm.
Ngala’s services have been developed to provide support for all parents and carers with children from conception to adulthood and can help you with sleep issues.
The information for this article was sourced from the following resources
Any conversation about sleep needs to address safety issues. Please see our articles on safe sleeping which covers the Red Nose organization SUDI recommendations.
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2.1.1. Wellbeing and comfort. Each child’s wellbeing and comfort is provided for, including appropriate opportunities to meet each child’s need for sleep, rest and relaxation.
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