Sleep is a natural biological rhythm but sleeping well is a skill that takes time to develop. Sleep habits develop from birth and are a combined result of nature (genes and developmental milestones) and nurture (parental guidance and support).
Infant sleep ‘training’ techniques are used to help babies get to sleep or stay asleep. Working out what technique to choose can be difficult because all sleep ‘training’ techniques can work. However, some only work in specific circumstances and some are better suited to some babies and parents more than others.
Until 4-months of age your newborn has immature sleep/ wake rhythms, he needs frequent feeds, and has reduced mental capacity, which makes him unable to respond to all techniques.
Sleep ‘training’ techniques are divided into two groups. The first techniques developed were based on extinction. These include: (a) cry it out, (b) controlled crying, (c) camping out, and (d) the chair method (works best with toddlers older than 16-months). The more recent techniques are cue-based techniques. These include: (a) responsive settling and (b) hands on settling.
All babies and situations are different. Cue-based techniques are gentler than extinction techniques but that’s not to say extinction techniques are wrong. In fact, in some situations with strong-willed infants extinction gets results quicker and is less frustrating for everyone. Conversely, extinction may not work if your baby needs more touch and reassurance to calm and sleep. Some babies self-soothe and re-settle overnight easier than others who need support or sleep-props to enter sleep and resettle overnight.
Different bubs and different situations mean using different techniques but cry it out (cry until asleep) is never recommended by a professional that understands infant development.
Controlled-crying/ comforting (intermittent comforting) is used for bubs older than 4-months of age. It emphasises control (not crying), responding to the intensity and distress of cries. This technique needs a plan outlined by your child health professional as it won’t work if done randomly. The technique is tough going so make sure you have support from your partner and significant others. Ensure bub is healthy, there are no distractions in the cot, and all commitments can be put on-hold for 4-days. Work on both day and night sleeps. This technique works quickly when used for the right baby at the right age with the right emotional commitment but can backfire and cause added stress and insecurity, for all concerned, if it’s not the appropriate choice.
Camping-out (sleep alongside bubs cot) is a good technique if you don’t want to leave the room and bub wants you close. You often don’t need to do anything it’s your mere presence that helps your baby feel secure enough to drift off to sleep. As your baby gets older and more confident with sleep (around 16-months) this technique becomes the chair method and you can slowly move out of the room.
Responsive-settling is a gentle technique where you are tuned in to cries. It takes focused listening and being close to give comfort and support when needed. Sometimes it will be a cuddle and other times a shhh pat in the cot to help your baby drift off to sleep.
Hands-on-settling is similar to responsive-settling but is used for babies that need your comforting touch at all times. It could involve stroking the forehead or applying gentle pressure over the chest and legs with or without a rocking action. Both these gentle techniques work well but can be irritating when used for babies that don’t enjoy constant touch or when you are anxious.
When using any technique to help get your baby to sleep it is important to remember that it takes him about 20-minutes of light sleep to fall into deep sleep. During this period some babies get distracted and need help drifting off and others don’t. Get to know what your baby needs and give her time to form a habit (4-days to 3-weeks depending on age and circumstance) but if you and your baby are struggling to get to sleep or to stay asleep consult your child health professional for personalised advice.