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5 Things to Avoid When Sleep Training Your Baby

January 3, 2022

Sleep training can mean many things to many parents and it doesn’t also involve a formal program. Sleep training can also just be the habits you have made for your baby around sleep. Do you have a set bedtime routine, set bedtime, or maybe you lay by them until they fall asleep? All of this is a form of training, just with different approaches and results. Choosing what is best for your baby and family is personal, but here are some tips of things to avoid when deciding how to approach sleep.

Not Being Consistent

Babies and children thrive on consistency. They have no control over their day to day so it helps to have a consistent routine so they know what to expect. Having a bedtime routine is a great way to establish healthy sleep habits and can help induce sleepiness. A routine should last anywhere from 30-45 minutes and can be simple but should be the same every time, such as bathtime, baby massage, putting on pajamas, reading a book, offering a feeding, singing a song, turning on your white noise, then laying them down. This routine is a transition period for them and helps them to recognize that it’s bedtime. You should do a similar routine for naps, but much shorter. A nap routine should be about 15 minutes and can include things like, saying goodnight to toys, reading a book, offering a feeding, turning on the white noise, and laying them down. 

Not having a Plan

One of the biggest enemies to sleep training is not having a plan that all caretakers agree upon. This can be between parents, but also include grandparents, daycare or any other care providers. Establishing a plan that works for you is a great move toward success, but not having everyone on board can become a huge hurdle and hinder success. Your plan can be simple or very strict, but having one means that all caretakers respond to your baby with consistency and keeps them on track. If you decide contact naps are no longer working, but grandma isn’t on board and offers contact naps when they’re on baby duty, you will find that your baby will struggle more. It’s hard to navigate situations with family, but getting ahead of it can set you all up for success.

Not Recognizing Sleep Associations

Introducing rocking or movement before sleep is classic conditioning (such as Pavlov’s dog). Continually conditioning creates a sleep association. A sleep association is a condition repeatedly paired with falling asleep, so that falling asleep is linked to that condition. Because nighttime arousals are typical (children wake 2-6 times per night), any sleep-onset association present at bedtime will also need to be present following typical nighttime arousals, helping your baby return to sleep.

There are positive and negative sleep associations.

With a positive sleep association (one a child can create themselves), an infant or child is able to put themselves to sleep following typical nighttime arousals. These associations help to set an infant up for success as a “self soother,” which typically happens between 3-6 months of age.

Examples of positive sleep associations:

  • Thumb sucking
  • Cuddling with a comfort item
  • Hair touching

With a negative sleep association (the child requires someone or something else to facilitate sleep), parents do not complain of having to rock their child to sleep but rather the frequent night wakings when the child realizes their environment has changed. Infants with negative sleep associations are called “signalers”, as they will cry following typical nighttime arousals because of their inability to fall asleep without assistance. 

Examples of negative sleep associations:

  • Rocking an infant to sleep
  • Parent lays down with them until they fall asleep
  • Parents’ bed
  • Movement from stroller/car
  • Music as they fall asleep
  • Falling asleep to TV

Understanding whether your baby has a positive or negative sleep association can help you navigate frequent night wakings and solve those sleep disturbances.

Not Utilizing the Sun

The sun is an underutilized resource for free sleep learning at any age. The sun holds great powers when it comes to our sleepiness levels and we just aren’t using it to our full advantage. You can let the sun guide not only your body, but also your baby’s body to understand what time of day it is and give you cortisol for daytime energy or melatonin for night time sleepiness. Sunshine has also been proven to improve mental health and can lower risks for postnatal depression. So a win for the whole family!

Of course we don’t mean unsafe exposure to the sun. Smear on that sunscreen, put on a cute baby hat, and venture outside for a mood boosting adventure!

  • Wake up to the sun

The very first thing you should do in the morning is open your blinds and let that sunlight in. This will help your melatonin, your natural sleep hormone, begin producing earlier in the day making you and baby perfectly sleepy for bedtime. It also helps your body to begin producing higher levels of cortisol, your stress or fight or flight hormone, it’s job is to wake you up and help you tackle your day. Opening the blinds to help naturally wake your baby at the designated wake time is a great way to gently wake them for the day. Their body will recognize the sun and may even wake them up before you do.

  • Nap to light

Nap time should look different from bedtime. Nap time should have natural light and your baby should be napping in the room you’re in or even on the go. Trust that your baby’s body will let them know when they need to rest and catch up. 

  • Black out the sun

It’s 7pm and you have started your nightly bedtime routine. Step one was closing the blinds for the rooms you are in and blocking the sunlight as much as possible. Then after bath time you’re dimming the lights and making the room even darker. You lay your little one down in their crib, then as you make your way across the room, all lights are turned off. Make sure that your monitor or white noise machine does not have bright lights or flickering lights as they can be an unwanted stimulation. 

Feeling Pressured

Studies have shown that there really is no perfect approach to sleep training and what works for one baby doesn’t always work for another. As a parent you want to do what’s best for your baby and if you’re worried that you may not be, then chances are you are doing great. Never feel pressured to change a routine that works great for you and your family. If everyone is happy and healthy, then there is no need to change your routine. Healthy sleep habits are built over a lifetime and sometimes you’re just in survival mode and that’s ok too. 

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Avatar for Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith

Michelle Smith is a Registered Sleep Specialist and Newborn Care Educator with specialties in Baby Sleep Training, Lactation Support, and Care of Preemies and Multiples. She has over a decade of clinical experience in sleep medicine offering guidance in Behavioral and Sleep Hygiene practices. Michelle is a mom of twin girls and a boy close in age. At one point she had three occupied cribs in her home and quickly realized how important it is to build healthy sleep habits in the newborn to toddler stages and how critical that can be for parents’ survival and sanity. She has chosen to focus her career on proactive sleep solutions for chronically sleep-deprived families.

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