Sleep training techniques

Helping your baby to establish regular sleeping patterns can be stressful for the whole family. Babies may not always sleep or want to feed at the times you would like them to.

Don’t expect a baby under three months old to have any particular sleep pattern. All babies are unique, and all have different sleep patterns. The best thing to do is to go along with them, and try to sleep when they do.

Health professionals recommend that babies under six months old are put down to sleep on their backs in their own cot in your bedroom. You can find out why by looking at safer sleep guidance.

To help your baby start to be aware of the difference between day and night, try the following:

  • During the day, make time to play with your baby, go out for walks without worrying about everyday sights and sounds. If they want to have a nap, that’s fine.
  • At night, keep the lights low, turn the television down and keep your voice soft. After the last feed, lay your baby down in their crib/cot and try not to disturb them again. If they need changing or feeding, then do this in a room with low lights and sounds. Don’t be tempted to play with them, this is sleep time.

As your baby gets older, you can start to establish a bedtime routine. For example, think about:

  • A bath which will often help to relax your baby
  • Changing into a clean nappy and comfy night time clothing
  • Brushing your baby’s teeth, which can begin as soon as their first teeth come through
  • Having a cuddle and enjoy a bedtime story together
  • Give your baby a kiss and then laying them down. You can put your hand gently on their tummy to reassure them before you leave
  • Trying to stick to this bedtime routine as your child gets older; too much excitement before bedtime will wake them up and they will find it harder to wind down ready for sleep

It’s a good idea to feed your baby before you start the bedtime routine, otherwise they will associate sleep with a feed and when they wake at night will then need food to help them settle again.

My baby won’t sleep!

For some babies, being separated from you and settling themselves down to sleep doesn’t come easily, even with well-established bedtime routines in place.

If this is the case, think about why your baby might be upset or unable to settle.

For example, are they hungry or wet? Could they be teething, or just in need of a cuddle?’

Has there been any change to the normal bedtime routine? Even things like holidays, illness or a change to the room where they sleep can really affect a baby’s ability to settle.

Make sure you:

  • Establish a good regular bedtime routine and stick to it.
  • Are consistent, and ensure that everyone who cares for your baby follows the same routine
  • Get back to your established routine as soon as you can if there is a disruption to it
  • Are not tempted to bring your baby back downstairs where there are bright lights and a noisy TV, as this will stimulate them and wake them more.

Remember, even if you get your baby to sleep well, and think you have things sorted, there will be nights when they just wake or their sleep patterns change. Just return to the bedroom, lay them down again and reassure them.

If you’re still experiencing difficulties, here are a couple of sleep training techniques you can try once your baby is around six months old.

Have a chat with your public health nurse (health visitor) who will support you through the process. Although it can take anything from a few days to a couple of weeks for these techniques to work, it is worth keeping going for the sake of your baby, your family and your sanity!

The disappearing chair

This strategy works well with children who wake up a lot during the night, or who like to keep you close at all times.

Put your baby to bed following your usual bed time routines. Sit beside the bed or cot reading a book while they go to sleep. If they’re very upset, you might need to sit next to them on the bed. Don’t speak to your baby or give them eye contact, just be there. If they try to sit up or get out of bed, gently lie them back down.

Each night, increase the distance between you and your baby, gradually moving your chair towards the door. Once the chair is outside the bedroom, you’ve completed the programme!

As with controlled crying, you have to be consistent. Your baby is testing you to see how serious you are.

Controlled crying

It is understandable as a parent that you may be a little anxious when you hear the phrase ‘controlled crying’, however research shows that babies over six months of age are not harmed when ‘controlled crying’ is implemented as a sleep management technique.

When your baby wakes or is crying:

Step 1: Make sure they’re comfortable, using only a few soothing words. Gently stroke or pat your baby two-three times, then leave the room. Don’t give them anything to eat or drink, don’t put the light on and don’t remove them from their cot or bed.

Step 2: If the crying continues, wait for between one and five minutes before going back into the room, and repeating Step 1. Gradually increase the amount of time you wait each time before going back in. This will reassure your baby that you are nearby, and start building their confidence in going to sleep alone.

Keep going with this technique until your baby is finally asleep. Be prepared for the crying to get worse before it gets better – your baby is adjusting to a new way of doing things. The important thing is to keep your nerve and be consistent.

It can be difficult to hear your baby cry, yet this technique can be a great way of helping your baby learn how to self soothe. As a parent, you will need to be consistent and not give in. Of course, you balance this with sensitive, responsive parenting at other times, for example spending quality time together playing, reading and talking.

Tips for holding your nerve while sleep training your baby

If you’re going to have a go at using the controlled crying or disappearing chair technique, try these strategies to ensure success:

  1. Choose a time when you’re feeling strong enough and have time to see the technique through. The last thing you want to do is to give your baby mixed messages.
  2. Think about your whole family. If your baby’s crying is likely to keep older brothers and sisters awake, start on a Friday or during the school holidays when they don’t have to get up early the next day.
  3. If you can, take it in turns with your partner or a family member, to carry out your chosen sleep training technique.
  4. Start positively, with confidence. If you feel your resolve is weakening, call your public health nurse to talk it through.
  5. See if friends or relatives could help you by looking after the baby during the day so that you can catch up on some sleep.
  6. As your baby gets older, start to cut down daytime naps, and think carefully about the timing of naps – if you let your baby nap late in the day, it will make things harder for you at night.
  7. If sleep routines are disrupted because of illness, holidays or other family events, just return to these strategies and you’ll quickly get things back on track again.

Useful links

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Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust runs a confidential secure text messaging service for parents of children aged 0-19 years called Chat Health. The service operates Monday to Friday between 9am and 5pm, excluding bank holidays. All texts will be responded to by a public health nurse (health visitor/school nurse) within 24 hours. Outside of the service working hours, you’ll receive a message back to inform you that your text will be responded to once the line reopens.

Should you require urgent health advice in the meantime, please contact your GP, visit an NHS walk-in centre or call NHS 111. For emergencies, dial 999 or visit A&E.

Leicester City: text 07520 615381

Leicestershire & Rutland: text 07520 615382

You can also call and speak to a public health nurse on our professional advice line: 0300 3000 007

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