• Hailee Schollaardt

Setting Up A Sleep Plan: Part 3 - The Sleep Coaching Method


Hooray! You have made it to the final step of building a sleep plan. Incase you missed it, we first need to know if now is the right time for sleep coaching. Read here to make sure that the timing is right for your family. Second step is to set up all of the healthy foundations so that your baby can succeed with sleep coaching! Read here for this step. Now, it is time to choose a sleep coaching method!

In my opinion sleep coaching is the icing on the cake. You need to make the cake first which is what the first 2 steps of this blog refers to. If you are not ready or the foundations are not in place then chances are your sleep coaching attempt will fail. Are you ready? Let’s go…

What is sleep Coaching?

Sleep coaching is the process of using a coaching method to help teach your baby how to fall asleep independently (on their own), help your baby consolidate night sleep and help your baby organize daytime sleep into restorative naps. There is no one size fits all but instead many strategies available to help you and your family reach your sleep goals. Choosing the method that suits YOUR family best is always key to the sleep coaching process.

Sleep Coaching is NOT:

- Expecting all babies to be able to “sleep through the night” by a certain age! Every baby is different and some babies still need a feed throughout the first year of life. Night calories are based off of more than just sleep behaviors. We need to look at developmental age of baby, daytime calorie intake, feeding behaviors (make sure there are no feeding issues), developmental milestones, stimulation/activity throughout the day (calories burned) and much more. It is important for you to work together with your family doctor, lactation consultants, ect if you are finding it hard to reach your goals. Some families want to reduce stress around sleep without eliminating all night feeds! That is great too if that is your goal!

- Leaving your baby to cry alone until they fall asleep! This is known as the traditional “cry it out” or Extinction method and you will read more about this below but it is not the only way. In fact, In my personal experience, other methods actually have a more positive result because they are not as stressful for mom and baby. This method is an option of course for families who feel this would be best but it is not the only option.

- A 1 time thing that leads to perfect sleep until the end of time. Sleep coaching helps your baby learn positive sleep associations but there will always be things that come up and may disrupt sleep. Travelling, illness, teething, moving, ect can all impact sleep just as it would an adult. With that being said, a baby who sleeps well can usually adapt to these situations easier than a baby who does not sleep well and is overtired.

How Does Sleep Coaching Work?

It is important to understand what is happening when you are using a sleep coaching method with your baby. One main concern most parents have is the amount of crying that is going to take place. So, let’s start with why your baby is crying?

Crying can be used for things such as an emotional release but it’s main purpose is communication. Your baby cries when they are trying to tell you something. In some cases it can be because baby is mad, sad, frustrated, hungry, wet, overstimulated, overtired, hurt, gassy, emotional, you looked at them wrong, you tried to feed them peas which are disgusting or because sometimes they do in fact just need an emotional release and a hug! We want to be responding to cries consistently throughout the day and night because this is how your baby learns to develop trust and security.

During the early months, the first 2-3 months of life, sleep is more intrinsic and is based around the need for calorie intake. This is why your baby might wake up, feed and then fall right back asleep easily. Sometimes they even fall back asleep during the feed! This is normal and amazing. Enjoy it! If they are clean and full then their body usually drifts back to sleep fairly quickly. Newborns sleep a lot (usually)! As a baby gets older and start spending more time awake your baby’s sleep patterns begin to mature. It is now that their brain starts to form associations or links between actions/props and the process of falling asleep. This is usually when parents start to notice that their baby will only fall asleep with a specific thing or that it starts to get harder and harder to put them to sleep without specific actions. These associations that are being formed are also NORMAL! It is the brain’s job to form connections between events as this is how we learn. If you drop a pen, it is going to fall. This is a learned concept! Your baby is beginning to form these strong associations between cues in the sleep routine and falling asleep and so moving forward they will need these cues to signal the brain to go into sleep mode. Sleep associations can be positive or negative depending on how it is impacting your baby’s sleep. If the association is positive then there is no need to change anything because sleep is going well. If it is negative meaning it is interrupting sleep then you can make changes. Learn more about sleep associations here to get a good understanding of what is happening.

When you start sleep coaching you are using a method to replace the negative sleep associations, the associations that are causing sleep disruptions, with positive ones. Remember, those associations that are present are all that your baby relates with falling asleep. When we remove them your baby actually doesn’t really know that they are supposed to go to sleep. Cue the crying! This is why your little one is protesting. They are communicating to you that they just want to go to sleep because they are tired (and you have all those foundations set up…right?) but they don’t know how because the associations that their body knows have now been taken away. This is a huge learning curve for them and one that you need to understand, respect and support! Knowing that they do not know what to do and that they are learning with your support can help you understand what is going on.

What about “no-cry” sleep methods? Honestly, I feel that this has more to do with the baby’s personality than it does with the actual method. No matter what method you choose the same thing is happening….. your baby’s sleep cue is removed and they are learning to fall asleep without it which may lead to some tears. For example, if you usually feed your baby to sleep but do a “no-cry” method of holding and rocking them to sleep they will still be crying. They are not crying because of the method you are choosing, they are crying because they are trying to tell you they want their cue back so they can fall asleep. I could use the exact same method for 10 babies and 3 might not cry at all, 5 might fuss and cry for a short period of time and 2 will really not be happy that we have changed up their routine. Personality is a huge factor. For the strong willed ones, it will be worse when they are 16.

Sleep Coaching Methods

As mentioned above there are many different methods to choose from. Then all of these different methods can be adapted and tweaked into new methods or strategies can be combined to fit the needs of your family which give even more options. I am going to outline some popular methods that are used and give some ideas on how they work. I will try and start with the more gentle approaches and work towards the more direct approaches.

Remember, “gentle” doesn’t necessarily mean “no-cry” but you will be able to see how they are in a more gentle manner.

1. A Fading Approach

Fading is recognized as a gentle or no-cry approach as it involves a lot of parental soothing throughout the process. It is a strategy that involves gradually decreasing the soothing needed until your baby can be falling asleep more independently. You are “fading” out the old habits while your baby becomes more independent.

I often like to use this approach as a first step in sleep coaching if parents are a little nervous about making a bigger change. This is great if you are co-sleeping and want to move baby to a crib or if you are feeding to sleep and want to eliminate it. It can be a nice middle ground to slowly break old associations without being too direct and then you can move in a more direct way as you feel more comfortable.

This is a gentle approach and so keep in mind that it often takes a little longer and overall sleep usually doesn’t improve until your baby is at a step where they are doing more work than you are. This is why I say that it can help to start this way and then move into a more direct method after. It is kind of a bridge step between the old way of doing all the work to putting them to sleep and the new way of using a direct sleep coaching method to work towards independent sleep.

Examples:

- If you are co-sleeping and want to work towards your baby moving into their own crib your fading approach might look like this (each step would be 1-2 nights)

** Co-sleeping in the room where crib is > rocking to sleep and putting into crib > holding to sleep without rocking and putting into crib > moving to a more direct approach (chair approach is good here)

- If you are feeding your baby to sleep and want to work towards them falling asleep on their own.

** Feeding to sleep > rocking to sleep > holding to sleep > move to a more direct approach

As you can see you are still doing most of the word for the first few steps, or first week, but you are still working in the right direction. If you are rocking to sleep then you could just go to holding to sleep. If you are bouncing/walking/ect to sleep you could start with rocking. This method takes a lot of patience because as you use the new method of soothing to replace the old one their body still may be confused and upset. This means it can be quite a bit of upset while in your arms and can still take just as long as more direct methods for them to fall asleep.

2. The Chair Method

This is also referred to the “Sleep Lady Shuffle” or simply “The Shuffle Approach.” This method is also referred to as a gentle method but I would say it is more direct than fading because we are putting baby down in their own space while we camp out beside the crib to help soothe them. This is a nice method for parents who are wanting to use a method where there is a lot of hands on and who want to be near their baby throughout the process.

The Chair Method goes like this: Following your new amazing bedtime routine you are going to place your baby down awake in their crib. You are then going to sit in a chair right beside the crib so that you can provide reassurance to your baby as they learn to self-soothe.

This strategy is good for parents who really want to be in the room with their baby but can also be hard for parents who don’t like to hear their little one crying because you are right there beside them. If you feel like sitting in the room would be too stressful then this method might not be good for you. Some babies also find this method to be overstimulating and/or confusing. They are used to you doing a specific action and now you are just sitting there. You know your baby best and so follow their cues and if you feel that this method is too stimulating and harder on them then you can move to an alternative method.

Every couple of days the goal is to “shuffle” your chair away from your baby’s crib and out of the room. You can do this a couple feet ever night or you can start beside the crib, then move to middle of the room, then move to doorway and then out of the room.

This method is usually outl