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.
- 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 outlined in a way that encourages parents to have the least amount of stimulation/soothing as possible but to be near so that baby can feel your presence. I personally like to start with quite a bit of hands on for the first couple of days and then move to less hands on as they get more comfortable in their sleep space.
I find this method can be very successful with toddlers who need a parent to sit or lay with them to fall asleep!
3. Pick-Up/Put-Down Approach
I like this method because I find it is one that can be modified in many ways to fit the needs of parents and the baby. It is a more direct method but includes many pick-ups for your baby to feel safe and secure during the process. I also like to adapt this method by making it an in-room or out of room approach. Traditionally, it is out of room but if you feel that you like the concept but would like to be in the room then between the pick-ups just go and sit in a chair that is in the middle or edge of the room slightly away from the crib.
With this method you would put your baby down in their crib awake following your bedtime routine. Give them a kiss, say mommy/daddy loves you and then leave the room or sit in the chair. At a set interval time you would go to your baby and pick them up if they are still crying. You will hold them until they stop crying and for an additional minute or two. I often encourage families to hum their sleep song to soothe their baby a little longer after they stop crying. Then you will place your baby back down, leave the room or sit in chair and go back to pick them up if they are crying at the interval you have picked. Repeat until babe is asleep.
As you can see this method is direct because we are leaving them in their crib for periods of time but it also has the gentle tactic of picking them up at each check-in so that they can be comforted from a parent.
Ways you can adapt this method:
- In-room or out of room
- You pick your timed interval spaces. This could be 3 minutes, 5 minutes, 7 minutes, ect. Whatever you pick will be what you stick to consistently. Pick the one you feel most comfortable with as the parent. I will let you in on a little secret: all the times work in a similar manner and so just pick one you feel best about! You can always move up in time if you feel the shorter time is too stimulating.
- Combine this method with the chair method for an even more gentle approach. You will be soothing crib side but if your interval roles around and your baby is crying then pick them up to soothe them and then place them back into the crib and continue crib side soothing.
- Start your coaching strategy with the chair method and then after 3 days of your baby falling asleep in the crib with your support move to the pick-up/put-down with you out of the room.
4. Check & Console or Controlled Crying
This method is most often referred to as “Ferberizing” based off of the book ‘Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems’ by Richard Ferber. This strategy of coaching is very similar to the pick-up/put-down method but is more direct because we don’t have the pick-ups included. It works well for families who feel that picking their baby up will be too stimulating.
With Check & Console you would put your baby down awake following your bedtime routine, give them a kiss, say mommy/daddy loves you and then leave the room. When you enter the room you will lean over the crib to give some support for a minute or so and then leave the room again. Repeat until asleep.
Ways you can adapt this method:
- You can be in-room or out of room between checks. This method is directed as an out of room approach but if you want to sit in a chair away from the crib then you could do so.
- Use set timed intervals or increasing intervals. This method is directed to use increasing intervals such as the first check after 3 minutes, second check after 5 minutes, third check after 7 minutes, ect. You can do this or you can pick a set time and go in at the end of the same interval spacings versus increasing.
- Moving more direct because the checks are making your baby more upset. This is the same as above but instead of using shorter intervals you use much longer ones. It could be a 5 minute check off the bat but then 15 minute checks after for example.
- Start with chair method and then after 3 nights instead of shifting the chair you can flow into this method.
5. Extinction or Crying it Out
This is where sleep training gets its bad rep! The Extinction or Crying it out method is the most direct method. With this strategy you will follow your routine, put baby into their crib awake, give a kiss, say mommy/daddy loves you and then leave the room. You will not return to soothe them. You will go back to your baby in the morning or at their first night feeding time.
I personally do not recommend starting with this method simply for the fact that your baby is learning something new and being supported through the process I feel is important. Remember, your baby is crying because they are communicating with you. Even if they are frustrated their feelings should be validated.
I also don’t like this method for safety reasons. I think it is important to at least go and check in on your baby to make sure that all limbs are inside the crib and not stuck in a rail, there is no poop in a diaper and that something else isn’t going on in there. Even 15-20 minute checks I prefer over not going in at all.
With that being said, if you feel in your heart that this is the best choice for your family and your baby then you know your baby best!! Following your parental instincts!
Extra Notes and Tips
You now know that you are ready, have foundations set up and have read through the coaching options. You can now make your decision to complete your sleep plan. Here are some additional pointers to help you on your journey!
- Choose the method that YOU feel comfortable with. You… ya, you… the parent!! We always try to pick a method that fits our baby but truth is they don’t really care about any of the methods. They don’t want their sleep cues to be taken away. So, pick the method that you feel most comfortable with so that you can implement it in a confident and consistent manner. If you feel good about it then your baby will sense that.
- Start implementing the method at bedtimes first. Leave middle of the nights and naps alone for the first few days. This means that you will still have the old cues in place for naps and nights. Sleep associations/cues are formed at the beginning of a sleep period and so if a baby learns to fall asleep more independently at bedtime then there is a good change their body will be able to use these skills for night wakings where they don’t need a feed. Plus, it eliminates some stress for you too!
- Give it a solid week of bedtime coaching to start seeing results. Then typically another week for naps to even out as well. Sleep plans are usually 2-3 weeks for a reason.
- Implement your plan consistently!! Write it down and follow your plan. Consistency always pays off.
- Set realistic expectations!! Understand your baby’s age and development to know what is appropriate for them in terms of sleep. Know how many feeds are normal to make sure you are reaching their healthy caloric intake in a 24 hour period, know that it takes time and they will still need your help adjusting to the plan, know that it doesn’t happen overnight!
- Don’t forget your original goals!! This one is so important. As sleep improves don’t start reaching for more and more goals. Reach the goals you set at the beginning and remember where you were when you started.
- Don’t compare your baby to others. It drives me nuts when parents say to other parents “oh your baby isn’t sleeping through the night yet” or “do this method, it worked for me after 2 nights.” We need to support each other and lift each other up. More importantly is we need to really remember that every baby is different. No baby fits into a mold. If it worked for your baby that is great but that does not mean it is the right fit for this baby. If you are sleep coaching and it is taking longer than you thought or your baby is on the higher ends of NORMAL feeds then know that it is o.k.!! It is a process and you will get there.
- If you have read the 3 blogs in this series and are feeling like you still are not sure where to start or maybe you started and it doesn’t seem to be going as planned then that is what a Sleep Consultant is here for. We are the guru to your sleep like a trainer is the expert to your fitness. Just as there are many methods for sleep coaching there are many sleep consultants. Pick one that you feel good about and that makes you feel supported! This is a big process and so feeling empowered and supported is crucial. A sleep consultant can help you organize all of those foundations and help you find the perfect fit of coaching for your family and then support you throughout the process. Having help to make tweaks here and there as you go through and adapt to the changes can help lead to further success. If you enjoy reading my blogs then You can read more about me here.
I hope you enjoyed this 3 part series! Please share this blog with anyone you feel could benefit. If you are ready to start on your sleep plan journey then I wish you luck and I know you are going to rock it!