I’ve had a huge response to our blog on sleep school and a lot of questions about the method we’ve used to gently sleep train Archie Pie, so rather than repeating myself a thousand times, I thought I’d do this post outlining the steps we used to go from co-sleeping and breastfeeding to sleep (and back to sleep 3-4 times overnight) to having a toddler who settles in his own bed and sleeps through the night – all without too many tears!
Obviously I am not a medical professional or expert on baby sleep in any way. My qualifications on this topic go as far as having my own two children and this is simply an account of what worked for us. Every baby and every family is different, and what worked for Archer may not work for everyone.
That said, I did a lot of research and took different elements from a few different strategies to come up with something that I felt would suit my parenting style and Archer’s “Stage 5 clinger” temperament.
I should also mention that our end goal was not to put him in to bed, walk straight out and not see him again until 7am. This is what the sleep school we left was trying to achieve – but we are happy to stay close by for 10-20 mins at bedtime. We still lay with our 3 year old for 10 minutes or so even though he’s always been a great sleeper. It’s just a nice time to connect with our boys after a busy day. Especially for daddy who hasn’t seen them since the morning.
Archer was 17 months old when we started this, so I have been able to use a lot of verbal cues and have conversations with him about sleeping in his own bed. This would be harder to do with a younger baby.
So how did we do it?
The first thing I had to do was break the boob/sleep association and create other positive sleep associations that would allow him to resettle without my help during the night. We shuffled our bedtime routine to do boob before books, so the book is the last thing before sleep. The other sleep associations we used are:
- A sleeping bag
- A dummy (he doesn’t really suck it he just holds it like a comforter – weird!!)
- Music. I love aboriginal artist Gurrumul. We play the music quite loud which stops him getting stimulated by other noises in the house (and also from hearing me creep away!!)
- We tried a soft comforter but he wasn’t interested.
We also tried to black out his room but I couldn’t deal with feeling like he was sleeping in a crack den so we ended up skipping this part. I do think it would probably help with getting him to sleep in longer in the mornings, but for now we’re happy with a breastfeed and cuddle in our bed at 6am. He usually goes back to sleep for 1-2 hours in our room in the morning. Our rule is if it’s still dark, he gets settled in his bed, if it’s light he can come in for a cuddle. It’s actually my fave part of the day!
After removing the boob as his sleep association, it was time to start removing ME as his sleep association. We opted to do this gradually over a couple of weeks, aiming to minimise the amount of crying involved.
I began by laying next to him in his bed until he went to sleep, but not allowing a breastfeed. He fussed at first, but eventually realised milk wasn’t coming and would lay next to me quietly. Archer is in a toddler bed so this would be harder with a younger baby in a cot. Perhaps you could start by rocking to sleep, without boob, for a younger baby? At this stage, I am still a sleep association, so when he’d wake during the night, I’d still have to go back to lay with him. I continued to refuse boob though. We did this for a few nights.
For the next couple of nights I sat next to the bed patting him. Then next to the bed without patting. Then sitting in the middle of the room. Then by the door. Then outside the door with the door open so he could see me. Then outside the door with the door mostly closed so he can’t see me, but I can quickly shhhh or say lay down if he fussed and he feels secure knowing I’m there. We spent a couple of days at each stage or progressed as he seemed comfortable.
If he became too upset, I’d go back and do what needed to be done to calm him – reposition him laying down, patting his nappy or if I felt he was really hysterical I’d pick him up until he calmed. Once he was calm, I’d go back to whichever of the above stages we were up to while he was still awake, reassuring him with “lay down, it’s time for sleep, shhh shhh shhh” as I slowly retreated!
I am now sitting outside his room with the door closed shhh-ing as needed until he’s been calm for 5 mins and then I leave. He can’t see me, so he doesn’t know when I creep away. Finally, I am no longer his sleep association and when he wakes overnight he rarely needs me to go back in. If I do need to go back in, it’s for a simple “it’s ok, it’s still time for sleep, shhhh” and he is laying down and going straight back to sleep without all the resettling.
He’s still not the perfect sleeper. But it’s a HUGE improvement. We will keep continuing with this method until he no longer needs me to wait outside his door, but is able to drift off to sleep comfortably, knowing that I am not far away if he needs me. I think this is only days away from the way he’s going (yay!).
One thing we did learn at sleep school was about appropriate awake times for his age. I highly recommend looking into this as over tired or not tired babies/toddlers take MUCH longer to settle – baby sleepsite have some good info on this.
I really feel you need to trust your instincts when you’re sleep training your baby. You know your baby’s cries (although the sleep school tried VERY hard to convince me otherwise!!). I can tell when Archer is just protesting bed time or when he is actually upset. Sometimes if it was just a protest, or if he’d been mucking around and not laying down, I would close the door and leave for a few minutes before going back in. A few times of doing this and he quickly realised that if he didn’t lay down, I would go.
You need to do what you feel comfortable with. And you need to be consistent. Baby’s and young children thrive on routine and knowing what comes next. When you sleep train you are changing their routine and that is scary for them. But if you are consistent, they will soon learn their new routine. If you give up after a couple days, or regress back to a previous stage, then this will not work. Be prepared – this method will take longer than controlled crying or cry it out. You need to be prepared for a couple of frustrating weeks. But I truly believe it’s worth it in the long run.
Good luck mamas, you got this!