Have you sleep trained without realising?

Sleep training is a controversial topic and one that can get heated on Mum forums. And if I came right out and asked “have you sleep trained your baby without realising it?”, no doubt I’d hear “surely not”. What a lot of parents may not realise is that the habits they start early on are indeed a form of sleep training. For better or for worse. Lets dig a little deeper at what I mean by this, and then look at how you can remedy sleep trained patterns that have inadvertently taught your little one to wake frequently at night.

To sleep train or not

Parents typically consider “formal” sleep training if their baby is not sleeping well. It is not uncommon for babies to wake frequently throughout the night. But when they don’t know how to get back to sleep after these wakes, it can cause heartache for all concerned. Sleep is a necessity with many benefits, and both children and parents need enough of it to function well. As a child develops, we want them to consolidate their sleep into longer stretches at night, not wake more frequently as they get older. Worse sleep than you got during the newborn stage is the exact opposite of what any parent wants or expects. And boy is it frustrating, especially if it continues! Exactly when will they grow out of it? When sleep becomes a problem, it is often because parents have already taught their child to rely on falling asleep a certain way – and this way has become part of baby’s sleep strategy.

How does this work?

Easy. Babies get use to what they know. Often as parents we think we need to put our baby to sleep. It’s not uncommon to use “props” or aids to help get them to sleep.  But past the newborn stage, this help is what they start thinking they need. The most common prop is feeding to sleep. If they fall asleep with a bottle or breast in their mouth, they start thinking “oh, I must need this to fall asleep, as that’s what I do every nap and night”. They start relying on that way to fall asleep as it is what they have been taught to expect. This can also happen with other props, like rocking to sleep or pacifiers/soothers to sleep. This informal learning becomes a problem when baby has a naturally occurring wake at night. If they are relying on a prop to get to sleep, they need to call you back to recreate bedtime. Just another feed, more rocking, pop that soother back in will you Mum? Simply because that is what they have learnt. And it can happen at an incredibly early age. Now sometimes what you’re doing around sleep (the “informal” training) works. Yes, there are children who can use props to sleep and sleep through the night – often because they’re not that attached to those props and they’ve figured it out themselves. But the other side of the story is when it becomes a problem. This is when this “informal” sleep training, or relying on external help over and over again, ends in tears. Most parents who end up specifically saying that now they are going to “formally” sleep train are actually in the predicament of having a baby who needs to do some “unlearning” and then relearn a new way to sleep. And if nothing is done to change things, then yes, you may be forever destined to live with constant wakes of how you originally sleep trained your child. Not all babies or children can work it out themselves. Often they need your guidance. The good news is that babies and young children are primed for learning – they have super genius brains that soak up information quickly. This is especially true between the ages of 3 and 6 months, when they learn cause and effect at a startling rate.

So how can parents set up good habits?

Simple. Start as you mean to go on. Realise sleep is natural, and that after the 3-month mark your child is equipped with the means to settle naturally (at least some of the time) – often by having access to their hands to suck on. Here’s how you can remedy things if you’ve inadvertently sleep trained your child to need help:
  • Create a predictable bedtime routine so it is easier to transition to a relaxed state.
  • Put them down in their safe sleep space awake (or relaxed and drowsy as a newborn) so they learn to fall asleep where they wake up.
  • When at home, put them in the same place to sleep – for naps and night sleep.
  • Once they are past the newborn stage, let them practice moving their body. This is the first stage to a child finding their own means to soothe – and it looks different for everyone.
  • If your baby seems unsettled, wait first to see what they do, then comfort them if they need it. We all need to be semi-relaxed to fall into sleep – there is no need to “cry it out’.
  • Understand that you don’t need to put your child to sleep – let them learn to put themselves to sleep, while you encourage and support them in the learning process.
And don’t despair if you’ve already sleep trained your baby without realising it. Your child is super smart and can learn another way. Good, consolidated sleep is so important – and well worth it! If you’d like a hand teaching your baby to sleep through the night, and set up healthy sleep habits for life, book a free call to know more. I work with all ages; babies, toddlers and even those 9-year olds (or adults) who are still struggling to sleep well. Because everyone needs a good night’s sleep! This article was first published in 2021 in the Great Health Guide March/April issue.