What is "Gentle" sleep training anyway?

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A lot of parents begin to feel uneasy when it comes to talk about sleep training.  More than likely you’ve heard horror stories about babies being locked in their room from 7pm to 7am with no hope of being comforted or fed and left to cry for hours on end.  As a new mom, maybe you already know that isn’t for you and I would have to say that really shouldn’t be for anybody.  Babies have needs throughout the day and sometimes at night.  Although I’m not opposed to “cry it out” there are other methods to get your baby sleeping for longer stretches at night. 

As a general rule of thumb, by 6 months of age most babies will be able to go 8-12 hours without needing a feed, which translates into an optimal time to start sleep learning because you can eliminate all worries that your baby is waking because they’re starving.  But I don’t believe in picking a day that your baby will all of a sudden drop that meal.  I believe you need to put in the work to increase the amount of calories your baby is eating during the day while decreasing the amount they’re getting at night.

Crying.  This is the point of contention with the majority of the families I work with.  Some parents are okay with up to an hour of crying, others will only be able to tolerate 1 minute (or less!).  To keep it real, please know that any form of learning to sleep will inevitably involve crying.  Crying is your baby’s way of communicating protest, and nobody likes change, especially an infant.  Gentle sleep approaches will involve crying just as “non-gentle” methods will, but the difference is the amount of comforting and your level of presence during the crying periods.  That being said, with a gentle sleep approach you can expect to be present in the room, or physically touching / holding your child and using your voice to help them learn to self soothe. 

Some of the more popular forms of gentle sleep training are the Pick Up Put Down (PUPD) method by Tracy Hogg (the Baby Whisperer), the Sleep Lady Shuffle (Kim West), Happiest Baby on the Block – for infants in the 4th trimester (Harvey Karp), Dr. Sears, the No Cry Sleep Solution (Elizabeth Pantley), and the 90 Minute Sleep Solution (Polly Moore).  You will find that most of these involve extra support when teaching baby independent self-soothing strategies, with a plan to gradually wean sleep crutches (e.g. nursing, rocking, swinging, bouncing, etc.).  While the crying is described as minimal compared to a method like Extinction, there will still be some crying involved, just with the parent present.

Ultimately when deciding which method you’re going to use to teach your baby to sleep, it’s important to take your baby’s temperament into consideration, paired with your support system and what you think you can handle.  A gentle sleep approach may sound perfect to you, but perhaps your baby would do better with more opportunity for independent practice.  Or the opposite, where you know you can handle extended periods of crying if in turn you’ll get more sleep, but your baby may do better with more physical support in their learning process.  There’s no “right” way or best way to teach your baby to sleep.  You’ll know if something isn’t working – use your parental instincts.  It’s always okay to take a break for a week and then try again if your baby isn’t ready.

Teaching your baby to sleep is the best gift you can give them because they will be able to use it throughout their lifetime.  Sleep is a learned behavior and some babies require more support during this process than others.  Just remember you are providing your child with a healthy habit they can use for a lifetime to come.