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Sleep Training Your Baby

Photo by: Shutterstock

Picture this: It’s 9pm and Hubby is in the baby’s room hypnotizing her. You read right. He was, quite literally, holding a seven month-old baby in his arms, bouncing on a fitball and saying “you are drifting into a deeeeep sleeeeep. Your eyelids are getting heavvvyyy…” Did I mention she was seven months old? I did? Good. Yeah, seven month-old babies don’t know they have eyelids, or what they are, but still – desperate times, desperate measures.

We had gone through rocking, patting, singing, walking, bouncing. We had swaddled and unswaddled. We had put her on her back, tummy, side. We had broken every rule regarding sleep known to man. It didn’t matter. Our baby was having none of it. She wasn’t sleeping more than 20 minutes at a stretch – night or day – no matter what we did. As soon as she was put down, she yelled and howled like she was being torn limb from limb.

It was the night henceforth known as Night of the Not-right-in-the-head Fitball Hypnosis Session (which, I might add, proved hubby was a rubbish hypnotist) that we caved. We surrendered. We realized that we didn’t know what we were doing when it came to getting Miss M to sleep. This baby had us under her teensy weensy thumb.

After finally getting her to sleep, two exhausted, deflated parents sat in front of the TV and were faced with sight of an angel. Her name was Andrea Bogue and she was – cue chorus of heavenly singing – a Baby Whisperer. Bogue was being interviewed on a current affairs show, explaining how she had the ability to get babies to sleep through the night. The holy grail. We were presented with beaming mothers and fathers holding happy babies and telling the host how they had their lives back. It was like being on a radical diet and being faced with a chocolate fountain and a pile of marshmallows. They had what we were being denied!

Then an amazing thing happened – Miss Bogue’s number was flashed on the screen. It was a local number. If you’ve experienced sleep-deprivation, you’ll understand that this was like flashing free tickets to Disneyworld during the school term in front of a classroom of children. Suffice to say, before Miss M woke up for the next session of psycho screaming and a delightful game of make-Mummy-cry-and-sing-lullabies-simultaneously, I had the number in my speed dial.

That weekend, our lives changed. Granted, it cost a small fortune (it was worth it and more) but the Baby Whisperer extraordinaire was true to her word. She spent a morning teaching us (yes, it turned out it was our doing, not the evil-baby-bent-on-our-destruction) how we were going to get Miss M to go to sleep for her first nap of the day. By herself. No patting. No rocking. Definitely no hypnotizing. That night, and every night since, Miss M has gone to sleep at 7pm and stayed asleep until 7am. Not kidding.

Because I don’t want you to go through the hell that is sleep-deprivation, I am going to share some tips. I am going to give you some nuggets of gold from the wisdom gleaned from this angel of a woman. Do you hear angels singing?

I want you to imagine two scenarios:

Scenario 1: Imagine you’re with someone you adore, having a lovely time. You’re warm and happy and you feel safe. Then that person takes you and puts you into a pit of vipers, looks at you with fear in her eyes, begs you to please not cry, then walks out and expects you to relax and go to sleep.

Ridiculous, right? Would you lie quietly and nod off to sleep or would you scream bloody murder until you were rescued? Well, duh.

Scenario 2: You fall asleep happily in the arms of your loved one and when you wake up, she has disappeared. You’re all alone and who-knows-what might happen to you and is she ever coming back? You’d scream like a banshee, right? I would.

Here is a sleep-training philosophy based on understanding your baby and how to communicate with her; a method that teaches your baby to sleep soundly, deeply and independently.

The basic premise is so simple, so common sense, so obvious. It’s a philosophy that’s shaped much of my parenting because it is all about communication. As parents, we are so scared of bedtime, we are so afraid of our babies screaming and waking up all night. So what do we do? We unknowingly transmit this fear to our babies. Our faces express our worry. Our myriad of crutches (patting, rocking…hypnotising) transmit the message that this is indeed a hard thing to do – so much so that all these things need to be in place before sleep can be achieved. We tiptoe out of their rooms when they finally fall asleep – reinforcing their fear that we can’t be trusted to be there when they wake up. Obviously, they are going to scream. How can we possibly expect them to relax in this kind of environment?

So, what do we do?

1. Remove the fear.
This means telling yourself that bedtime is not scary, hard or terrible. You look forward to your sleep and so why shouldn’t your baby? If your face is full of fear, your baby will be scared. If you’re relaxed and happy, your baby will be, too. Quite simple, really.

2. Create a positive, flexible and simple bedtime routine.
We always bathe our kids before bed, then read a story, have a cuddle and a song before bed. When they were babies, we would take them around the room and say “goodnight” to the animal pictures on the walls, the teddies and so on. This was a great part of the routine because it reinforces “goodnight” and it is portable – meaning, when you need to put your little one to sleep at grandma’s house, you can say goodnight to her things too. You’re not tied down to a specific room.

3. Show your baby that you aren’t stressed.
After the “goodnights,” I’d put Miss M in her cot, smile and look her in the eyes (showing that I was happy and relaxed about this situation) and say “Night night! Good girl! I’ll be right back,” and walk out.

Of course, the first time I did this, Miss M went hooligan on me. It was her morning nap and she screamed like a lead soprano in the world’s loudest opera. Hubby and I stood outside her room with the Baby Whisperer and wanted to cry. She explained that we needed to teach Miss M that when she doesn’t cry, that’s when we come back; that being still and relaxed would bring us back. In essence, reward the behavior we want to see.

After a minute of two, when the crying started to wane, one of us would go back in, smile and say again “Good girl! You’re not crying! I’m coming back again.” And out we went. Amazingly, it took very little time for her to realize that being quiet and relaxed brought us back in. Not only did we come in without her having to yell for us, but we were smiling and not scared. Hmmmm – she started to realize that this sleeping this might not be so hard and scary after all.

Once she was quiet for an extended period of time, we started to whisper that OMIGOSH SHE IS QUIET! We were instructed not to whisper. Instead, we walked in and in happy, conversational voices, we repeated the mantra that she was a good girl, not crying, going to sleep so nicely. To our complete shock, she was still awake. Just lying there, quietly. Our baby? She looked at us, smiled, closed her eyes and went to sleep. After a few minutes, we went in again, found her asleep and again repeated the mantra. And again three minutes later. For the first time ever, Miss M napped for two straight hours. She woke up cooing, not crying. It was like we had a different child.
We repeated the process for her midday nap with faster results and by the first night, she was asleep in about 30 minutes. And she slept for 12 hours.

4. It’s all about rewarding the behavior we want to see.
As parents, we are hard-wired to rescue our children when they are crying. So, it’s only natural that we run in to their rooms when they cry at night. The difference between this and other situations is that our babies are not hurt or in danger. They are crying because they want us. By teaching them that we are going to be popping in to their room to check-in when they don’t cry, we eliminate that fear, and we create a situation where they can relax and fall into a deep sleep; safe in the knowledge that they haven’t been abandoned. By showing them that bedtime is a happy, relaxing time of day, we create an environment that they want to be in. If we give them no reason to cry, they don’t cry. Simple, really.

So the basic philosophy is to do the opposite of classic controlled crying. Start by making it clear to your baby that sleep time is a lovely thing. Say goodnight with a smile and reassurance that you’ll be back. Be prepared for the yelling and screaming, and wait for the cries to subside (no longer than a minute or two – in the beginning, you may need to grab the breathless moment between cries to illustrate what you want). As soon as there’s a break in the crying, go in and praise the good behavior, tell her you’ll be back and then walk out. Even if your baby doesn’t understand your words, she will understand the tone. Repeat this process and you’ll notice that your baby will begin to have longer non-crying periods. Praise each and every one.

5. Your baby is smarter than you think.
I can assure you, your baby can read your expressions. Show her that you’re relaxed and she will relax. Sow her that she doesn’t need to scream to have to you check-in on her and she will stop screaming. Check-in loudly and confidently, even once she’s asleep and she won’t feel the need to yell for you when she wakes in the night. If she falls asleep experiencing the comfort of you popping in and out, she will wake in the night, assume you’re coming soon, and go back to sleep. Obvious, right? Yeah, so obvious, I had to pay a Baby Whisperer to teach me…

6. It works on big kids too.
When it was time to move Miss M into her big girl bed, we panicked. How was this going to turn out? How would we get her to stay there? Again, we called on our sleep angel.

Turns out, the same philosophy applies to big kids. On the first night, we did her same routine, then stood in her room and said, “I’m going out and when you’re on your bed, I’ll be back.” Giggles ensued and after a few seconds I returned and found her on the bed. Then, “Okay – I’m going out again and when you’re under the covers, I’ll be back for a story.” Ahhh – it’s a cool game! More giggles. When I walked back in, she was under her covers. I jumped in, read her a book and kissed her goodnight. Then, “Night night, Missy. When you have your head on the pillow, I’ll be back with a giant Wiggly snuggle.” (She was into the Wiggles, so this was the currency – it could just as easily be an Elmo tickle or a Little Mermaid kiss.) More chuckling, and a minute later, there she was with her head on the pillow. Last request, “When your eyes are closed and you’re on your way to dreamland, I’ll be back with another Wiggly snuggle.” A few minutes later, she was asleep, smiling and dreaming of fruit salad, yummy yummy. It really was this easy.

Why did this work? Because she was in control. I wasn’t saying, “If you do this, you get…” implying that I desperately wanted her to comply. I was saying, “When you do this, the next fun thing is coming,” creating a situation where she was going to bed because she wanted to. No power struggle, just a fun and happy bedtime for all.

This has worked for all three of my children. It has worked for the countless friends I have helped through their children’s sleep issues. It’s a positive and non-stressful method to get babies and kids to sleep. Everyone wins because well-rested mummies are less prone to hysterical meltdowns (in the middle of the supermarket, a story for another day), and well-rested babies are happier, more switched on to learning and developing. They are also calmer babies because their mums aren’t falling to pieces.

This is a method I have tried that has been successful for me. I am no baby sleep expert, I’m just a mum who knows what sleep-deprivation feels like, and has seen the light at the end of the tunnel. Can you see it? I promise, it’s there.

Sweet dreams!

Michelle is a copywriter, artist and mum of three children under ten. Read more of Michelle’s work at They Call Me Mummy

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