*Primary author is Angela Braden
Many books and baby sleep consultants advise you to condition your baby to not cry out for your attention at night and for help going down for naps. You condition them by ignoring their pleas until they no longer bother communicating. But what the sleep trainers don’t tell you is that when distressed, all mammals instinctively cry out! And they should, because they are feeling pain and fear without you.
What does conditioning a baby not to cry out really do? Conditioning-based “sleep training” shuts off the child’s voice. It just eliminates the communication of baby's need, not the need itself.
If the idea of ignoring natural baby communication makes your stomach turn; if you feel that leaving your baby to cry breaks something ancient and sacred in you both—well, despite what some “experts” say, you don’t have to do it! With an eye toward brain science, psychological development, and infant mental health, we can approach the challenges of parenting in the first two years differently, whether it’s with naps, nighttime, or just being put down during the day. There is a better way!
Instead of breaking baby of a “bad habit,” as they say, of their natural instinct to be with you, you can work sensitively and respectfully with your baby to gently create the desired changes (which is what you decide together, not some arbitrary idea of what your baby “should” be doing).
Security is job one. First, and foremost, keep your baby’s security intact by keeping the communication of his needs in full force. This empowers your baby to gradually accept the desired change you are nudging toward (see step 3). Embracing your instinct is a critical first step in ensuring a healthy first year of life for your baby. Never betray your inner voice.
Your baby’s brain is largely unfinished at birth, and rapidly forming brain-cell connections shape structures of critical significance—particularly in the right hemisphere, which is predictive of future mental health. The emotional processing and social parts of the brain form first in infancy. These circuits hold elements of our very humanness—the ability to sense others’ intentions and feelings, to feel empathy and compassion, and ultimately, to thrive in intimate relationships. This development happens in response to your loving interaction with your baby. Because of this responsivity dance, you never want to stifle communication through behavioral conditioning. Your baby’s distress communication is the only way you can gauge your baby’s comfort baseline.
Note your baby’s “comfort baseline.” This is where your baby currently feels safe and secure. This is not what your baby wants (as in “he just wants his way”), it’s what he currently needs. This may be nursing all the way to sleep, or sleeping beside you or another warm body, or being nursed every time he wakes at night—all perfectly normal. When you decide to move away from your baby’s comfort baseline, and you’ve determined it’s an age-appropriate goal (make sure!), map out baby steps (pun intended) from his comfort baseline. It’s critical that you start there though, in working toward your goal, or his security can be shaken and he’ll be too stressed to actually adapt.
“Nudge” and repeat. Take the first step away from your baby’s baseline and listen to your baby’s reaction. That may mean if you are nursing to sleep, you take the nipple out when he’s drowsy, but still awake, and quickly press his cheek against your chest so he can hear your heartbeat. If your baby accepts this nudge, go on to the next step in your mapping from his comfort baseline. In this case, you may end nursing while your baby is satisfied, but still awake, then continue to hold or rock to sleep. Eventually, you may place your baby in his crib before he’s all the way to sleep, if this is your goal.
Remember, becoming distressed is going to happen and he will signal to you. It’s what happens next that matters. If your baby signals distress after your first step, give in—give him what he needs—and simply try again the next time. Your consistent, positive response is what keeps his sense of security intact along the way. It may take weeks of repeatedly asking, nudging—until your baby accepts the step. Now his comfort baseline has changed: He’s okay with it!
If you’re taking a step/nudge during the night, and your baby gets too distressed, he will become wide awake. He may then be more likely to wake again at that same time on subsequent nights. This is why sleep trainers say you can never give in, because the only way it works is if the baby learns he will not “get his way.” (This is conditioning—what scientists do to rats.) But when your baby is comforted and stays calm, it becomes a habit to sleep through those wakeups.
This approach is different because it works within your baby’s tolerance. It takes longer of course, but it's real, sustainable progress. Think comfort vs. stimulation. Being upset is very stimulating; stimulation is counterproductive to sleep. Be patient and gentle with yourself and your baby.
Before you nudge:
Providing the right environment for your baby to sleep within what we sleep specialists call “the sleep window” can work wonders itself. The sleep window is that magic snippet of time in which baby is primed for la la land and will drift off peacefully (in the right environment). Perhaps you’ve seen your baby’s sleep window open—a glazed look, a yawn, or some agitated movements (depending on age)—but by the time you finished that bite of food, changed the diaper, and swaddled, that window had slammed shut on you! One missed window can set in motion a vicious cycle of “over-tired,” short naps and more disturbed night sleep. Going by a strict schedule can be problematic too, because every night and every nap is different (particularly in the first six months). You usually end up with a baby who’s over-tired or under-tired at the “scheduled” sleep time.
So should you watch the baby (for signs of sleepiness) or watch the clock in order to put the baby to sleep during his sleep window? The answer is “both," but here’s how: The heart of consistently successful “sleep window synchrony” is staying within an optimum “wake time” zone. (Wake time is the duration of wakefulness between sleep times, counting the time it takes to soothe your baby to sleep.) I post formulas on my Facebook page , but keeping a log will help you nail the sleep window. Many times, when you do, you don’t even need to nudge your baby, because he will sleep more peacefully and wake less (for developmentally normal durations, of course).
Simply put, the wake time is the single most powerful determinant of when your baby will need to sleep again in order to sleep best. Knowing the wake time will help you stay ahead of over-tired like nothing else, because you’ll be ahead of those tricky sleepy cues (some babies are just hard to read!).
Notes on Nudging:
Create a sleep sanctuary, to give your nudges their best shot: white noise, dark room, the right temperature, sleep words or music—all contribute to your success.
Realistic goals have to take into account your baby’s history, medical condition, age, and temperament. It’s hard to generalize, but usually sleep nudging should never be done with babies under six months of age, nor when sick, teething, or at a time when any other major changes are happening.
You don’t need to nudge! If co-sleeping is working for you, especially, there’s probably no need to. Only when the current sleep arrangement is not working for you do you need to change it. It sounds obvious, but I hear all the time from parents struggling to make their baby’s sleep conform to some unrealistic ideal when they didn’t actually have a problem with the wakings that were occurring or would be just fine sleeping with their baby (put in place safe bed-sharing guidelines if you do—see cosleeping.nd.edu).
The first year with your baby should be a joyful, precious, and peaceful time. Don’t let behaviorist ideas or sleep training mandates take that away from you. There is so much that can be done to prevent future challenges and make immediate improvements in your baby’s sleep, if you choose to. I’ve only shared a few. Approach your baby’s first years with an eye toward protecting optimal brain development and bonding and you and your baby will reap the rewards for the rest of your lives.
Join the Science Mommy Facebook Community for free advice and support.
*NOTE: I intentionally used the male pronoun for the baby in this post, because studies indicate parents are less tolerant of normal infant sleep in their male babies. This is a mistake. Boy babies need just as much affection and stress regulation as baby girls, sometimes more.
Additional Posts Related to Child Sleep Training