It’s 2 a.m. and your 18 month old is awake.
It’s 3 p.m. and your 7 month old is refusing to nap in her crib.
Do you go in right away so he doesn’t get more upset? Wait a few minutes to see if he’ll maybe go back to sleep on his own? Rock him? Stay with him? Check on him and leave again?
If you’re a parent struggling with difficult naps or nighttime wake ups, and you’ve been looking into sleep coaching methods, you might already be overwhelmed. There are so many versions of strategies, some similar and others wildly different, when it comes to managing your child’s challenging sleep. I’ll explain some common sleep coaching lingo below. But, first, let’s explain mean when we say “sleep coaching”:
This pretty broad term refers, in general, to teaching a child who’s previously been sleeping with assistance (being rocked to sleep, fed to sleep, bounced to sleep, etc.) to now go into his crib awake and fall asleep independently.
Why would a family choose to sleep coach? Because why they are doing simply isn’t working for them anymore. That’s the short version, but it really is the case in most situations. My motto (not just for sleep but for parenting in general!) is that families should do what works for them and their children until or unless it doesn’t work anymore (all in a healthy and safe way, of course!).
But, what about when it doesn’t work anymore? What happens when baby is spitting out that pacifier every hour of the night, waking and having trouble getting back to sleep each time, and the whole family is exhausted? Or when baby will go to sleep in a parent’s arms, but then wake, upset, the moment he’s placed in the crib? What happens when naps occurring exclusively in Mom and Dad’s arms just isn’t feasible for that family anymore? That’s when parents might decide they wish to teach their little one new sleep habits and independent sleep skills, and this is when families often start researching sleep coaching techniques to determine what’s right for them.
So, now that we know what sleep coaching is, let’s clarify some common terminologies, to help you decide what might be best for your own family when it comes to those 2 a.m. wake ups:
TIMED CHECK-INS (aka Ferber, Graduated Extinction, and Timed Intervals) The gist of this is that after putting your little one in the crib awake at bedtime, or when your child has an overnight wake-up or is protesting at naptime, you would continue to check on her at preset intervals, but not feed or rock baby to sleep (nor bring her to your bed to sleep). Important, though, are what to DO when you go in to check on baby, what NOT to do when you go in, how long you are going to wait between each interval, etc. This will not necessarily be the same for every baby. This is where a family needs to decide on a plan that is right for them, that they’re comfortable with, and that works well for their child. For some infants, for example, waiting just a few minutes before offering reassurance may be appropriate. For some toddlers, on the other hand, seeing a parent within a few minutes of waking may actually be very stimulating and cause them to have a more difficult time going back to sleep, so a family in that situation might choose to wait a longer interval of time before offering reassurance. Similarly, while a quick pick-up for a hug might be what works well for one child to calm them quickly and then head back to the crib for some Zs, a pick-up for another child might be extremely stimulating and actually make the situation worse! This is why it’s important to remember that sleep coaching is not a one-size-fits-all strategy, and to choose the method and decide on the nuances that are right for your individual family.
STAY-IN-THE-ROOM APPROACH: Rather than leaving and checking back, you would stay in the room the whole time until baby is asleep, offering support and reassurance while in the room. Again, it’s important to first plan what you are going to do when in the room and then stick to your plan so baby does not become confused.
EXTINCTION (Note: This is not an approach used by The Happy Sleep Company, but certainly one that is very prevalent among search engine results, so worth explaining so you have a full picture). As with any other method, you would go through your bedtime routine, put baby in the crib fully awake & say your good-nights. However, with the extinction method, there is no going back in.
So many parents see amazing results with sleep coaching when methods are used that provide ongoing support, guidance, love and reassurance as baby is learning. It is also very important to understand, however, that – while sleep coaching does NOT need to mean simply leaving baby to cry without support – there will inevitably be tears involved in any approach, because learning a new skill is going to be frustrating for your baby. What is important is managing that protest in a way that your child feels loved and supported so they learn quickly and in a positive way so the whole family can start getting the rest they need and deserve!