When can I start to work on sleep with my baby? When is it too soon or when is it too late? These are the most frequent questions I get from parents who come to me for help with their baby’s sleep.
Much of the confusion comes from the (over)abundance of different methods outlined in numerous books. And many are not completely clear with what the human body is capable of at various stages of development. Parents, who are desperate for sleep, will try a sleep training method in the hopes that it will be their new Holy Grail to feel human again.
I can't blame them. But I wonder how many parents know that a baby’s age can significantly influence the success of getting that much-needed sleep. You can't sleep train a newborn for one thing. It's why it was a big yes from me when SmartParenting.com.ph asked me to discuss an age-by-age guide on what to expect from your baby when it comes to sleep.
This guide is by no means the final word, but it is knowledge gained from the experience of working with close to 60 families here in the Philippines and abroad as a sleep coach. I hope it helps.
0 to 8 weeks Your baby at this point wants to sleep and do lots of it! He is not ready for sleep training; his self-soothing ability isn't fully developed. All you can do is to follow his lead and tend to his every need, whether it is feeding, a nappy change, or sleep. What can you do?
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Use this time to listen and observe your little one. You may be surprised to see some patterns of his behavior in the day. I recommend keeping a log because it can help in establishing sleep/feed schedule.
It is normal for a newborn to sleep more than feed in the early first few weeks of his life. They will have much light-to-deep sleep cycles that will naturally wake them when they are hungry, or they need to be cleaned up.
Keep a close eye on his diapers during this time to ensure his urine is not dark yellow, and his stools are frequent enough. Poop color is ideally mustard seedy, and it is a sign they are getting enough milk, and he is not dehydrated.
Don't wake a healthy (no medical issues) baby to feed during this time, or else you will have a clingy, whiny, hyper and hard to soothe baby on your hands. They need that sleep.
Help soothe your baby so he can relax before sleeping. Close to the age of 2 months, most babies will lose the Moro Reflex. It is also called the "startle" reflex because when your baby hears a loud sound, she will abruptly throw back her head, extend her arms and legs, cry loudly, and pull her arms and legs back towards her. It is also her response to sudden movement or to the sensation of falling, like when you put her down in her crib without enough support. (Read more about newborn reflexes here.) As your baby loses the Moro reflex, it will make long stretches of night sleep easier. A good swaddle during this time can be highly effective because it allows your baby to feel secure when he is asleep on his bed rather than in your arms.
2 to 4 months This age is by far the most challenging window for any new parent. Just when things seemed to "normalize," your baby's body acquires a few new talents that can shake things up for you. This is a time to have your eyes wide open (yes, even after so much lack of sleep). You want to look out for nature’s signs that your baby is trying to show you like when they are ready to sleep longer stretches at night and more independently.
One of these signs is the disappearance of the Moro Reflex (as mentioned above) while he starts to show the beginning of a half roll from back to the side. His body has made the hormones necessary for night sleep so he can ideally do long stretches of rest in between night feeds.
Scientists say sleep is learned. To avoid teaching the wrong things, this is your window of opportunity to try to tune into your baby’s signals that they are ready to be more independent in their sleep.
4 to 7 months Just when you thought your baby is sleeping well, he turns 4 months old, and suddenly he has sleep regression. He begins to wake up frequently at night and can't or fights sleep. This regression is the most important one to take place because this is the time when your little one is completely ready for day and night sleep guidance. It doesn't feel like it, but any sleep changes that becomes consistent or habitual at this point will become permanent.
This stage is when many moms come to me for support so they can minimize the likelihood of introducing too many difficult sleep issues early on. What you teach at this stage — both good and bad — are what form the foundations of your baby’s sleep habits for life.
I highly encourage having a long-term sleep plan in place for the 4th month of your baby’s life. Whether you decide to practice sleep training or not, it will provide you with realistic sleep expectations for the future. With a plan in place, you can avoid disappointment, frustrations or worse, resenting your little one for how much effort remains on your part to get them to sleep, instead of helping them help themselves to sleep.
8 to 10 months We often see a sleep regression at this stage, but, moms, it is considered temporary. Your baby is going through a developmental leap — his brain is working at full speed (check the milestones he is hitting at this stage here). You need to be patient and be careful about introducing sleep habits for a short phase. If you were making progress with his sleep training before, continue with it as long as it's comfortable for both you and your baby. It has to feel supportive.
12 to 23 months One year young, and you made it! Don’t get too comfortable just yet. This stage brings with it two significant sleep regressions; some say there is even a third one around age 2.
In my experience, this is a very real window to work on toddler sleep despite it being much harder than sleep training a 4-7-month-old where walking and easily standing don’t complicate things.
Separation anxiety also continues to be a definite reality up to around 18 months, but sleep is still manageable. If you have waited until now to help your toddler learn how to put themselves to sleep, it is vital for you to expect the training period to take longer. The process will require a lot more of your mental energy, more patience than you think you could ever have and above all love including tough love. After all, toddlers love to test their boundaries. The process will test your patience.
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On the upside, this age does provide its benefits too. Toddlers now have a considerable understanding of things and an ever-increasing vocabulary, which can be a huge help when changes occur.
Parents and little ones can all achieve great sleep at almost any age once foundations are introduced, and they remain consistent, but it is always easier to introduce sleep training between the ages of 5 to 7 months. There is no ‘magical’ moment in time to un-teach and then re-teach what nature intended, and only you as a parent can know when you are ready. But you also need to be prepared to stick to the changes — and that will be your magical moment.
After training with two UK-based baby sleep trainers using various sleep training methods, Gabrielle Weil began her sleep coaching practice in 2015 with a 95% success rate. She has served over 50 families and counting. Read some of the families' stories here and here. You may reach her at email@example.com.