What to Know About “Sleep Training”

ThedaCare Pediatrician Suggests Consistency and Regular Schedule Will Help Create Good Habits

November 3, 2020

NEENAH, Wis. – For new parents, bringing home a new baby can be both a wonderful experience and a time when their routines change drastically – including the loss of a good night’s sleep. It is possible, however, to help infants learn a reasonable sleep routine that benefits both the baby and the parents.

“You should always do what’s best for you and your baby,” said Dr. Sneha Subbarayan, MD, a pediatrician at ThedaCare Physicians-Neenah. “The earlier we start with trying to instill good habits into our babies – and our family members – the better, and more successful you’re going to be in the future when it comes to developing good sleep patterns.”

While some parents want to hold their babies as much as possible, Dr. Subbarayan recommends putting the infant down while they sleep, which helps the baby learn how to sleep on her own and gives parents a much-needed break.

Babies generally have a 90-minute sleep cycle, in which they’re ready to go back to sleep after about an hour and a half of waking time. Keeping track of it helps babies maintain their natural circadian rhythm and extends their sleep cycle through the night.

“As they get older, you can wean that down, because you don’t need a one-year-old to be sleeping every hour and a half,” she explained. “They will gradually begin to stay awake for longer periods of time.”

Dr. Subbarayan also recommends separating feeding from sleep so that babies don’t associate the two. Instead, parents can help babies to get drowsy by rocking or swaddling, then put them down before they fall asleep completely.

“That teaches them they can fall asleep on their own, without having to be held and rocked, so as they get older, sleep training becomes a little bit easier,” she said. “They will already understand how to fall asleep on their own, without the help of a caregiver.”

One of the more difficult hurdles with sleep training is getting everyone – including grandparents – on board with the plan, because they might not have done things the same way.

“Babies really thrive on structure and routine, so if you change what they’re doing, it’s really hard for them to learn consistency – and really easy for them to learn a new routine if they stay with grandparents or other caregivers,” said Dr. Subbarayan. “So I recommended setting clear expectations with other caregivers when it comes to the amount of sleep and how the baby falls asleep, so that everyone is one the same page.”

Additionally, pediatricians recommend that babies sleep on their backs to help prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Infants also should not sleep with pillows, toys or blankets (except for tight swaddling) because of the danger of suffocation. Babies should sleep in a darkened room in their own crib or bassinet, not in a regular bed, couch, or with other people.

For toddlers, using accessories such as pacifiers and blankets creates a dependency on these items at sleep time, and parents may end up having to constantly search for the items or pick them up when they’re tossed from the crib or bed.

When a baby appears to be having trouble learning the sleep routine or is crying excessively, it may be a signal there are other problems such as acid reflux or colic. Parents should consult with their pediatrician to help address those concerns.

Parents should also remember that even under normal circumstances, establishing a routine for their newborn can be a challenge, but it’s worth it.

“Parents should give their babies time to learn, and to know that ultimately it will give everyone more rest,” she said. “Don’t forget - you have to take care of yourself as well. Then you’ll be in the best position to take care of your precious littles ones.”