Helping Your Baby Sleep On Their Own | Gentle Sleep Training (0-6 Months)

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Has the time come to teach your baby how to sleep on their own? Don’t worry it’s going to be great! This is a gentle sleep training method, but extremely effective. Inspired by the 4 and 5 “S” methods. We took those fantastic guidelines and perfected them. 

Why Gentle Sleep Training? 

“Soothing care is best from the outset. Once patterns of distress get established, it’s much harder to change them.” -Psychology Today

Gentle on baby also means gentle on mom and dad!

Why wouldn’t we go gentle?! Babies respond best when transitions are gradual and come with lots of loving, caring, help. 


Why happy hold gentle sleep training? 

  • It’s effective 
  • It’s not overly demanding of parents time or nerves
  • It protects the baby from the harmful effects of too much crying or stress
  • It establishes trust and healthy attachment
  • It promotes healthy sleep habits and associations for life

“Few impulses are as powerful as a mother’s desire to calm her crying baby. This instinct is as ancient as parenting itself.” What isn’t instinctual, unfortunately, is how to calm them and guide them to good sleep.

We want our babies to be independent when it comes to sleep for many reasons. A desire for independence can only come when they are given a solid foundation of love and support. 

No one wants to jump when the foundation is shaky. 

We need to help our babies feel secure in their beds and with us as their caretakers. They need to know that when they are stressed or have a need, they will be taken care of.

Crying is our little one’s only way of communicating their needs. If we ignore that communication the outcome is the release of stress hormones, impaired self-regulation, and undermined trust. We need to learn to listen and respond appropriately with love, help, and guidance their whole life long.

This gentle sleep training method fosters connection, meets the needs of the baby and the parents, and is extremely effective.

Prepare to be amazed after a few weeks of going through this routine, how easy it becomes to put your baby down, and how they fall asleep faster and faster. 

Do Our Babies Need to Sleep on Their Own?

Our children are incredible gifts and there is nothing so sweet as holding that precious baby that has been entrusted to you. 

It is so important for you to understand that it is a great thing if you want to hold your baby. Your baby is very blessed. The season where we can hold them so often is short and not to be wasted. 

There will come a time, for one reason or another, sooner or later, when you need your baby to sleep on their own. Siblings need attention, dinner needs to be cooked, or you’re going back to work, whatever the reason may be. 

When you are ready to help your baby sleep in their own bed come back to this. 


Spoiling Baby

You might have heard about spoiling your baby by holding them too often. This myth needs to be busted. True love doesn’t spoil or ruin anyone. 

The only risk you run is making the transition from being held all the time to sleeping on their own, more challenging. But possibly not. 

The same is to be said about pacifiers and swaddles and lovies and all sorts of things we will give our children because it helps them. Holding them is not different. We shouldn’t withhold affection just because a change will need to take place later. 


Sleeping Baby

The Transition

That being said, newborn sleep is precious and if you use their natural deep sleep now to build good habits it will set them up for life. The sooner you start allowing your baby to sleep on their own in their own crib the easier the habits will come. Good sleep is essential for everyone and our babies are no exception.  

When the time comes that a boundary needs to be made and independent sleep needs to be introduced (sometimes it’s day one, sometimes later) we need to have a gentle method that allows us to keep that boundary in a healthy way.

When a baby sleeps in a bed on their own they will have better sleep in the long run because it comes with predictability. Your baby may love sleeping on you now but as they get more sensitive to noises and light, their sleep will be disturbed too often. 

Taking the time to train them to sleep well and fall asleep on their own will set them up with good sleep habits for life and allow you both to get the rest you need sooner rather than later. 


Let’s Get Started 

Things you need to know before you can truly teach them to sleep well:

  • How to structure their day to support good sleep
  • How to give them full feeds at the beginning of each eat-wake-sleep cycle
  • How long they should be awake before going to sleep
  • How much sleep they should be getting at each stage of life

Important: If you don’t know how to give baby full feedings then this method may work for getting your baby to sleep on their own but they will still wake up after 20-45 from hunger! See this article on Baby Schedules for everything you need to know to set your baby up for a deep sleep!


The Method


Help Baby sleep on their own

1. Look for Nap Time Readiness

These include, but aren’t limited to:

  • The first signs of fussiness after an appropriate feed-wake period
  • Yawning, rubbing eyes, looking away from stimuli

At this point, you need to ask yourself 2 questions:

  • Has my baby eaten a full meal since they last woke up? 

Hopefully, the answer is yes, but if you have concerns through the bedtime process that they are hungry, feed the baby. Just remember to burp them to avoid them waking from painful gas and be sure to wake them ever so slightly before they are put down to bed so the training can still happen.

  • Has my baby had an appropriate amount of wake time? Read on to understand this further.

Look for tired signs and look at the clock

There are times when we realize that our baby is getting tired but opt to stretch their wake time slightly.

This might need to take place when our babies want to sleep again too soon, too often. It can be convenient to put the sleepy baby to bed a half hour after they woke up, but if it hasn’t been an appropriate wake window for their age it will disturb their eating and sleeping.

This is a process that needs to be introduced gently. We don’t want to use screens or dancing or musical toys to stretch a wake window. 

To extend wake times we try: 

  • calm music
  • cuddles
  • reading
  • a favorite low-key toy that can hold their attention 
  • or simply holding them as you tidy up

We don’t want to encourage them to stay awake if they’re miserable. Overstimulation and being overtired will do the same harm as a too-short wake window. This is a line we need to walk, especially in the early months of our baby’s life. 

So look for sleep cues but also look at the clock.

Happy Hold Infographic_Gentle Sleep Training

 

2. Prepare Your Baby

1. Dress

We want to make sure they’re in a fresh diaper and no clothing items are bothering them.


2. Swaddle

Many parents will share how they think their child hates the swaddle but this step is a non-negotiable for good infant sleep. Babies who are resistant to a swaddle simply need comfort through the process. We don’t swaddle, put them down, and run out as you will learn here. A swaddle provides comfort and security in their big empty bed and will keep them asleep as they go through their sleep cycle and their bodies twitch and jerk.

There are so many to choose from but I like to keep it simple. The ones I have had the most success with are the Halo Sleepsack Swaddle and Love To Dream Swaddle. (If your baby can roll then the swaddle season is over because of the safety risks. Instead, try using a baby sleeping bag. I love the “Beekeeper” from Burts Bees.)


3. Pacifier

Convince them to take a pacifier by holding it in place after they have been swaddled and bounce them with some vigor and rhythm. We want to trigger their calming reflex in them through these vigorous, distracting actions.

Think about it like a calming roller coaster. We gently but firmly hold our child lying in our arms as we sway and rock and bounce to trigger that reflex. I am afraid gentle shushes and the calm sway won’t do the job if your baby is fighting a swaddle or binky. The binky is not natural for most babies. Many parents have tried to convince me that their baby simply wasn’t interested in a binky to everyone’s dismay. 

These two objects assist self-soothing that must be introduced and encouraged every time they go to sleep. 

Note: I also encourage parents to use the binky mainly at sleep times and not as a regular soothing method. That’s what we are here for when it’s not nap time. Best to keep the pacifier for extreme instances such as when you are out or to help keep your baby from putting everything in their mouth. Otherwise, keep it limited to sleep times. 


3. Prepare The Setting

Once our baby is in our arms swaddled, calm, and enjoying her binky we can:

Darken the room
If your baby is learning night from day in the beginning feel free to keep it lighter still


Turn on white noise such as a fan or sounds from a white noise machine that will remain on for the duration of their nap.
None of these 45-minute timers. Music can be calming but stimulating, white noise is preferable.


Make sure there are no safety hazards in or around their crib
Keep clear of blankets, bumpers, toys, stuffed animals, etc.

Note: Why set the scene after the swaddle and binky? Well, most likely you bring your baby around with you as you do things all day, right? So the only way to distinguish these activities as a cue for sleep is if the sleep props (binky and swaddle) are already present. Following the order of preparing your baby and then preparing the setting establishes a clearer bedtime routine for very young babies.

4. Do The Happy Hold

Trigger the calming reflex with the happy hold

A stressed, upset baby is not likely to fall asleep, stay asleep, or wake up happy. We want to help our baby get completely calm before we put them down and go. 

Our babies need our method of holding them to meet their level of stress. I call this “the happy hold”.


The happy hold falls into 3 separate categories:

  1. Standing still
  2. Gentle rocking or swaying them
  3. Vigorous rocking

*babies can tell if you’re sitting or standing and often prefer a standing parent…sorry!

Note: All of the holding will ideally take place in their calm, cool, dark bedroom. Although, if your baby is truly having a fit, I would recommend taking them out into the light and noise to “start over”. If that doesn’t help then truly start over, removing clothes, checking diapers, etc. because there may be something bothering them. As luck would have it the one time we don’t check they will have a full diaper or their arm will be twisted! 

The goal is to bring them to a place of total peace before we put them down and leave. Remember that babies can get extremely loud right before they give in to sleep so stick to the routine here.


Dr. Harvey Carp, author of The Happiest Baby on the Block says,

“I’m afraid that in order to explain that crying, modern parents began to mistakenly think that babies were so fragile they could only tolerate quiet sounds and gentle motions. This new attitude undermined their confidence in triggering the calming reflex, because as you are about to learn it can be activated only by vigorous actions-especially in very fussy babies. Gradually this ancient calming tool was forgotten.”


We want our happy hold to focus on meeting the stress They Show With Our Comfort Hold: 

A highly stressed baby needs big bounces.
As their stress wanes and they start to calm then so do our bounces. 
As peace begins to settle in their little bodies we get calmer and stiller until we can stop moving altogether.

We want to meet their stress in a way by the bounce matching the stress. Our big bounces should be secure but vigorous and distracting. If you have removed them from their sleep space to calm them down it’s at this point that you can slowly go back. 

Go through the different holds, meeting their stress level over and over until your baby can finally stay calm in the still phase. 


The Middle Step

When our babies are calm, the goal is to hold them while standing or sitting still, before we put them down to sleep. 

Why? Because a baby who is being rocked and sung to then suddenly is put down and left will have a more drastic transition to accept than a baby who was rocked, then held still, and then quietly put down in a still and quiet place. 

Hold Still Graphic_Happy hold_ gentle sleep training

The transition with a middle step makes the transition from our arms to their beds much smoother and more logical.

This middle step also tells us if our baby is likely to stay in bed peacefully or not. If they can’t be calm in our still but comforting arms they won’t be calm in a still, empty bed. 

A grumpy or fussy baby in our arms will likely be a grumpy or fussy baby in their bed and will struggle to fall asleep or receive rest.

The stillness is the key. 

With young babies we could even do this while watching TV or chatting to someone: Hold them still, do what you’re doing and when they are peaceful and sleepy for a few minutes, it’s a safe bet that you can put them down. 


Now Hold Still

When our babies are calm we can begin the training by committing, for at least a few minutes, to holding them completely still. 

I mean you can breathe and scratch your nose but not bouncing, singing, rocking, etc. You don’t want to move! 

Now two things can happen:

Some babies will not feel like being held at times and just want to be put down. Wonderful! Go on to the next step if you feel that’s the case!

Mostly thought our babies will relax and start to drift off. We want to wait patiently until this happens but be sure our baby is not completely asleep yet. If the baby falls asleep on you, well who could blame them? But we need to subtly wake them. 

Yes, wake the baby. 

They are so tired you don’t need to worry about them wanting to play! All you want is a blink or some eye contact before we move on to putting them down. 

This is important because:

  • We want our babies to be aware that they are in their bed alone, the only way they can accept their beds will be when they are aware of the setting and not surprised by it
  • If they are put down asleep they may startle and expect to be held again until they are back to sleep, thus continuing the cycle

5. Place Baby Down

So now your baby is completely calm, you have been holding them in your still arms for a few minutes and it’s time to put them down and get on with the day right? Almost! 

Putting Baby Down Awake_ gentle sleep training

Putting Them Down Awake

Here you can give a kiss and say “sweet dreams” because we want to make sure the baby is awake at least slightly when we put them down. This creates familiarity with their sleep space and when they wake up they won’t be shocked thinking “Where am I?”. Their beds need to become places of comfort for them, not abandonment. 

And we want them to be on their back for safety reasons, unlike the original method which specifically calls for stomach or side sleeping. 


When They Stir

If your baby starts crying right when you put them down, wait a moment and see if they settle. If not pick them back up because we put them down too early! 

One thing that is often recommended when a baby wakes and cries are to pat the baby and shush them as they lay in bed. I have found that skin-to-skin, such as a hand on their face or holding their swaddled hands, helps more than patting and shushing. 

If skin-to-skin fails I encourage you to pick the baby back up. Again, the goal is that they are in their bed calm not stressed. 

A minute or two of protest is completely normal and when we have to tend to other children or things going on in the home our babies may need to lay there fussy for a few minutes. That being said I don’t recommend leaving our babies crying for longer than 5 minutes if we can help it. 


What to Watch For

We need to watch for a few things once our baby is down in their crib:

– Are their arms poking or falling out of the swaddle and will bother them in a minute?

– Do they keep the pacifier in or does it fall out and wake them? Do you have to replace it a few times or even hold it in place?

– Do they need a firm loving hand placed on their cheek or chest? If their legs are kicking you could place a gentle hand on them to help the baby rest. 


Recognize The Two Baby Cries

Our babies have many cries that say specific things (according to some) but there are two cries that every parent can distinguish between easily and it’s very helpful to recognize them. 

Those are the complaining whine and the distressed cry.

Types_of_Cries_gentle sleep training

Complaining
A baby who is fussing a little and complaining may very likely fuss calmly or play for a minute then fall asleep. 

Distress
A distressed baby probably won’t be able to settle down on their own and will need your help to calm down. 

When the baby cries, especially in the first 6 months go check. If you have a monitor, take a good look. The one time you decide to let them cry-it-out you’ll likely discover a dirty diaper or that they are stuck on something or anything to make you feel absolutely terrible. 


After 15-20 Minutes of Trying the Last Few Steps Over and Over

If all else and you feel like you’re running out of patience, wearing them for the occasional nap is a brilliant solution. This is not spoiling, this is not a bad habit, this is an exception you make so you can have a coffee with a friend, get something done or so the baby can have one longer nap that day. Baby wraps are a lifesaver so use them when necessary!

Power of the Pause

Now, the baby is in bed and has been showing great promise of sleep, but we hear something. A bit of fussing, a bit of complaining, the random cry or chatter. 

This is where we find the power of the pause and wait. 

We return to the two types of cries and listen, is this baby complaining or are they in distress? If they’re complaining, meaning generally happy and don’t make you feel like they need help (although possibly loud) see if you can leave them. 

Once that baby starts to sound unhappy and looking for help we should immediately intervene and return to our calming process.

Sometimes our babies are playing to settle, or wake and fuss and go back to sleep. As long as they are calm and not in distress, I try to leave them until it escalates. 

You just don’t know what might happen and noise is part of their self-soothing process to learn how to sleep. You are likely to wake them truly or disturb them further if you run in at every whimper. Keep a monitor on them to ease your worries and pause before rushing in. 

If you need to or think it will help, you can try leaving your baby in bed crying for 3-5 minutes. This is a “phasing out” cry-it-out method. You’re not removing all intervention but you’re also not looking to remove all crying. 

Longer than 5 minutes at this age is too long. The rule of thumb is only a baby with some peace or some calm will be able to go to sleep and stay asleep well. 

We need to help them find the calm to accomplish this. I have heard my youngest fussing while helping my older child with something I couldn’t stop. My mama’s heart made me want to leave my toddler with poop on their tush and go get my baby right away. A few minutes later when I finished the task, my baby had stopped crying and fell asleep. Lesson learned. Pause. 

Night Wakings

Our hope for the night between weeks 0-8 is that our babies may “wake” from hunger (normal and if they don’t we need to wake them after around 4 hours until week 8). I remember the first night with my first baby. The lights were on, the diaper was changed twice, songs were sung, I sat watching us in the mirror. Oh. My. It was wonderful, I felt so lucky but this couldn’t happen every night.

We want to have the perfect setup so our babies don’t have to fully wake. 

We lift them from their bassinet, 
feed them in our dark bed, 
change the diaper close by, (only if necessary), burp the baby or hold them upright for 10-15 minutes to avoid belly aches, 
and we put them back down. 
I often did all of this without leaving my bed. 

If you can keep the night completely calm, boring, and dark then your baby should drift off without needing any of the above tips. 

Tip: A great help is having a low, red nightlight. This will give you just enough visibility to do what you have to do without waking the baby or your partner, hopefully! Also, using a swaddle where the zipper opens from the bottom allows you to change diapers without unwrapping the baby! Genius. 


Happy Hold Infographic_Gentle Sleep Training

Happy Hold Gentle Sleep Training Pin

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