Before you get started, it's a good idea to make sure your child's is set up for the best sleep possible. There's a whole post on this that includes things such as
a good and predictable daily routine, an early bedtime, a consistent pre-sleep routine and perfect timing (putting your child to sleep before they get overtired or overstimulated). With some very easy going babies sleep issues may be fixed just by following the recommendations on the post above. With many, especially older babies, you'll need to move onto other sleep training approaches (see what I define as sleep training), whether they be no-cry or maybe cry. Before you get into the nitty gritty of that sleep training, it's good to evaluate a few things and have some things in mind so that sleep training will be as successful (and quick!) as possible.You may not be able to have everything perfectly set up before starting sleep training, but do the best you can. If you wait for the 'perfect time', you may never get there!
- Assess your baby. Is right now a good time for your baby to begin sleep training? Avoid big times of developmental change such as when your baby is learning to roll or crawl or even learning to talk. If possible, avoid wonder weeks and common sleep regression times (4, 6, 8 and 18 months). These times aren't tough sleep times for all babies, but it's a good general rule to keep an eye out for them just in case. Rule out illness or pain (such as teething, reflux, ear infections, gas) and allergies. If you aren't confident your child is in good health, take her to a doctor before beginning sleep training--uncertainty will likely make you second guess what you are doing which can lead to be inconsistencies. Also make sure your baby is growing and eating well. This is especially important if you are breastfeeding since how much baby eats isn't as obvious.
- Assess yourself. Do you really want change or are you just feeling pressured? Are you ready to give up some of the things you've done in the past that, although frustrating at times, are also enjoyable (like feeding or rocking to sleep)? You need to be motivated for change or you won’t follow through because, as I've mentioned before, sleep training can be tough! Can you stop yourself from giving in when things get tough? Is guilt going to make following through difficult?
- Assess the sleeping situation. Evaluate what your child's sleeping issues are and make sure that your sleep training plan is addressing those issues. If your child is waking up all night and you plan to do CIO, make sure the waking is due to something that CIO will actually help. If she's waking due to pain or hunger, CIO isn't going to be much of a help. Also make sure your expectations of your child's sleep are appropriate (amount of daily sleep etc).
- Assess the timing. You want to start sleep training during a stable time in you and your child's life. No recent moves, births of babies, vacations etc. Make sure to free up some of your time during sleep training for baby and for you to get more rest.
- Assess the sleep environment. Make sure your child's sleep environment is safe and comfortable. You'll want the roomy to be dark, a good temperature (which is usually cooler than you think) and you'll likely want a sound machine.
- Make a sleep training plan (tips for choosing an approach here). Make sure the plan is something that you feel like you can follow through with. It is better to take smaller sleep training steps that take longer to result in change if you are more likely to follow through. When you make the plan, make sure it is very specific. Go over various scenarios of what might happen and what you'll do when they happen. If you don't have a plan, you're more likely to forget what to do at 3 am when sleep and exhaustion are overtaking you, you're more likely to give in (which will just confuse your child more AND make the whole process take longer) and you're more likely to make a quick decisions that you'll regret later on.
- Get everyone taking care of your baby on board with the plan.
- Get some reinforcements. Sleep training is tough. Keep in mind someone who can support you during the process. It is helpful to have someone that you can talk to on a daily basis to keep you on the right track and help you not give up! It is harder to do a "no no" with your sleep training plan when you know you have to tell someone how it went the next day :)
- Decide to stick to the sleep training plan and BE CONSISTENT! Consistency is one of the most important aspects of sleep training. Inconsistency will confuse baby and make sleep training take longer. Try to stick with things for at least several days, even if you don't notice a huge change at first (some children can be pretty resistant to change, especially if they are older). While I encourage you to keep up with your plan until sleep improves, it is always a good idea to listen to your gut feeling and discontinue something if you don't feel good about it. Just make sure you don't just give up simply because it is hard, because it will be! That brings me to my next point...
- Have realistic expectations of sleep training. Expect things to get worse before they get better. Expect there to be good days followed by bad days. Expect there to be sleep regressions in the future that you'll have to address with sleep training again (although it'll likely be much less eventful). Expect sleep to not change over one nap period or over night. Some kids do have a 360 in a couple days, but for many children, it can take a while longer before things really settle down, especially if you are doing more gentle sleep training techniques. And lastly, expect it to be hard. Some of the best things in life do not come easy, but the results are amazingly worth it. You'll wonder how you lived life before sleep training!
- Have everyone catch up on their sleep before the sleep training begins, this includes parents and, if possible, baby.
- Have a pre-sleep routine in place before naps and bedtime. Make sure it is predictable, consistent and soothing. It's also a good idea to have quiet play (or for a very young baby, snuggling) for 10-30 minutes prior to the pre-sleep routine.
- Have some sort of routine in place throughout day and be consistent with this. Sleep needs need to be in sync with child's natural rhythms. This means an early and predictable bedtime and early rising and plenty of napping. Many people find the eat/wake/sleep routine helpful. This sleep chart of averages may be helpful too.
- Get a video monitor. Either buy one or borrow one. You can get one with a screen or one that works with your phone (I have the dropcam and love it).
- Buy a poopometer. Just kidding. But seriously, I wish these existed. It's the worst when your child doesn't fall asleep simply because there's a poop that you didn't know about!