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It was well past midnight, and Heather and her husband had tried multiple times to put their son to sleep, but apparently he had morphed into the Energizer Bunny.

What do you do when your baby won’t sleep at night? Heather shares excellent toddler sleep training tips, “Make sleep training as successful and painless as possible.”

My husband and I watched in amazement as their baby crawled around the living room gibbering to himself and restlessly moving from one toy to the next. As time went on, he became more and more rambunctious while we became more and more exhausted. It was during one of these nights that my husband and I realized, as I'm sure many first-time parents have, that our son needed sleep-training.

We turned to our lovely friend the Internet and found a wealth of information. The most prevalent method we ran across was cry it out (CIO). The idea of leaving my baby alone in his room to cry for an indefinite amount of time made me cringe, but my husband and I were desperate, and we didn't have any better ideas. So we tried it, and failed miserably. We read that babies should only cry for up to half an hour before calming down and eventually falling asleep, but our son blew this theory out of the water. We never found out his actual endurance for crying, but some nights it was well over an hour before we finally gave in and scooped him up. My husband and I couldn't take the screaming anymore, so we went back to the drawing board. With the help of parental intuition and some research about infant sleep patterns, we developed our own methods for helping our son to fall asleep on his own. By no means do I claim to be an expert, but here are some general guidelines for sleep training that have proven successful for us.

1. Remember that your child is unique

This means that he will not necessarily respond to a fits-all training method. This does not make you a failure. It just means you need to find a method that works for your specific circumstances.

As I mentioned earlier, the classic CIO method did not work for our son. I could sense that he had a deep anxiety about being separated from his parents. I knew I had to gradually wean him from the need for human touch if he was to fall asleep on his own. Instead of leaving the room after I laid him down, I sat on a chair next to his crib and continued humming. For the first few nights, he tried to stand up or snatch at toys through the bars of his crib. When he tried to stand, I gently took his hands off the bars and guided him back down to his pillow. Then I held one hand on his stomach to encourage him to stay lying down. Eventually, our son fell asleep like this. After a few weeks, he came to understand that when we placed him in his crib, it was time to sleep. If he started to stand up, just my moving towards him signaled to him to lay back down on his pillow.

2. Choose a routine and stick to it

Children need structure so they feel secure and know what to expect. Generally, a routine includes removing your child from stimulation like bright lights, television or active play, and applying soothing mechanisms such as a bath, reading, or music. This makes the transition to sleep much easier.

For instance, here was my first routine:

  1. Give my son a drink of water and a little snack. (A full stomach does wonders!)

  2. Change diaper, put in his PJs, and brush his teeth.

  3. Read him a book. (This is especially helpful in calming him down.)

  4. Hum his favorite song while I rock him for a few minutes.

  5. Lay him in his crib once he shows signs of falling asleep.

  6. Sit in the rocker next to his crib until he settles down to sleep.

3. Learn to recognize your child's tired signs

This is especially important because if you wait too long, your child will go from being tired to overtired. It is at this overtired stage that he will become hyperactive, fussy, irritable, and nigh impossible to settle down to sleep. Start the routine when your child shows signs of being tired, but not overly tired. Typically, tired signs include droopy eyes, and becoming quieter, less active, and more demanding. Once you develop a scheduled routine, your child will usually become tired around the same time each night. When in doubt, err on the side of putting your child to bed earlier rather than later.

In my son's case, when he is tired, his eyelids look heavy, and he moves around less, preferring to sit or stand while playing instead of running around. He gets frustrated more easily. For example, when he can't figure out how to make a toy work, he is more prone to yell. He also demands my attention. If I am on the laptop, he will come up and slam it closed, then insist I pick him up. When I recognize these signs, I know it is time to put him to bed.

4. Be willing to adapt

Children go through many stages and changes in the first few years of life. The routine you use when your child is six months old may not work when he is twelve months or two years old. Be willing to try new things if what you're doing doesn't seem to be working as well as you'd like.

For example, recently I noticed that our son has a harder time settling down than he used to. He tries to squirm out of my arms and climb down from the rocker. I discovered that giving him a simple toy like a block or a stuffed animal helps him to stay still and fall asleep faster. We also found that the constant background noise of a fan in the room prevents our son from startling awake at sudden loud noises (like setting off one of his singing toys).

5. Above all, be patient

It may take a while before you notice the fruits of your labors. Don't get discouraged. What you are doing is making a difference, even though you may not see it at first.

With our son, it was a couple weeks before we noticed any improvement. But it was so worth it! Most nights our son now sleeps at least 9 hours before waking. Sometimes we hear him stir, but he is able to soothe himself back to sleep.

Also keep in mind that there are uncontrollable factors which can disrupt a child's sleep pattern. Among these are teething, sickness, being in an unfamiliar environment, car naps, and daylight savings time. When these disruptions come—as they inevitably will—be patient, adapt a new baby sleep schedule, do your best to meet your child's needs, and hold on for the ride. (Teething won't last forever, I promise.)

About Heather 

I am originally from Fernley, Nevada, but our family currently lives in Austin, Texas. My husband and I have been blissfully married for over two years. He supports me through everything and helps me find joy in this journey we call life. Our son Glenn is seventeen months old. He gets into all sorts of mischief, but he knows just how to melt my heart with hugs and laughter (and occasionally helping me with chores). My favorite books are the Harry Potter series. You will often find me listening to these books on tape (yes, on tape) while I clean our house. It brings back fond memories of my mother doing the same thing while I was growing up. As you can imagine, I don't have much spare time with my little bundle of energy running around, but when I do, I like to brush up on my German, work on my novel, make crafts, or learn new recipes. My favorite foods to make are bread, brownies, and creamy mustard chicken with spaetzle—mostly because I love eating them! I also enjoy my daily walks with Glenn. My guilty pleasures are watching BBC television series, bargain shopping, and sneaking chocolate chips out of the baking cupboard. My dream vacation would be taking my family back with me to Austria and Germany, where I did a study abroad while I was in college.

Image Source: Kristen Lisa Photography

Written by — April 11, 2014

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