This is what a successful bedtime looks like to sleep expert Alexis Dubief:
- Your child falls asleep independently.
- Your child sleeps in a safe space.*
- Your child falls asleep in less than ~15 minutes.
Adds Dubief, they don’t have to power down quietly in order for parents to establish a “lovely, consistent bedtime routine”:
All human beings take a few minutes to fall asleep at night. What happens during that time is highly individual. But a child who blows off some steam, complains, tosses bunny out of the crib, etc. for a while at bedtime is doing what many normal, healthy little kids do. You can twist yourself in knots about it or accept that that is how your child chooses to use the time before falling asleep.
The ideal time to teach a baby how to sleep through the night is between 3-6 months. Dubief says delaying the needed lessons until the second half of the first year allows separation anxiety to complicate matters. Separation anxiety is the clinical manifestation of object permanence — a major hindrance to getting an older infant to sleep through the night:
Most babies develop a new skill around 6 months (give or take a month) called object permanence. Prior to this for babies, out of sight LITERALLY meant out of mind. Now they can remember things, people, etc. exist even when they can’t see them. This is closely linked with stranger/separation anxiety which occurs because now your child actually remembers that you exist when you aren’t physically present. For the first time they are capable of missing you. Which is really sweet but often hard to enjoy. It also means that they are now capable of remembering that you were THERE when they fell asleep but are MISSING when they wake up.
And wake up they will! In the first few months, most babies wake up every 2-3 hours at night and can usually be coaxed back to sleep with a brief feeding or with gentle rocking. By six months of age, babies can last a little longer before arousing and awakening. But once object permanence is established, putting them down while they are asleep backfires in a big way. Dubief explains why separation anxiety is so upsetting to a baby:
Now your baby remembers that when they fell asleep you were there. When they move into light sleep where they used to simply fall asleep on their own, they wake themselves up fully. Because you were there, and now you aren’t. Worse, they’re generally pretty upset. In their own baby world they’re yelling at you saying, “Hey! Where did you go! What happened?”
Let’s put this in perspective. Imagine going to bed in your bedroom. A few hours later you wake up on your front lawn. Would you simply roll over and go back to sleep in the grass? Or would you stand up and start screaming? Would you demand loudly to be let back into the house so that you could sleep in your bed? Do you think you would be freaked out by the mysterious force that somehow carried you out to the lawn?
Teaching a baby to fall asleep on their own — and stay asleep on their own — can be trying to parents who are themselves sleep-deprived by nature of having children. But things will surely get better, right? When?
This ends when you stop surprising your child when they sleep. When you stop rocking them to sleep. Stop nursing them to sleep. Stop cuddling them to sleep and then sneaking out the door. When you stop using any timed device (mobile, music, etc.). When you stop using pacifiers at bedtime.
Your child wakes up many more times a night than you do. The scene they find when they wake up needs to be IDENTICAL to the one they saw when they fell asleep.
Read two very interesting and essential articles (and pass them along to family and friends with children of their own or on the way) on getting a baby to power down and sleep through the night on Alexis Dubief’s blog Precious Little Sleep here and here.
*We’ve covered safe sleep environments on The PediaBlog here.