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What is the Most Effective Way to Teach Your Child to Sleep?

on Thu, 10/11/2012 - 02:40

Before I answer that question, some information on Daylight Saving time.

On Sunday November 4th we change our clocks back one hour.  This change in time actually affects our circadian rhythms (our internal body clock).   Even though the number on the electronic clock may read one way, our body clocks won’t match for a few days and will be running on the old time.  Adults and children may need some time to adjust to this shift.

It’s best to have your child adjust his schedule to the new clock time for wake up, naps, meals, and bedtime, on the day of the time change.   Expect that he may wake up an hour earlier than his usual wake up time. He may also have trouble making it to his regular bedtime based on the new clock time.  If your child is getting very cranky and can’t adjust that first day, put him down for naps and bedtime 45 minutes or a half hour earlier.  Then, push naps and bedtime 15-20 minutes later over a period of days.     Most children are able to adjust in a few days.

Now, the answer to that question, what is the most effective way to teach your child to fall asleep and stay asleep? Is it Extinction aka “Cry it Out” (leaving your child in the room alone to cry for several days at bedtime and during night time wakings)?  Is it Graduated Extinction aka “Ferberizing” (leaving your child’s room and checking on your child at timed intervals that gradually increase over time)? Or, is it Fading (staying by your child’s side and then gradually moving away from him over a period of days)? Well the answer is, it has more to do with you and your child as individuals than the method itself.   The most effective method is the one you as the parent are comfortable following through with, and the one that fits your child’s individual temperament.  Let’s look closely at these two factors.

Parent’s Consistency:  Consistency is a crucial part of parenting.  It teaches children what to expect from the world, and how to respond.   It is a key component to sleep success.  If you are inconsistent in your response to changing your child’s sleep habits, your child will not understand that her behavior should change.  For example, if you want to stop visits to your bed in he middle of the night, and you walk your child back to her room five times, but on the sixth time you let her sleep with you, she gets the message she just has to keep trying and she will end up in your bed.  You will have to pick a style of sleep coaching on which you can follow through given your comfort level, and your willingness to go the final stretch, however long that takes.  

Research shows that all of the methods are effective.  The “Cry it Out” (CIO) method  tends to take a shorter amount of time than the others.   However, if you feel every crying minute feels like torture, and you cannot handle being away from your child’s side, you are likely to be inconsistent and run into your child’s room to help her fall asleep.  This method would then be ineffective for you.  On the other end of the spectrum, some parents can handle their child’s crying or fussing if they are by their child’s side.  However, some parents feel worse being in the room with their child “watching” the process.  This method would then be ineffective for them and promote an inconsistent response.  

Child’s Temperament:  Now let’s say you decided which method you can apply consistently.  You still need to consider your child’s temperament before you set off on sleep coaching.   Maybe CIO would work for you, but your child may not tolerate it well.  Some parents have come to me after they tried CIO and it did not work. 

If your child does better with you outside of his room and your presence is more stimulating, then CIO or Ferberizing may be a better fit for your child.   If your child finds your presence more calming and reassuring, then Fading might be the best fit.   Sometimes a combination of different aspects of these methods can also be helpful. 

If your child is very sensitive and clingy in general, sometimes that personality does not match well with being left alone in a room to "cry it out".   Or, if your child is very stimulated by your presence and easily gets you to engage, perhaps leaving the room would be a better fit for him.

In conclusion, when deciding how you want to proceed, think about what you feel you can handle and with the most consistency.  Talk to your partner about his comfort level and see what you can agree on.  Whatever method you choose, everyone needs to be on the same page for it to be effective. The bottom line is children have been able to successfully learn to sleep through the night with different methods.  Finding the right fit for your parenting style and your child’s temperament can mean the difference between sleep success or failure.

If you have further questions on different ways to sleep coach your child or are interested in more individualized help please contact me.