I never liked the phrase sleep training — although I know it’s how parents commonly refer to the process of teaching children to sleep better. I felt like sleep training implies a rigid program that adults force on children. I’ve spent the last 20 years of my career looking for — and then sharing — a more gradual way to teach children to sleep well. I call it Gentle Sleep Coaching.
Why I Call it “Coaching” vs “Training”
Back in the day when I first became a mom, sleep training meant cry-it-out or controlled crying (the method made popular by Dr Ferber here in the US). Cry-it-out meant you left your baby to cry for as long as it took until they slept, or gave up that anyone was coming. Ferber or controlled crying meant you put your baby in the crib awake and left but got to check on your baby in longer and longer timed increments. All with no pick-ups.
The strategies were strict and fairly rigid programs that didn’t include a lot of room for considering a baby or parent’s individual needs and temperament. As a mom and a family therapist who understood the importance of a child who is securely attached, neither felt quite right. I thought then and still think now that if I am teaching my child a new skill, whether it’s tying their shoe or putting themselves to sleep, I want to:
- Be present with my child
- Model the new skill she is learning
- Encourage and help my child when she is overwhelmed
Gentle Sleep Coaching
Instead of leaving her alone or asking her to “just figure it out”, I recommend parents offer love, support, comfort and reassurance, and be a secure base for their babies while they are sleep coaching. We want to aim for balance between letting our children learn to deal with emotions such as frustration, excitement, and anger on their own and, with behaviors such as learning to go to sleep, while offering support and reassurance. We can’t always do it for them any more than a coach can get out on the field and play for her team. A coach teaches, directs, and supports the players, but she doesn’t play the game, make the goal, or swim faster for them. And like the coach, we can empathize, reassure, guide and support our babies when they are learning to put themselves to sleep. But eventually we have to let them do the final steps themselves.
When I step back and look at what I have taught parents for over 20 years now, it is closer to coaching strategies for their babies and children than it is to a training program. Calling what I and my coaches teach The Shuffle or Gentle Sleep Coaching is closer to the heart of what it is.
Why is This Method Considered Gentle?
I understand that no two children are alike. Neither are any two parenting styles or techniques. I found many parents, like me, had difficulty following through with a cry it out program. It filled them with guilt and they feared it would damage their child emotionally. Who wants to listen to their baby cry for hours on end? What feels even worse is if you were able to let your baby cry it out but it still didn’t work!
I encourage parents to be loving and responsive, but to allow the child the room to learn this vital life skill of putting themselves to sleep. Gentle sleep coaching means, to me, supporting a child while they learn these new skills. Yes, they may be frustrated as they learn and they may express this frustration in tears, but staying near them when they are struggling makes it a gentler process. Sometimes it’s even necessary to pick them up and I think that that’s OK! Babies haven’t mastered the skill of self-regulation — heck lots of adults haven’t — and sometimes need us to pick them up to help them calm down and reset.
Teaching them to be an independent sleeper by gradually giving them more and more space as you do less and less for them at bedtime and in the night is a gentler process than just walking away from their bed and letting them cry alone.
It’s important to point out that while I believe my method is gentle, it is not tears-free. In fact, I don’t believe it’s possible to shape your child’s sleep without some tears! There really is no such thing as a tear-free sleep solution If we teach our child that the way to go to sleep is that Mom or Dad rocks you to sleep and then we decide we can’t do it anymore — maybe your back hurts, your child is too big or it’s no longer working — and we decide to stop it all and put them down in their bed awake, they will cry. They don’t understand why you are changing things and they don’t know how to put themselves to sleep without your help.
I didn’t like listening to my daughters cry and I don’t want the families I work with to suffer through excessive tears. However, crying is one way that our babies and children communicate their emotions to us. There are so many skills they are learning in their early years — including how to form words and talk and to describe what they are feeling.
Your Response to Crying Makes the Difference
While their abilities to communicate and calm themselves are immature they often end up in tears. It’s even more common in children who are very tired from a lack of adequate sleep! What does your child do when you say no ice cream before dinner? Or when you pick them up from playing to change their diaper? For some children the bath brings them to tears or cutting their fingernails makes them wail. There are lots of reasons children cry. What’s important is how we respond to their crying. We can choose to stay by their side offering them physical and verbal reassurance — offering a little bit less each night as they begin to master the skill of putting themselves to sleep independently. We can offer gentle sleep coaching.