The secret to training kids to sleep

Two psychologists say it’s not the technique you use; what’s critical is when you use it

The secret to training kids to sleepIf you’ve ever tried sleep training or “Ferberizing” a wailing baby to disastrous effect, two Canadian scientists may have the magic solution. Husband-and-wife team Marc Lewis and Isabela Granic are developmental child psychologists with twin three-year-olds. In their new book Bed Timing, the couple writes, “There are certain ages at which babies and toddlers are ready to learn to fall asleep easily and stay asleep through most if not all of the night. Knowing when to sleep train is more important than knowing how.”

There are, they say, five windows of opportunity between birth and age four during which sleep training is both doable and easy. “Part of our incentive for starting this book was that a lot of people started Ferberizing at these crazy ages of eight and nine months, and at 18 months, and they said, ‘This strategy doesn’t work. It sucks. It’s terrible,’ ” said Granic in a phone interview from the couple’s Toronto home. “And really, if they’d waited two or three more months, it could’ve worked beautifully for them. We tried to make the book complete,” she adds. “There is a chapter that summarizes the top five sleep training techniques,” including the now famous Dr. Richard Ferber’s method, Jodi Mindell’s Sleeping Through the Night and Marc Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.

Parents should select a training method they’re comfortable with. A chart at the back of Bed Timing outlines the optimal windows between birth and age four for applying the technique. For instance, Lewis and Granic say that a newborn younger than 2½ months is too unstable to properly sleep train. “Quite literally, they’re overwhelmed by their emotions,” said Granic. “You’ll see a newborn start to cry and they have no capacity to pull themselves down. They can’t do it.” In the book, the couple suggests instead, “rocking, bouncing, cuddling, and gliding” at this stage. “Anything you do, you can undo with proper sleep training at a later stage of development.” It’s “remarkable,” said Granic, “how nice it is for some parents to hear it’s okay it didn’t work when they first tried it. Most parents are distressed by the fact this feels like it’s going to last forever. A big message from us is just wait for the next stage.”

The first good opportunity for sleep training is between 2½ and four months, they feel. “This is a period of relative stability and resilience,” the authors write. “There is no good reason not to try sleep training at this age if your intuition says ‘go.’ ” When babies are four to 5½ months is not a good time because “at four months, there’s a lot more smiling, giggling, and tickling games are starting to work,” said Lewis. “As your baby learns new interpersonal skills—skills that call for expected responses from you and lead to a stronger bond between you—it’s better not to disturb them until they’ve really begun to solidify.”

Personally, Granic and Lewis chose to Ferberize their sons at six months. The couple believe that at 5½ to 7½ months, “babies are engaged with the world of objects around them [more than they are with people] and show almost no sign of separation distress.” It’s an ideal time to sleep train, they say. “To really get a full night’s sleep,” they tell parents, “you’ll need to eliminate night feeding. Try gradually reorganizing your baby’s feeding schedule so that he consumes most of his nourishment during the day.”

The next bad period is eight to 11 months, when “separation now means something to your baby—that you’re not responding to his attempts to bring you back—which can be upsetting and traumatic for your baby, and destructive to your attempts.” Do not sleep train at this age. Instead, “be responsive to your baby’s need,” they write. “This stage will pass!”

The couple notes that some parents feel guilty about any kind of sleep training. “Training is something you do with a pet, after all.” Mothers in particular “are often given the message that their first and only priority should be their child’s happiness”—not their own need for sleep. “We want to dispel this dangerous myth,” they write. “Your sleep is as important as your baby’s.” Says Lewis, “It’s heartbreaking what some people will put up with because they’re really a mess for the first two years of the kid’s life. Our premise is, if you do sleep training well at the right age, it’s going to sink in, and then you don’t have to worry about it for a long time, maybe never. Once kids get in the habit of falling asleep when you want them to, they can stay in that habit for a good long time.”

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