Gentle Sleep Training – Is There Such a Thing?

I recently received a DM asking if I could share what parenting at night looks like for me and if it’s possible to maintain a gentle parenting approach at night and actually get some shut eye? It was an interesting question – for all parents – because whilst we might be a go-with-the-flow and “gentle” parent by day, did we navigate nights – an entirely separate, far less discussed and documented time of day – differently? My answer is, actually yes – at least now that he’s 20 months old anyway.

I’ve documented before the up-eight-times-a-night phase we went through. Except it wasn’t really a phase because isn’t that just what all babies do? Nope, he’s not “a good sleeper” because he’s like 10/20/30/40 weeks fresh into this big wide world and he wants to be close to me or drinking milk from me – breast and bottle – most hours around the clock.

And I’m OK with that.

Still, I’d have to stop myself letting the shame creep in and remind myself I wasn’t doing anything wrong when other peoples’ babies seemed to be “sleeping through” or remain quiet when the mum I met at the park had done “cry it out” and now her baby slept from 7 – 7. There aren’t many comments that trigger me about motherhood – except maybe this gender-based one, that I actually misunderstood – but it’s fair to say that the one asking if they’re a “good sleeper” always made me lean in a bit further.

I’d have to stop myself letting the shame creep in when other peoples’ babies seemed to be “sleeping through” or remain quiet when the mum I met at the park had done “cry it out” and now her baby slept from 7 – 7

Still, was I exhausted beyond anything? Hell yeh!

But then there comes a time. And in my mind, after 12 months is that time. After 12 months is the length of time that I reevaluate dedicating 24 hours of my day to my children. After 12 months is the time where with our first two I returned to the office. After 12 months is the time where I lose patience with sleep regressions because honestly, Google or better still, Ecosia [INSERT NUMBER, ANY NUMBER] + sleep regression, and you’ll find it. After 12 months is the time where the sleep deprivation kicks my butt and I say to myself, hang on, let’s think about things a bit differently.

Honestly, Google or better still, Ecosia [INSERT NUMBER, ANY NUMBER] + sleep regression, and you’ll find it

And this is the point where I have started to gravitate towards a bit of gentle sleep training that I felt aligned with my approach. Here’s what I do, and what I do if he ever wakes in the night now, and what gradually took us from wakefulness – you know the kind where you settle them, and they’re back up 20 minutes later, often standing at the bars of the cot – to proper, deep, uninterrupted sleep.

It’s really simple:

When Abe stirs, I wait a few moments, and I go in to his room. He’s usually standing at the bars, seemingly wide awake and crying.

I pick him up, but I don’t bring him to my body.

I gently lie him back down in his cot and I cover him with his blanket (If he isn’t standing up, I still ‘tuck him back in’). I might place a hand on his stomach to try to send some calming energy his way.

The important part? I don’t say a word. At the most, I might make a “sshh” noise.

I walk out the room.

He’s probably still crying at this point and I hear his little tired body clamber back to standing.

I sit outside on the stairs. I wait max 120 seconds – which feels like a lifetime – and I go in again.

I repeat the process above, maybe 5 – 10 times.

I never ignore his cries, I always acknowledge his wakeful state by going into the room. I am with him, but not with him.

I am trying to help him understand gently but firmly that it’s bedtime. That it’s not the time for interaction from mama. Eventually, he realises that he’s not coming out the cot and he’ll eventually fall silent. The truth is he’s also exhausted himself from all the standing up.

This isn’t a process that happens overnight, or even over a week. The bigger goal here is to start gently communicating with your little one and help them understand the difference between night and day and that mama cannot always be there, at every moment. That she too, needs some time.

Where are you on the sleep spectrum? Are you sleep training or refraining? Are you up every 2 hours and starting to question your choices? Let me know in the comments below where you’re at with it – sending all the love and sleepy vibes!

Emma xxx

P.S One Thing as a Mum of a Baby I Don’t Compromise On

12 Comments

  1. Katie
    July 4, 2021 / 11:34 am

    There’s a really strong link between more frequent night time wakings in the baby and maternal mental health problems. I don’t think this is discussed enough. Despite being really very very unwell with my mental health I felt like sleep training wasn’t an option because I so desperately wanted to be a gentle, respectful, ‘good’ parent. I had been heavily influenced by gentle parenting blogs and Facebook groups into thinking that sleep training would damage my baby. But what no one pointed out to me till later is that having a mum with anxiety and depression is strongly correlated with future mental health problems for the child. Many theorise that sleep training might be, but this despite many studies into the matter has never been proven.

    I felt like this culture of ‘sleep training is bad,’ ‘I could never do that to my baby’ etc contributed to my mental health problems going on for much longer and being much more severe than they needed to be. I feel so sad and angry looking back at the paucity of balanced objective information available to parents.

    Ultimately sleep training was a really key step in my recovery, definitely the right choice for me and my family.

    I’m really happy you’ve found a way that is working for you and you’re family. I hope you all feel better for getting more sleep xx

  2. April 25, 2021 / 12:29 am

    My baby (my fifth) is the only one I’ve ever nursed to sleep. He’s just turning 12 months soon and I am definitely ready to explore other sleep practices. I do think a year is about when they don’t need me to always nurse them to sleep. I am exhausted.

  3. Hannah
    April 4, 2021 / 5:08 pm

    My baby boy is 11 months this month. He’s number 4 and he has been my worst sleeper so far! My other 3 were girls and all started to sleep through (some nights but not all) by 12 months. They began teething and started to self ween at night. They all liked their dummies.
    I like the sound of this approach. I just can’t bare to let my baby cry it out. I let him cry if he’s just unsettled. Usually wait 5-10 mins. But then I feed him. It’s just quicker! He’s not in our bed though as I just can’t sleep well. I need to know he’s safe in his cot or I wake in a panic!
    From birth to about 5 months he was waking every 2 hours so we have improved.
    He’s going to bed at 7pm and waking at about 1 or 2 am. I usually feed then. And then he’ll either wake again around 5 or 6am. After 6 it’s impossible to get him back to sleep. I’m very keen to stop feeding soon. He wouldn’t take a bottle and he’s got a few teeth through now. But I’m not going to force anything. I’m hoping we can gradually stop and he will gradually sleep better.
    I’ll have to give this gentle approach a go down the line!
    X

  4. Elisa
    April 1, 2021 / 9:59 pm

    I’ve never done any kind of sleep training we bedshared from 1 month and from about 6 months I could roll away for 10-20 and he would stay asleep I never left him (as he was in our king size bed) just put washing away. From 9 months we got him a floor bed and I would fed him to sleep and then roll away slowly over time he slept longer and can now at 18 months sleep 3hrs on his floor bed and then comes back in to our bed. I love bedsharing but we will slowly more on from it but happy with where we are

  5. Robyn
    April 1, 2021 / 8:41 pm

    I still bed share and breastfeed my three year old during the night. It felt right and natural for me from the moment he was born. I never felt sleep deprived in the early days as I could easily pop him on the breast when he stirred and fall back asleep quickly myself. However as he’s got older and bigger and dominates more of the bed I have had weeks and sometimes months of feeling totally depleted and exhausted. Sometimes he will sleep through, other nights he will wake constantly. Through the haze I still try and remind myself to cherish each night as this time is fleeting and he will be grown soon and one day out of my bed for good! But it is isolating at times when others don’t understand your approach. I feel as long as each mama does what’s best for herself and her child then there’s no right or wrong answer ❤️

    • Hannah
      April 24, 2021 / 3:16 pm

      I’m in the same situation at 20 months. Sending love!

  6. Pippa
    April 1, 2021 / 6:11 pm

    I have a 3 year old who we never sleep trained. At this point he sleeps through or goes back to sleep easily if he wakes. However getting him down at the beginning of the night can take several hours and requires lots of cuddles. Before he started sleeping through and dropped his nap at age 2 we also went through this for nap times and several times a night.
    I was exhausted and unable to function at work yet still so afraid he would feel abandoned if i let him cry for even a second. I am now pregnant with our second and am sure I will take a completely different approach. I like your approach and may consider something similar so thanks for sharing 😊

  7. Lauren
    April 1, 2021 / 4:28 pm

    Interesting to read your approach, I breastfed and bed shared with my now 13 month old daughter from day 1 as that is what felt right. I was of the opinion (and still am) that by not meeting your babies needs (I.e letting them cry it out with no comfort from yourself) it will make your baby shut down in some way or form in life. It is so tragic that our busy western world makes it impossible for mum’s to cope with what is very normal baby sleep, so much so they have to resort to such unnatural methods of sleep training. Everyone I have spoken to says how wrong it feels, to let your babies cry, and it’s because we are forces to go against our intincts to keep up with pace of life and expectations.. no tribe to take care of us mamas and help. It’s so sad. Waking every 2-4 hours for milk is normal. However, I’ve been unable to cope any longer, my daughter wakes every hour and that is on a good night. I wanted to let her get there by herself but just couldn’t wait it out so I was so pleased to find Dr J Gordon’s approach. It’s a method to very gently encourage independent sleep all still while bed sharing by focusing on night weening for just a 7 hour window of the night. After 5 nights of following it she’s already sleeping 4 hour chunks and linking more of her cycles without the need for my help. I’m hoping this trend continues. Such a tricky topic, and neither way is easy. I’m glad your method is working for you and your getting the sleep you need❤️❤️

  8. Ellie
    April 1, 2021 / 2:57 pm

    I love your commentary and specifically the word ‘gentle’ sleep training and ‘to be with him, but not with him.’ Wording around these things can alter your emotional attachments to the process. It took us 2 years to re-think our sleeping habits with our 2 year old and 5 year old and at a loss of what to do we sought help from a sleep consultant. Essentially we adopted the chair method but sort of became cry it out but we were present. It didn’t sit too comfortably with me as it caused distress on both parts but we persevered and the biggest thing I learnt was that at 2, I could simply communicate the change with my daughter so she knew what to expect at bedtime and during the night when I no longer had the patience or energy to feed back to sleep. This was her crutch but she soon accepted that our presence was enough to settle back down and what a turning point to now largely sleep though. Huzzah! Likewise, I felt the shame of answering questions about sleep as if some how beyond 12 months all children should sleep through. Thanks for sharing your sleep story X

  9. Jackie
    April 1, 2021 / 11:42 am

    I hardcore sleep trained my first at 8 Months because she was up twice a night for her pacifier and it was just “too much”. She sleeps now, but for the first two years of her life it was always schedules and wake-windows and STRESS. Now, with my 9mo, I’ve thought about implementing something similar to your approach but I just haven’t felt the need. I sleep enough and in hindsight, my first was doing what babies do: growing and needing their mum.

    • Kim
      April 1, 2021 / 12:24 pm

      No judgement on people that use CIO or nothing at all. Everybody parents their own way. However, I was once told that CIO was akin to Child Abuse. That is just horrific. A parent CANNOT dedicate their entire night and personal sleep to another person for a long period of time. It’s unhealthy physically and mentally, so -some- resort to CIO methods. To be shamed as abusing your child because you’ve put your health first is disgusting.
      I think the method you have developed is wonderful, for you. For others it may not be.
      The beauty about parenting is that people will do it differently which leads to unique individuals, with their own developed character, contributing to a diverse society.

  10. Rebecca
    April 1, 2021 / 10:56 am

    We co-sleep and I breastfeed my daughter (15 months) to sleep and at night. Most nights it’s okay with stirring 2-3 times after I’ve gone to sleep and settling as soon as she latches on (and I can go back to sleep again). It works well for us – and I’ve been told breast milk at night contains melatonin the sleep hormone which helps them settle.
    Currently I don’t see myself sleep training, even gently, however it might change if it becomes more of a hassle. I’m on the “whatever works for you”-wagon and for me the stress of my crying baby is much worse than quickly feeding her to sleep again. However I guess there might be a time where the balance tips to the other side, who knows. Best to all of you ❤️💤😴

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