If your baby has always been parented to sleep, whatever his age right now, it is respectful and kind to make changes, gradually with love, not suddenly by implementing sleep training that involves tears (for both of you – you will miss these delicious snuggles too!).
If your baby can’t settle by himself yet, please don’t let him become distressed. Instead, you can try a “baby steps” approach to helping him “wean” off needing to be rocked or fed to sleep – or even to help him give up the dummy.
I explain this in more detail in my book ‘Sleeping Like a Baby’ but, briefly:
Work out a realistic goal, then “reverse engineer” that so you start changing one baby step at a time towards reaching your goal.
For instance, if you rock or breastfeed your baby to sleep but want to change this, start by introducing a more easily discarded cue as you rock or feed, such as gentle music and “sleepy words”. Simply swapping one cue for another will be stressful and your baby won’t know what to expect so the idea is to overlay the new cue (the music).
Play the music on a low volume without making any other changes to your bedtime routine for at least a week. Regardless of promises on CD labels, it will take your baby 7 to 10 days to condition him to any music, and you want a positive association with this new routine. Going too quickly can be stressful, so this defeats the purpose, especially when you have worked so hard to make sleep time a calm and positive experience.
After a week, keep playing the music, but remove your baby from the breast or stop rocking before he falls asleep, just holding him until he dozes off. If he is upset, pop him back on the breast or rock a little, until he settles, then try again.
Tip: as you remove your baby from the breast or take a dummy out, press your fingers under his chin and gently hold his mouth closed – he will suck on his tongue a moment and relax, instead of grasping for the breast again.
Once your baby is happily falling asleep in your arms without being fed/rocked to sleep, the next step is to breastfeed him then pop him in his cot drowsy but not fully asleep. Keep your hand on him firmly (patting is usually too stimulating) and gently rock him a little if this seems to help.
When baby is settling at this step, you can start moving the bedtime breastfeed back a little and pop him into the cot with his music playing. If he gets upset, always move back a step until he is ready to move forward. With an older baby, once you get to this final stage, you may like to get your partner to start helping at bedtime. He or she won’t smell like milk so cuddles and music will often work very easily.
Whenever you want to make changes, whatever these are, remember the mantra “gradually with love”, and plan backwards from your goal, then work out baby steps and implement these, one at a time. There is no need for distress and if your baby’s “habit” isn’t a problem for you, it’s not a problem at all, whatever your critics might say. If you cop any flack, unless the person giving it is bringing casseroles and offering to do “over nights”, you don’t owe them an explanation or an excuse about why you choose to give your baby extra cuddles.
Pinky McKay is Australia’s most recognised and respected breastfeeding and gentle parenting advocate. She’s an IBCLC lactation consultant and best-selling author of ‘Sleeping Like a Baby – simple sleep solutions for infants and toddlers’
Check out Pinky’s book ‘Sleeping Like a Baby’ (Penguin Random House) and download the first chapter here for FREE.