Teaching your child to send himself to sleep is the basis of all successful sleep-training strategies. You have a choice of methods but if you want to enjoy unbroken nights you do not have a choice about the lesson!
Babies sleep in short cycles, and it is quite natural for them to wake briefly as they move from one cycle to the next. As he stirs, your baby will check that things are as they were when he went to sleep. If you always rock or feed him to sleep, he will be distressed when he realizes you are no longer there. Quite understandably, he is going to cry out for you. You will then have to comfort him back to sleep again. And so a vicious circle begins.
If, on the other hand, your baby learns to settle himself, when he rouses during the night he will discover each time that everything is as he last saw it. This will make it much easier for him to settle himself again and drift naturally into the next phase of his sleep cycle.
The cardinal rules
Before you decide which sleep-training method is for you, here are some basic rules to follow for teaching your child to settle himself:
1. Always put your baby to bed awake. If he tends to drift off during his feed, try ending the feed slightly earlier (he will have already had his fill), or tickle his toes as you put him down.
2. Always put your baby to bed with the same special bedtime phrase. Repeat this phrase whenever you have to put him back to bed, so that it acts as a reassuring sleep 'trigger' for him.
3. Always settle your child in the same way, whether you are putting him to bed for the night, putting him down for a nap in the day, or resettling him after a disruption at night (although you may want to reword your bedtime phrase slightly for a daytime sleep).
4. If you go in to resettle him, try to do so without picking him up.
5. Do not alter his room once he has gone to sleep: do not start switching lights on or off or rearranging furniture, as this will make it difficult for him to resettle when he stirs between sleep phases.
When can I start?
It is never too early to teach your baby to settle himself. After all, if he never has any association of being comforted to sleep, he is never going to miss it. However, if your child is under the weather, you should delay starting any new program until he is fully recovered, otherwise it may be difficult to be sure if any distress is simply due to him adjusting to the new routine or because he is in discomfort.