Whenever I work with a client and ask what their sleep goals are, “sleeping through the night” is almost always on the list – sometimes it’s the only goal! Parents will often tell me that they don’t mind, and often enjoy, helping their child fall asleep at bedtime, whether that’s by rocking or feeding to sleep or just sitting beside the cot holding their child’s hand. I absolutely understand this because there was a long time when I loved the peaceful twenty minutes of sitting with my little boy whilst he settled to sleep – a lovely, calm moment between the two of us in an otherwise busy life.
But here’s the rub: no matter how settled and happy your little one is when they fall asleep, they will wake in the night. And not just once – more like three or four or even five times. Not because there is anything abnormal about them – quite the opposite in fact; night-waking is a very normal and healthy biological function.
As adults we are so practiced at putting ourselves back to sleep that we navigate these inevitable wake-ups without rousing fully and often have no memory of waking at all. Those children whose parents would describe as “sleeping through” or “sleeping for a solid 12 hours” have woken, but they have resettled quickly, easily and independently each time. And therein lies the key to a child “sleeping through” – they need to be equipped with the skills, security and confidence to return themselves to sleep when the inescapable wakings occur.
Sometimes I am asked what is wrong with rocking a child to sleep. Actually, there is nothing wrong with it – as long as a parent is happy to do that every time their child wakes in the night. Once the newborn-sleep stage is over (usually around 3-4 months for most babies), with the majority of little ones that’s the choice, put them to sleep – at bedtime and when they wake in the night – or support them to learn how to initiate sleep for themselves.
How to best equip your little one with the skills they need varies from child-to-child – there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Good sleep plans are bespoke, enabling each wonderfully unique child to learn the skills of great sleep in the most suitable and gentle way possible. There is one hard and fast rule – never, ever, should a child be left to cry-it-out, alone and unsupported. The key to lasting sleep success is a child’s confidence to resettle in the night, safe in the knowledge that their care-giver hasn’t abandoned them. Hence any method a parent chooses should ensure the child is always responded to.