"Sleeping, like eating, is not a state you can force a baby into," write the renowned healthcare couple Dr. William and nurse Martha Sears. Most pediatricians agree that many sleep problems in both older children and adults stem from growing up with unhealthy sleep attitudes and habits. If you can teach your baby a restful attitude toward sleep in his infancy, your child will sleep much better when he is a toddler—and ultimately throughout the course of his life.
So, how do you unlock the mystery of good childhood sleep habits and teach your youngster how to fall asleep and stay asleep? There are several schools of thought. Here is a summary of three methodologies offered by today's major pediatric sleep experts.
The Sears couple has practiced pediatrics for more than 30 years—in addition to raising eight of their own children. Many parents are attracted to the "attachment parenting" style the Searses offer. This affectionate, intuitive style focuses on learning how to read your baby's cues—an important aspect in deciphering any young child's sleep problems.
"The approach we have learned, by trial and error, that usually works for most families," writes Dr. Sears, "is the attachment style of nighttime parenting." This style of parenting uses two elements: organizing and mellowing your baby's temperament during the day, through feeding on cue and baby wearing; and sleeping close to your baby at night.
The preliminary sleep lesson taught in the Sears' The Baby Book, is "Babies need to be parented to sleep, not just put to sleep." Infants enter sleep through a very light initial stage that lasts up to 20 minutes. If parents try to rush a child to sleep during this early stage, he will usually wake up. The Searses encourage parents to closely watch their infants and observe their sleep stages (when an infant's limbs are limp when lifted, he has entered deep sleep).
To condition your baby to sleep, the Searses recommend first incorporating a relaxing practice into the bedtime ritual—such as infant massage or a warm bath. After your baby shows signs of getting sleepy, the Searses then suggest nursing, snuggling in a parent's arms, rocking, or climbing into bed with your baby to help parent him to sleep.
Advocates of co-sleeping—whether it be in a family bed, a co-sleeper, or even a bassinet placed very close to the parental bed—the Searses say that this practice can be one of the most powerful ways to help your child learn healthy sleep habits. The smell of the mother, the feeling of parents close by, and the ease with which a nursing mother can tend to an infant are all reasons given by the Searses for why so many parents find success with this method.
"It is not your job to make your child nighttime independent," the Searses say, "but rather to create a secure nighttime environment and feelings of rightness to allow your child's independence to develop naturally ... When the time comes, your baby will wean from your bed just like all the other weanings."