If you have children, going through a period of “baby sleep training” probably sounds familiar. There is a wide range of popular methods for sleep training your infant, from the cry-it-out method on one end of the spectrum to attachment parenting on the other end, and many methods that fall in between. While there are significant differences between them, there are also commonalities that I think are important. Having three young children, with whom we have gone through sleep training, and at the same time teaching adults about sleep training as an insomnia specialist, I have come to appreciate the ways sleep training in adults and in babies are parallel. And many of my clients who are parents themselves also have made connections to their experiences sleep training their babies.
1. A consistent sleep schedule
This is a pretty obvious similarity. With baby sleep training, an important goal is to help your infant develop a sleep pattern that is consistent and synchronized with the day/night cycle. It is common for a newborn to have its days and nights reversed, and over the first 4 months, the internal clock shifts multiple times. Not all baby training methods are in complete agreement, but most advise keeping a consistent sleep schedule to help the infant develop a predictable sleep pattern.
With adult sleep training, keeping a consistent sleep schedule is important to help reinforce and strengthen the circadian rhythm. Not only that, in order to increase the sleep drive and consolidate your sleep, behavioral sleep interventions recommend initially setting a later bedtime (if it usually takes you a long time to fall asleep). While it is understandable to want to stay out late on the weekends and sleep in, this behavior reinforces an irregular sleep pattern, which further perpetuates poor or disrupted sleep.1 During the period of sleep training, it is important to keep a consistent sleep schedule.
2. A consistent bedtime routine
Bath time, story time, lullabies and other bedtime rituals help to establish a consistent, predictable routine for your little ones and help them fall asleep. A consistent bedtime routine teaches the body to start to wind down and relax in preparation for sleep. Notice how bedtime routines don’t (at least shouldn’t) include stimulating activities such as jumping/running around, watching TV, or eating candy.
Adults, too, need a consistent bedtime routine to help cue their bodies for sleep. I usually call it a wind-down period, a time in which you are intentional about allowing yourself to become physically and mentally relaxed. Or I also refer to it as a buffer period, where you are creating space between the busyness, activity, and tension of the day and the physically/mentally relaxed state you want to be in when you get into bed. If you’re like most people in today’s society and have a very busy and fast-paced life, hitting the pillow at night may likely be the first time in the day where you are alone with your thoughts and not engaged in some activity. So it makes sense that the inner processes you’ve been too busy to attend to – the reflective thoughts, the anxieties, the future planning, the worrying – would come up when you get into bed. Creating some space to attend to these things before getting into bed can be a very helpful part of the wind-down time. Choose activities that promote relaxation and sleepiness, not stimulation and wakefulness (I’m looking at you, working out and watching TV).
3. Attention to sleep cues
This is related to the bedtime routine but warrants its own point. During the baby sleep training period, it is recommended to try to establish sleep cues to help the baby prepare for sleep. In addition to the bedtime routine, things like a dark room, a soothing sound machine, a sleep lullaby, or a special blanket, can help trigger sleepiness and ease the transition to sleep. It is an amazing feeling to see your baby yawn immediately after you turn on the sound machine and turn down the lights.
For adults who are sleep training, it is critical to pay attention to the cues you are subconsciously exposing yourself to related to bed and sleep. The sleep environment is obviously important – creating a comfortable setting, free from excessive light or noise or temperature discomfort. In addition, through a phenomenon called behavioral conditioning, many people with poor sleep have actually conditioned themselves to not be sleepy in bed or to have poor sleep in bed, by way of repeated reinforcement. During sleep training, you need to recondition the bed to be a place that triggers sleepiness and sleep. This happens by 1) eliminating unhelpful sleep cues from your bed such as watching TV, reading, using smartphone, alarm clock watching (if that causes anxiety) and 2) only getting into bed and staying in bed if you’re actually feeling sleepy, so as to reinforce sleepiness in bed.
4. Learning to self-soothe
Babies aren’t born already knowing how to fall asleep on their own. Once the exhaustion from the labor and delivery wears off and you bring home your brand new baby that suddenly doesn’t want to sleep 23 hours a day, this usually comes as a surprise to new parents. It certainly did for us. Babies have to be taught how to self-soothe, and initially the only thing that’s soothing (apart from nursing) is being held – because, of course, that’s how they’ve been sleeping all of their prenatal lives: warm, enclosed, in motion, and close to the heartbeat. Gradually, you have to teach them the skills to self-soothe, so they can fall asleep and get back to sleep on their own instead of always in your arms. Some learn to suck their finger or a pacifier, some get attached to a comfort item such as a blanket or stuffed toy, and some learn how to babble or sing themselves back to sleep.
When an adult has fallen into a pattern of poor sleep, he/she also has to relearn how to fall asleep. Since sucking a finger or pacifier is decidedly a developmentally inappropriate way to fall asleep, the key is to identify and practice ways to get to a state of physical and mental relaxation, which then facilitates the onset of sleep. The ‘relaxation response’ is a state that you can learn to tap into, a state that lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormone levels. Practicing deep breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, or yoga can help you get into this state, and it can fit perfectly into your wind-down period.
Another related point is ‘unlearning’ the anxiety and stress that may have built up around falling asleep. Falling asleep is not an activity that you can “try harder” or “will” yourself to do – in fact, trying harder to fall asleep is shown to result in increased difficulty falling asleep, not increased success. In addition to tapping into the relaxation response, using cognitive techniques to address the unhelpful thoughts/attitudes, stress, and anxiety that has built up can be very effective in to retrain your sleep.