Future proofing your approach to sleep

A common question I am asked is how to reduce a little one’s dependence on feeding to sleep for every nap, bedtime and overnight wake-up.

In truth this is a really difficult question to answer, hence why I’m blogging on the topic rather than doing a quick social media post or story.  I can’t stress enough how important it is to adopt a strategy that suits your child’s own circumstances, age and developmental stage.  There are good reasons for night waking and round the clock feeding, particularly in the early days.  In addition, if you are breastfeeding, regular feeding will help protect your milk supply, and because breast milk is generally magic, it will contain sleep inducing hormones at night which may mean that a feed is the quickest and easiest way to settle your baby and achieve more sleep for the whole family.

So, if you are still reading, I am going to assume either that you and your baby are truly ready to move away from feeding to sleep, or that you would like to “future-proof” your approach to sleep, so that when the time is right to stop feeding to sleep, you are in a good position to get going.

For the purposes of this post, I am going to refer to feeding to sleep as being the sleep trigger we want to tackle.  However, one of the good things about this method is that it will work for any strong sleep trigger you would like to address.  It is not a quick method; the focus here is on a gentle approach that you can take at your own pace, and at the right time.

The overall aim of the method is to attach new sleep cues to your child’s primary sleep trigger.  Once the new sleep triggers are established, you gently wean off the primary trigger (in this case, the feeding), and then over time you can also reduce the new sleep triggers as your child becomes content to fall asleep independently.  This method is used by a variety of gentle sleep experts and is most commonly attributed to Sarah Ockwell-Smith.

The method works like this:

  1. carry on feeding to sleep as usual.  At the same time as you feed to sleep, introduce a number of other sleep cues into the mix.  The particular cues you use can be up to you, but common choices include shushing, patting, introducing a scent, and introducing a comforter…. experiment with anything your child finds soothing. Spend as long as possible (3-4 weeks minimum) feeding to sleep as you do normally, whilst at the same time also using your new sleep cues as consistently as you can.  In time this will help your baby form new associations in their brain, so that as well as feeding being a sleep trigger, your new cues will also become strongly associated with sleep;
  2. when you feel your baby is ready, try stopping the feed just before your baby falls asleep.  Keep everything else the same – shushing, patting, comforter, being held in arms etc.  Don’t skip a beat when you finish the feed, try making this as seamless as possible.  Continue using the new sleep cues until your baby is asleep and then put them down as you normally would;
  3. the next step, once your baby is comfortable with step 2 above, is to stop the feed earlier still… we are working towards the feed becoming more of a token gesture rather than the primary way your child falls asleep.  Continue using your new sleep cues until your baby is asleep and again, place them down in the normal way.
  4. the next step is to place your child into their crib/cot drowsy, but not quite asleep.  Continue with the remaining sleep cues until they fall asleep;
  5. gradually put your child down into their cot more awake following the short feed.  Continue with the remaining sleep cues until they fall asleep;
  6. once your baby is entirely happy with this, they will be falling asleep in their cot.  They won’t have been fed to sleep but they will still be reliant on the other sleep cues you have introduced.  It’s time to start weaning off these.  Choose one of the new cues to remove first (i.e. shushing).  Carry on patting etc until your child is asleep;
  7. carry on weaning off your new cues one at a time.  The idea is that at the end they will be left with just their comfort object and will be able to be placed into their cot with this, and fall asleep happily and independently.

Did you notice that I haven’t included a timescale for this strategy?  This is intentional, because one of the major reasons this approach appeals to gentle parents is that you can take it entirely at your own child’s pace.  This may not be the strategy for you if you are in a sleep crisis and need quick results as the strategy can take several weeks to implement.

One of the reasons I like this strategy is that it is proactive rather than reactive.  You can start introducing multiple sleep cues whenever you like, but you don’t need to start weaning off the primary sleep trigger until you and your baby are ready.

What do you think of this strategy?  Feel free to leave a comment, and if you are going to try it, what sleep cues will you introduce?

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