No-cry sleep training

Is Elizabeth Pantley’s method an effective way to get small children to sleep at night? Many parents think so.

Lisa Bendall 1

By the time Lee Kendel gave birth to her first baby, she’d enjoyed more than three decades of blissful, uninterrupted sleep. So being roused by a wailing infant in the wee hours was — well, a wake-up call.

“It was a really big shock to my system,” remembers the Sechelt, BC, mom of two. “When Sophia was born, I really wasn’t prepared for what it meant to care for a newborn.”

While experts assure us there’s nothing abnormal about a baby who catnaps or wants to nurse all night, the bottom line is that this behaviour clashes big-time with mom’s need to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at her breakfast meeting…or, on a more basic level, her need not to go off her bean.

Not every parent, though, is prepared to let baby cry it out. Even though Kendel was frustrated when she couldn’t get Sophia to sleep, and when her second child, Griffin, started waking more often at night, she refused to let them cry. “I just won’t do it,” she says. “Griffin’s cry means he needs me. I get up and do what I need to do to satisfy him.”

So does that mean the only solution left to Kendel is to wait until her kids grow into sleep patterns she can stand? A popular sleep-training method — and one that Kendel says has saved her sanity — promises parents a gentle solution with no tears (from you or the baby!).

The book is The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night, by author and parent educator Elizabeth Pantley. She wrote it after the birth of her fourth child, who routinely woke to nurse no fewer than eight times a night. “You get to a point where if you don’t have sleep, nothing else matters,” Pantley says. She searched the bookstore in vain for something that would help her teach her infant to sleep well without wailing.

So what’s wrong with a few boo-hoos? Biologically, it doesn’t sit well with many moms. “We’re wired not to accept it when our baby cries,” says Pantley, who lives with her family in Kirkland, Wash. “Your heart races. You want to rush to your child and comfort him and make him stop. Telling parents to ignore that instinct goes against everything.” Neither, says Pantley, is the crying jag a great experience for baby, who is learning whether he can count on a response to his needs.

Pantley plotted a set of techniques to change a baby’s sleep habits without a sobfest. “I don’t think a single parent would choose to let their baby cry if there was a way to get them to sleep without crying,” Pantley declares.

The author developed her techniques with the help of hundreds of test families, all of whom would try her methods on their wakeful wee ones, maybe modify them, and then report back. The result is a book of step-by-step instructions to suit different family styles, along with charts for tracking progress. Also included is background info on how babies navigate the land of Nod.

So what are bleary-eyed moms and dads likely to learn as they flip through the pages of Pantley’s book? The author itemizes many of the common stumbling blocks to baby slumber, such as overtiredness, too much stimulation or sloppy nap habits. She explains the effects of each and offers solutions. She’s even coined catchy terms for some of her ideas, such as “Pantley’s gentle removal plan” for babies who blissfully fall asleep on the breast, only to wake the second you put them down. She suggests you give your baby a “lovey,” like a toy or blanket, to cuddle when you’re gone.

Pantley also advocates routine. Implementing a predictable series of calm, pre-bedtime activities like bath, books and lullabies, she says, will do wonders to help a child prepare to fall asleep. “The routine creates very strong cues that say it’s time to sleep. It eliminates resistance. They know what comes next, and they’ll just follow along naturally,” she notes.
This particular adjustment made a big difference for Juliette Klein of Metcalfe, Ont., mom to Laurel, now two. “When we didn’t have that routine, nursing Laurel to sleep could take up to an hour. But now it’s pretty quick: pyjamas, brush teeth, say good night to Daddy and the pets, and then a couple of books. Usually by the time we’re reading the second book, she’s telling me that she wants to nurse.”

Klein is also pleased that the book supports co-sleeping — not all sleep guides do. But Pantley makes a point of recognizing a variety of family and parenting styles. “There are lots of very good ways to raise a child. And all families are different,” she points out. That’s why, parents should sift through all her tips to come up with a customized plan.

Parents take note: Sometimes it’s the adults, not the baby, who need to rethink sleep expectations, says Pantley. For example, it’s simply a fantasy to expect a newborn to sleep 10 hours straight, full stop.

Plus, these methods take commitment and perseverance — two words which, when you’re expectations getting by on four hours of shut-eye, are hard to hear. “You have to say, OK, I’m going to give up some sleep for the next week or two,” says Pantley, “and make some permanent changes that will still be in place a year from now.”

Will it work for everybody? Shauna Dardis of Calgary is still struggling with her son’s frequent night waking after following the steps in Pantley’s book. Dardis has also read five or six other sleep books and finds it all rather overwhelming. “Every single book has different techniques and ideas, and you don’t know which is the right one,” she says.

 Pantley, who receives over 200 letters a month about wakeful children, does hear from parents who haven’t reached success with her methods. Sometimes, she says, a little tweaking will do the trick. “Maybe the TV’s on and the house is bright, and we should be dimming the lights and turning off the TV before bedtime. Eventually, we do get there.”

Sleep plan

Every night, Lee Kendel would spend an hour or more in an endless cycle of nursing, patting and rocking six-month-old Sophia to sleep, only to have Sophia open her eyes again at the slightest creak of the floorboards under her mom’s feet. “It seemed to go on forever,” recalls Kendel. After reading The No-Cry Sleep Solution, she worked up a plan. Every baby is different, but here’s how Pantley’s method played out in the Kendel family:

• Introduce a bath every night to wind down baby (and mom too).
• Give a lotion massage to relax the baby and give her multi-sensory cues like touch and smell.
• Follow a set routine — jammies, brushing teeth (all two of them), bidding Dad good night, and nursing.
• Use verbal reminders. Kendel said, “We’re going to bed now; time for bed.”

Kendel saw results within days. Sophia stayed fast asleep when Mom snuck out, creaking floor and all. And when she awoke in the night for a feed, Sophia slipped back to slumberland without a fuss.

Where’s Sophia at now? At 2½, bedtime is no longer a struggle. “She rolls over and says, ‘Good night, Mama,’ and I leave. There’s never any getting up after I’ve left, or calling for drinks of water,” says Kendel. “She’s phenomenal that way.”

After Elizabeth Pantley heard from parents who were still struggling with sleep problems when their kids were no longer babies, she wrote The No-Cry Sleep Solution for Toddlers and Preschoolers. “I realized that sleep issues don’t magically disappear because a child reaches one or two years old,” she says.

This age brings new issues as well. There’s the yo-yo problem, when a crib graduate won’t stay put in his new big-kid bed. Kids this age, too, often have an increased energy level — and a strong suspicion that the family is downstairs partying without them. And then there are new anxieties, such as fear of separation or the dark, that can make it difficult for your sprout to settle down.

As in her first book, Pantley describes common sleep obstacles and how to clear them. For this age, much of the focus is on proper nutrition, a healthy lifestyle, structured naps and a comfortable sleep environment. And what about that bedtime wind-down routine that’s so important for babies? Just as critical for toddlers and preschoolers. “Children thrive on routine,” says Pantley. “They look for consistency to their days. It gives them security.”

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