MEET THE EXPERT: Annie Simpson is a sleep consultant for babies and toddlers. Find out more at infantsleepconsultant.co.uk
‘Gradual retreat’ is one of the easiest and most effective ways to help your baby learn to settle herself.
This method gradually and calmly reduces your involvement in your baby’s sleep process, so she stops relying on you, and learns the skills she needs to fall asleep by herself. By slowly reducing the contact and increasing the distance between you and your baby, it teaches her that if she wakes up you are still there for her, but, ultimately, she learns to settle herself.
It takes only three nights to make a habit, so if you follow our 10-day plan there’s every chance it will mean you help your little one find her own way to sleep well going forwards.
According to NHS guidelines, you can start using the gradual retreat method once your baby is six months old
According to NHS guidelines, you can start using the gradual retreat method once your baby is six months old. The technique is suitable for both babies and toddlers who are having trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep.
Before you start the gradual retreat method, there are certain things you need to eliminate. Medical problems, such as reflux, need to be under control if it’s going to be successful. As with potty training, it’s best to leave sleep training until your diary’s fairly clear.
Use this advice as a guide. Every child is an individual and not all will progress at the same pace. Consistency is key, so commit to the plan and keep the finish line in sight. If your resolve wavers at 2am, or you have a particularly difficult night and don’t stick to the plan, draw a line under it and start again the following day.
How you start using the method depends on how you put your baby down to sleep at the moment. However you put your baby to bed, start by reducing your involvement by one small step, for example, if your usual method is to hold your baby and gently rock her to sleep, then the first step will be to hold her, but don’t rock her. ‘Stay until she’s asleep, then gently put her in her cot,’ says Annie.
Keep one hand on her once you’ve put her in, as a comfort. Once she’s settled, quietly leave the room. If she wakes as you put her down, and starts crying, pick her up and start again.’
When she wakes in the night, use exactly the same method as you did at bedtime. In this instance, simply hold her in your arms until she’s asleep then lay her down. Repeat this at naptime as well.
Sleep tip: Make sure your little one gets enough sunlight during the day. This helps set her body clock so she knows the day is for playing and the night is for sleeping.
Once she is settling well when you hold her still, it is time to move to the next step. ‘Hold her in your arms until she’s settled, then place her in her cot while she’s still awake but sleepy,’ says Annie.
‘Stand so your body is touching the cot, then place your hand on your baby and stroke her back until she falls asleep.
‘The aim is to let her know you’re there, but give her the message that she has to go to sleep by herself, without being rocked or held. You can reassure her with a gentle “shh”. This has the advantage of helping you take long deep breaths while you’re doing it, which will help to keep you calm.’ Use the same method if she wakes in the night.
‘For the next stage, place your baby in her cot while she’s still awake but sleepy, and sit with one of your knees touching the cot and one of your arms through the bars, with your hand gently placed on her back, but this time don’t stroke her,’ says Annie. ‘Don’t move your hand, just keep it still in that position until she falls asleep. You may end up sitting there for two minutes or two hours. You can’t predict how long it will take.’
Sleep tip: If you’re sleep training a toddler, pre-empt excuses. Establish a routine by giving her a drink and taking her to the loo before bed, and make sure she has her favourite teddy.
‘Next, go from resting your hand on your baby’s back to simply sitting by the cot, so there’s no contact once she’s in there,’ says Annie. ‘By this stage your baby should be getting herself to sleep
and staying asleep, so you can expect the times she wakes up in the night to reduce.’
Once your baby is settling herself, without any contact from you, move away from her cot by a few feet every night. You can stand up or sit on the floor on a cushion, whatever’s comfortable.
‘Just don’t interact with her,’ says Annie. ‘Don’t talk to her or react if she makes a noise or tries to wriggle around. Simply stay until she falls asleep and, as soon as she has, leave the room.’
Sleep tip: Avoid too much excitement before bedtime. Physical exercise, animated stories and games make you more alert. Introduce 20 minutes of quiet play as the start of your bedtime routine.
Keep calm. ‘Babies pick up on their parents’ anxiety so try to remain as calm as possible, whatever stage you’ve reached,’ says Annie ‘If it’s all got too much, send your partner into the room if your baby wakes in the night so she has a fresh, calm response, though make sure he follows exactly what you’ve done previously that night to get her to sleep.’
Don’t react too soon. Babies sometimes make noise and may cry out when they’re still asleep. This can even happen when your baby is having a deep sleep, the part of the sleep cycle in which she is least likely to awaken. If you jump in too soon, you might find yourself waking a sleeping baby.
Poorly child: Illness is a major reason why sleep patterns can change. ‘Concentrate on getting her better and giving her lots of TLC,’ says Annie. ‘This might mean going back to the start of your sleep-training routine afterwards, especially if she’s been sleeping well, but then had an infection that’s kept her awake for a few nights.’ As it only takes three days to make a habit, you’ll have a baby whose ‘normal’ is now waking in the night.
New skills: The gradual retreat method doesn’t need to change as your baby develops. ‘If your baby starts to stand up in the cot, lie her down every few minutes, but then return to where you were in the process,’ says Annie. ‘You want to ultimately encourage her to settle herself independently.’
Wayward toddler: At this age, an inability to sleep brings its own problems. She is now much noisier and can get out of bed, come into your room and start to talk to you.
‘You need to be comforting but not actively involved in settling her,’ says Annie. ‘Take her back to bed without interaction. Just use a gentle “shh”. If your toddler’s clingy, this method will gradually wean her off this at bedtime. From six months, toys can be comforting. I’d suggest your child has more than one, so you can alternate them. Otherwise you’re in trouble if the one and only toy gets lost!’