“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.
You can start using the method once your baby is 6 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.
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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 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 a little more every night. You can stand up or sit on the floor on a cushion, whatever’s comfortable. 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.
Stay calm. If it’s all gets too much, send your husband 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.
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