Sleep training your baby: Pro tips from sleep expert Kerry Bajaj
Kerry, please tell us a little about yourself. How did you become a sleep coach?
I moved from New York to Mumbai three years ago with 2 young kids - the girls were 2 and 6 months old. Initially when we landed in India and we all had jet lag, we really struggled with the baby’s sleep. Then the rest of the family got over the jet lag, but the baby was still up every hour in the night! After sleep training her at 7 months, she has been sleeping like a dream ever since. We get her ready for bed, snuggle up and read books, then say “night night love you” and she’s asleep when her head hits the pillow.
Once I got settled and put the girls in school, I became known as the mom with 2 kids who sleep from 7pm to 7am. I got a lot of questions about it! Back in New York, I was working as a nutritionist alongside an amazing functional medicine doctor. When I started getting so many questions about baby sleep, I was intrigued. I could see the desperation in people’s eyes and could relate to how tough it is on the whole family when the baby isn’t sleeping. I got trained as a baby & child sleep consultant. While before I was focused on healing through food, now I’m focused on healing through sleep.
So, what does sleep training involve? What’s the goal of it?
Usually people come to me with a significant “pain point” and my goal is to help resolve it, help the baby sleep through the night, and get the whole family in ‘sleep harmony.’ Some examples of “pain points” - the baby is howling at bedtime or in the middle of the night, the baby is up multiple times a night, the baby is taking feeds multiple times a night past the age where the paediatrician says it is needed, or the baby is impossible to put down for naps. As a result the parents are exhausted.
Most of the babies I work with are overtired and resolving that by adjusting the daytime schedule gives magical results.
In my approach, we first optimize the sleep environment and the daytime schedule (the timing of morning wakeup, naps and bedtime). Most of the babies I work with are overtired and resolving that by adjusting the daytime schedule gives magical results. After that we work on helping the baby develop independent sleep skills at bedtime. Once the baby can fall asleep more independently at bedtime (ie without 45 minutes of rocking or driving around in the car!) then the baby is able to connect sleep cycles in the night.
When is the best time to start sleep training? Also, the second best? :)
The best time is 6 months. At this age, the baby is no longer swaddled, so they have access to their hands. Many babies play with their fingers which can be a form of self soothing. They can roll over and find comfortable positions while sleeping. Because they can roll over, they can release gas on their own (they don’t rely so much on being burped to release gas). They can hum, babble, rock their head from side to side, watch the fan spinning overhead. All of these can form the foundation of self-soothing. For all these reasons, by 5-6 months, the parents can start to let the baby fall asleep more independently.
The second best time is any time thereafter, the sooner the better! For older babies, the habits will be more ingrained, they’ll be more mobile, they’ll be able to stand up in the cot, they’ll have stronger preferences, a better memory and separation anxiety. So it does get harder. But that said, I have total confidence that every baby can sleep. I have had a lot of success with babies in the 14-18 month range which is typically considered the most challenging. It starts with believing that your baby can sleep well, and the rest flows from there.
How much sleep do children need (from newborns to say, 4 year olds)?
The National Sleep Foundation recommends these total sleep timings:
- Newborns (0–3 months): 14–17 hours
- Infants (4–11 months): 12–15 hours
- Toddlers (1–2 years): 11–14 hours
- Preschoolers (3–5 years): 10–13 hours
You should aim for 11-12 hours of night sleep, plus your naps.
Could you share some tips for parents just starting sleep training?
Don’t take advice from every friend, relative and read the whole internet! Many people I work with have a total information overload. It’s overwhelming. Make a plan, talk to your spouse and paediatrician and proceed with confidence.
You mentioned the concept of object permanence in one of your blogs. Could you talk about that?
Object permanence is a skill that babies develop around 6 months – it means they remember stuff from before. So if they fall asleep nursing with mama in her big cozy bed, they are none too pleased to wake up alone in a crib. They are like “What am I doing here?” Or in baby talk, “Wahhh!”
I like to use the example that if you went to sleep in your bed, with your pillow and blanket next to your spouse, you would also get upset if you woke up later on the grass in the garden!
For this reason, by 6 months we want total consistency with how we put the baby to bed. By this age they will not like surprises like having them fall asleep in your arms and then putting them in the cot and tip-toeing out of the room. No sneaky behavior!
What happens to bedtime routines when there are 2 kids in the house of different ages? Say, a baby and a preschooler?
You may be able to do parts of the routine together (like dinner and bath) and then you may want to stagger things a little bit. With my 2 kids, the younger one goes to bed first, and then I stay up later reading with the older one. It works!
How can parents juggle their work and social life while also managing their children’s sleep routines?
For many families, healthy eating is a value. Healthy sleep should be a value too! Once you understand how important sleep is for the baby’s growth, mood and development, you’ll be sure to honour the baby’s sleep needs. Every family will have to find their own answer to this question - depending on work timings and support system at home. That said, I’m pretty vocal that a baby or child should not be on the schedule of a working adult. Children need 11-12 hours of sleep while adults need only 7-8.
How much wiggle room do you have for sleep routines? For e.g. what happens when you’re traveling or just out on a weekend?
Of course you should go with the flow and be a little flexible. But try your best to stick to the routine - your baby will be so much happier the next day! My clients send me messages from vacation all the time saying how much they’re enjoying the holiday because they’re sticking to nap timings, the day is predictable for everyone, and the baby is well-rested and cheerful.
Any resources you’d recommend for parents? In addition to your book and your coaching services, of course. :)
A white noise machine! I use the one by Homedics which you can find on Amazon.
Kerry Bajaj is a sleep consultant living in Mumbai and author of Sleep, Baby, Sleep (HarperCollins). She has studied infant and child sleep in the US, and is a member of the Indian Society for Sleep Research. She is also a celebrated holistic nutritionist, featured in Elle, Vogue and Women’s Health. Sleep, Baby, Sleep is “Full of simple and practical tips, relevant in the Indian context” (Dr Mahesh Balsekar, head of pediatrics at Breach Candy Hospital).