Sleep training: Dr Alison Bentley
Sleep training methods, tried and tested: Alison Bentley's supportive method
Baby fast asleep

Every tired parent faced with a wide-awake baby has yearned for the magic ingredient to a good night’s sleep. Parenting experts have created programmes to assist moms and dads with training their babies to fall – and stay – asleep.

Some methods involve a lot of crying, while others embrace a more hands-on, gentle approach. What works for one baby may not work for another, any plan should be tailored to suit your own family.

Sleep training is big business and has become a super-important topic in parenting circles. Why is this?

“I think we’ve had a swing away from the distant parent to the very involved parent,” says sleep expert Dr Alison Bentley, head researcher at the Wits Dial-a-Bed Sleep Laboratory.

“Parents are bombarded with information, particularly about the damage they could do their child at every step of upbringing. They feel they should be sensitive to their children’s needs, very often at the loss of their own. Children do need to develop their own skills, especially for falling asleep, and too much attention can restrict that learning; hence the development of sleep problems and the need to fix them.”

We’ve chosen and reviewed 3 popular sleep training methods –two created by local experts, and one by American mom and author Elizabeth Pantley.

The Alison Bentley method

“My approach has 4 main anchors and is designed for the least amount of fighting so it’s doable for parents,” explains Dr Bentley, who has spent 10 years in private practice seeing patients with all types of sleep disorders.

“My own interest in sleep disorders in children started when my daughter was born 22 years ago, and I’ve been involved ever since, in one way or another.”

Here are the 4 steps:

  1. Go into the bedroom and lie your child down in the cot or bed. This might involve some hard work, especially with older children. Lie your child down and keep her lying down with talking and gentle, firm actions.
  2. Stay in the room. Find a chair, or even another bed. You may touch her (pat her if she cries, for example) or just talk while she calms down and lies in her cot, trying to fall asleep.
  3. She must fall asleep without any crutches. This means she must have nothing to touch or suck, unless she has it available all night and can comfortably get to it herself. It’s a great idea to give a child a teddy or blanket they can use to comfort themselves with to eliminate the need for mom to be around – especially in the middle of the night.
  4. Only do this once a night. The best time to do it is the first time your child wakes up during the night.

Dr Bentley says, “What the process means practically is that you go into the room at 11pm, fight a little with your child to make her lie down and then stay in the room until she goes to sleep. The second and subsequent times she wakes up, you can do whatever you like to get her back to sleep.”

After 4 nights, the fighting should end and you can choose to continue this method in the first part of the night only (which resolves itself) or repeat it every time your child wakes during the night. By teaching your child to sleep, rather than asking her to figure it out on her own, the process is more logical.

Tips from the sleep doctor

? Shop around

“When considering a sleep-training method for their baby, parents should shop around to find out about different options and then pick one with which they feel comfortable.”

? Do what feels right

“When I was in practice, I used to get a fair number of parents who walked into my room and said, ‘Are you going to tell me to leave her to scream?’ When I said no, they’d say, ‘Right, then we’ll stay!’ Parents know what feels right for them.”

? Look after your own sleep

If you become exceptionally sleep-deprived and your baby is over 6 months old, consider approaching your doctor for a slight sedative for a few days only.

? Get support

Ask grandparents to provide sleep-overs for your baby so you and your partner can get some sleep. After a few nights of better sleep, you and your partner will be more likely to find a solution for your baby’s restless nights.

Dr Bentley says she has had great success with this method over the last 20 years.

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