Long before there was a “no-cry” solution to baby sleep training, there was a thing called “Scheduled Awakenings”.
What? You’ve never heard of scheduled awakenings? There’s a reason for that. It’s really really hard to do. Too bad, though: it appears to work.
Scheduled Awakenings: The Original No-Cry Method
In 1980, Rita J. McGarr was completing her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree at Stanford. For her thesis, project, she performed a case study of a 3-month infant with frequent night awakenings. The objective of Ms. McGarr’s study was to test whether a mother could shape her baby’s waking pattern. Just prior to the time the baby would wake up naturally, the mom would wake the baby up at intervals using a music box. Then she would gradually move “music box time” later in the evening. The baby went from sleeping 5 hours straight to sleeping 7 hours sleep. Not great, but enough to get published. And a new sleep training method was born.
The method Rita McGarr tested came from Behavioral Learning Theory. Briefly, the theory says that all behavior can be learned. What’s going on inside the learner’s head is not as important. The idea that any behavior, including sleep, can be taught leads eventually to parent-led sleep training methods.
Other investigators would later test the method. The best of these compared scheduled awakenings to other methods such as “graduated extinction“. It turns out to work very well.
Here’s How it Works
First, you have to keep a log. Keeping records became a lot easier in the 21st century with the advent of smart phones. There was no more taking notes in crayon on toilet paper!
First, you put the baby down the same time every night. This is an important first step in any baby sleep method. You write down the hour the baby wakes up. When she wakes up, you do what you usually do to get her to go back to sleep: rock her, feed her, etc. You should do this every night for as many nights as it takes to see a pattern emerge. Obviously, one night is too few. A week may be to many. I usually settle on three days.
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Once you have a schedule of the baby’s wake-up schedule, you set your alarm clock. Again, the smart phone comes in handy. You want to set the clock for 15 minutes prior to the time you’ve noted that the baby usually wakes up.
The waking up process should be as gentle as possible. I like Rita McGarr’s music box idea. When the baby is awake, you nurse or feed her as you usually do, and put her back down to sleep.
After about a week of this, you gradually increase the times you go in to wake the baby up. A good starting point is 15 minute increments. For example, if you had been waking her up at 1:00 AM, start waking her up at 1:15, etc. Do this three nights in a row.
Then start dropping the awakenings. If the baby had been waking up only once, great, drop the scheduled awakening and you are done. If she’s doing it more than once, start dropping them in order: Drop the first awakening first, then the second, etc.
Now you have a sleeping baby! You did an awful lot of work to get here. There is a good chance that you would have about the same success with scheduled awakenings as you would have had with one of the extinction techniques, only without the crying.
Problems with the Technique
Schedule awakening training is difficult. I mean, it’s really difficult. Of all the sleep training techniques, it is clearly the most labor-intensive. It asks of parents that they wake themselves up, rather than being awakened by the baby. It also requires more time than other techniques. Even if there are no set-backs along the way, the entire process will require a minimum of two weeks. This is something to consider in light of the following facts: all the extinction techniques, including old-school Holtian cry-it-out, require 3-5 days; Extinction is at worst equally effective as scheduled awakenings; Finally, there is no evidence that extinction techniques have any negative effects on babies or bonding with caregivers.
Scheduled awakenings remains a viable option, especially parents who absolutely cannot stand hearing a baby cry. I know how to train a baby this way, and I can help you do it. How many parents do I know who have tried it? I have that number memorized: it’s zero. For most parents, especially sleep-deprived, stressed out parents, the scheduled wake-ups are more stressful, not less.
Nevertheless, if you’ve “tried everything” to get the baby to sleep, and you haven’t tried scheduled awakenings, you have not in fact tried everything! Behavioral learning works. It requires strength and patience. You got this.