“It’s just like riding a bike”.
There are so many reasons why I love taking that common phrase and relating it to sleep training.
First of all, in case you have never heard of this phrase, it’s meant to say that once you learn a certain skill, it’s easy to always remember it. So even if you haven’t used that skill in a while, you can still remember how to do it if you tried. And yes, first and foremost, learning to fall asleep is a skill that once your child has learned it, they will keep that with them for the rest of their life. And if their normal routine ever deviates from the usual, they will be able to fall back into a normal routine again, if they have already established this self soothing skill. But, just for fun, let’s dive deeper into how sleep training is a lot like learning to ride a bike!
For most people riding a bike is a basic skill learned early on in life. Riding a bike serves a lot of purposes- for transportation, for exercise, for entertainment and enjoyment, and, perhaps, even as a career. While the ability to sleep isn’t used for any of those specific reasons, it is a necessity. And the ability to self soothe and actually fall asleep, is something that is learned just like the skill of riding a bike. Hopefully this skill is also learned early in a child’s life.
The reason I say it should be taught early in life is because then healthy sleep habits can be formed starting very early on and then utilized for the entire lifetime of that person. So like with riding a bike, if someone was capable of riding a bike starting around age five, but never learned, and then later in life around age 20 decided to finally learn, they would have missed out on 15 years of enjoying bike riding or using it as a way of getting around.
The same thing goes for a baby who never learns how to self soothe and fall asleep on their own. If a baby is developmentally ready to self soothe, but is never taught or given a chance to, then they become reliant on a sleep crutch as their only way they know how to transition into sleep. This can become increasingly hard or taxing on caregivers, and it robs that child of knowing what they are actually capable of.
This leads me to my second comparison of bike riding and sleeping… Biking riding is a skill learned at different ages based on each individual child. However, most children are physically and mentally capable of riding a two wheel bike around the age of 5. So since all children are different, there will be some kids who can master this skill at age 3, and then there will also be kids who struggle or don’t have any interest in doing so until later around 8 or 10 years of age. But if they are never offered the opportunity to learn, then it’s a fact, they will not learn.
If they are not given access to a bike, then they won’t have the chance to practice. If parents don’t feel comfortable with the possibility of their child getting hurt, then their children will not be able to try. If a parent isn’t encouraging and patient enough to walk them through the learning process (or assign someone else to teach them) then they won’t learn this skill as easily as they could. As parents and caregivers, it’s our job to offer the possibility to learn and grow. Which is true for all areas, including bike riding and learning to fall asleep.
Caregivers have to offer babies the opportunity to learn how to fall asleep on their own. They have to have patience with the baby as they are learning this new skill. And finally they have to be ok with the process of learning this new skill.
But also as adults it’s important to observe your child and know if they are ready to learn a particular skill or not. So in the case of bike riding, you wouldn’t try to take your one year old, who just started walking, and put them on a two wheeler and push them down the street. They just aren’t ready yet. And there are ways to test if they are. So maybe if you do have a bike enthusiast three year old who possesses a good balance and coordination, you could try them out on a bike with training wheels and see how it goes and then progress from there.
The same goes with sleep training. I would never recommend someone to try to sleep train a 2 week old. Newborn babies’ circadian rhythms and sleep drives are not mature enough to be able to follow a sleep schedule or to be able self soothe just yet. This happens later around 4 to 5 months of age. Again, every baby is different though, so maybe you’re reading this and had a great experience sleep training your 3 month old, and that’s great, but again, I would hope that you only knew to do that from observing your baby and deciding they were ready with strong sleep drives in place. But sleep training is definitely something that your child has to be old enough to do, typically around 4.5 months old.
But even if they are old enough and physically and mentally capable, learning to self soothe is not always easy at first. Just like learning to ride a bike, you can’t throw in the towel after one day of sleep training. Practice makes perfect and it takes time to get the hang of it. It’s definitely a process, just like when you’re first learning to ride a bike, you might start with training wheels, celebrate small wins, and then move on. For the first day riding on only two wheels, your child might fall 10 times but then on day two they might only fall 5 times! It’s all about seeing improvements, not searching for immediate perfection.
With sleep training your child might take an hour to fall asleep on the first night but then you might be able to see some improvement on night two as it only takes them 40 minutes to fall asleep and an even bigger improvement on night three! The same way that you wouldn’t be too hard on your five year old for falling 5 times on their second day trying to ride a two-wheeler, you can’t be too hard on yourself or your baby if they are still crying when they are trying to learn to fall asleep on day two.
That being said, it is a lot easier for children to learn to ride their bike if they practice consistently on consecutive days. If you introduce a two-wheeler to a 5 year old and they fall 10 times and then the next day they fall 5 times, but then they don’t get back out on the bike for 3 months, chances are they are going to fall more than they did on day two.
Same for sleep. A baby needs the opportunity to practice and continue to practice self soothing. They need a strong message from their caregivers that they are there to support them but they know they are capable of learning this great skill. If you try sleep training for two days in a row but then you go away and figure you can’t continue your sleep plan while you’re away, then your child isn’t going to retain anything they might have learned those first two days. Instead they will be confused about the ever changing routine they are presented with at bedtime.
And yes, some tears may happen when your child is learning to fall asleep on their own, but would that stop you from letting your 5 year old (who was physically and mentally capable of riding a bike) learn how to do just that? When a child is learning to balance and pedal on a two wheeled bike, chances are they will fall and perhaps get a scraped knee or hand or elbow. And little kids cry when that happens, sure that’s a natural instinct, but as an adult, we can understand that their minimal pain will subside and their cuts and scrapes will heal.
Well babies cry as a way of communicating. They can’t have a grownup conversation saying, “Umm mom, where are you? I usually like falling asleep on your chest as you rock me. That’s what we’ve done in the past so that’s what I was expecting to happen again tonight. Why is that not happening right now?” Instead they cry.
And you may be a first time parent or may just not have enough information to know this, but as a certified sleep consultant, I have done research and read scientific study after study, that has me convinced that this crying, just like the crying over a scraped knee, will not cause any long term harm to your child. They will cry because they want to talk to you, but then they will learn a new routine, and learn how they can soothe themselves to sleep; leading me to my last comparison to bike riding…
Sleep training can be accomplished several different ways, based on what you and what your child needs. With riding a bike, you might choose to have your 3 or 4 year old get used to riding a balance bike with no pedals first. You might offer your child a “big wheeler” or a tricycle first, to get the hang of pedaling. You might start your child off on a full sized bike with stabilizers or training wheels attached. Or, if you feel more comfortable, you might have your child right on two wheels but you hold an extended handle to stabilize them from behind. All of these options are based on what you and your child will feel most comfortable with and have the most success with. The end result always being the same, your child learning to ride a two wheel bike all on their own.
As a certified pediatric sleep consultant I have been trained in several different methods and techniques to help you as you teach your child to self soothe themselves to sleep. Again, every child is different, so some methods might work better for one child and a different technique would be more successful for another child. It’s important to know you have options and there are customizable approaches to reach the common goal we all want: a healthy, sleeping child! 💜🧸