Being a parent has become almost synonymous with being tired. Think about it: You’re entertaining, feeding, clothing, and trying to provide stimulation for a tiny human all day long, then you’re likely enjoying an interrupted night’s sleep every. single. night.
So when your baby reaches a certain age, or if you’re simply running on empty due to lack of sleep, you might be ready to sleep train your baby. There isn’t a “magic” age for sleep training, but experts generally expect that as soon as your baby can safely get through the night without needing to eat for nutrition–somewhere around 7 months old--sleep training can be done.
Though sleep training can feel daunting to some mamas, there are many different sleep training methods to consider, different ways to teach your baby to self-soothe, plus some tips and tricks to help both mom and baby sleep a little easier.
How to Sleep Train a Baby
Sleep training is the process by which you teach your baby to fall asleep without being soothed by you. That means that you don’t rock, sing, or feed your baby in order to get them to sleep for the night or back to sleep if they wake up at night. Sleep training relies on teaching your baby that they are safe and loved, using a solid bedtime routine to establish “sleep cues” that train your baby when it’s time to sleep, and incorporates your baby’s developmental stages as well.
Sleep training also involves teaching your baby to soothe him or herself back to sleep when they wake throughout the night. It’s normal for babies (and adults!) to wake up in the night, but the key difference is that you want your baby to learn how to go back to sleep on their own, without needing help from you.
Sleep Training Methods
There are many different sleep training methods, from the well-known cry it out (CIO) method to the Ferber check and console routine to even one that involves moving a chair across your baby’s room. Yes, really.
The important thing to understand about sleep training is that there are a variety of methods you can choose from, so it might be easier to find a method that works for you. If you’re not comfortable with the idea of your baby crying alone in their room, you don’t have to do that! Plus, every baby is different so what works for one baby might not work for the next.
It’s also important to realize that while it’s best to at least try one sleep method consistently for a while, if it’s truly not working for your family, you can always try something different. And sleep training may need to be reintroduced or “refreshed” with your child as they grow and go through different development stages as well, so it’s a good idea to have some knowledge of all of the different types of sleep training methods out there.
Next, we’ll look at some of the common different sleep training methods.
Also known as check-and-console, this method involves parents returning to comfort the baby at gradual intervals. This method is meant to teach the baby that he/she is not alone right from the start, so it works like this: you lay the baby down for bedtime, then wait 1 minute and go in and check on them.
Then, you gradually increase the amount of time from when you leave the child and check in on them. For instance, the second week, you leave the room, and wait 3 minutes and go back in. The following week, you wait 5 minutes, and so on.
The key to this method is that parents not pick the baby up out of the crib; they only console the baby with some gentle shushing or patting, for example. You will also do the gradual checks if your baby wakes up at night too. It’s recommended that you space out the checks gradually until you are waiting about 15 minutes between each one. This method could take about a month to work.
An alternative to this method is the chair method, which we will discuss next.
When using this sleep training method, parents sit in a chair (or on the floor–the chair is totally optional!) near the crib until the baby falls asleep.
Each night, they move farther and farther away from the crib until it’s out of the room and theoretically, the baby can fall asleep on his or her own. So, on night one, you might start out right next to the baby’s crib or bed; the next night, you’ll be a few feet away; the next night, closer to the door. By the end of a week or so, you should be able to sit outside of the room door as your baby falls asleep.
And then, eventually, your presence won’t be needed at all and you can put your baby drowsy but awake down in their crib.
Pick Up, Put Down Sleep Training Method
The pick-up, put down sleep training method is exactly what it sounds like: when your baby cries at night, you pick them up briefly to reassure them that you are there, but then you put them down again back in their crib once they are calm (but still awake).
The key to this method is that it can take a lot of time and persistence, because it could take several nights for it to work and it can be difficult to constantly lay your baby back down, only to have them cry again every time you place them down. The goal with this method is to teach your baby that you are there and it’s safe to go back to sleep.
Cry it Out Sleep Training Method
The cry it out method, also called the extinction method, is just what it sounds like. Even if the sleep training baby wakes during the night and cries, parents do not go in to comfort the baby. The idea is that if the parents stop responding to the baby’s cries, he or she will eventually stop the behavior. In other words, the behavior will become extinct.
This method is very controversial and some experts warn that this method should not be used before 5 or 6 months old. It’s also worth noting that there are no hard-and-fast rules with this method; you can set a time limit, for instance, or decide that you will allow one feed or cuddle at night.
Some families may decide to give their baby 5 minutes to try to self-soothe before they pick them up, while others may rely on discerning what “type” of cry the baby is making before soothing them. You can learn if your baby is crying because they are hungry, for example, vs. a cry that is just coming from a baby who woke up and wants a parent in the room.
It’s all about figuring out what works for every family and every individual baby.
“The important thing to understand about sleep training is that there are a variety of methods you can choose from, so you can choose the best one for your family."
When Should I Start Sleep Training My Baby?
It depends. Generally speaking, you could begin sleep training your baby between 4 and 6 months. That’s because older babies can go longer between feedings, but still be young enough to learn different methods of self-soothing before habits set in.
If you plan to use the cry it out method, you may want to wait until your baby is 5 or 6 months old, as some experts warn against using their method before then. Still nervous about sleep training? A study on sleep training from the American Association of Pediatrics found that not only are there multiple benefits to having well-rested kids and parents, but that there are no major social or psychological differences between 6-year-olds whose parents used the CIO method and those who didn’t.
And of course, you should always talk to your doctor before implementing sleep training, especially if your baby has any medically-complex needs, or still requires nighttime feedings to gain weight.
Do You Have to Sleep Train?
Nope. You don’t have to sleep train your baby. If your baby is naturally a good sleeper and is able to self-soothe, there’s no need to sleep train your baby. In that case, it would be more about finding your baby’s natural wake windows and sleep patterns and using those to your advantage.
Doesn’t sound like your baby? You’re not alone. A 2018 study found that only 57% of babies slept or 8 hours straight at night. While sleep training may not be right for every baby, the overwhelming research shows that sleep training and teaching your baby to self-soothe can be ultimately beneficial.
It’s also important to remember that every family and every baby is different, so what works for someone else may not work for you and vice a versa. The bottom line is, though, if you’re suffering from a lack of sleep, you do have options for better sleep in your future.
How Do I Get My Baby to Self-Soothe?
Many mamas shy away from sleep training because they worry about missing out on those sweet bedtime snuggles. But that’s not what sleep training is at all. A large part of helping your baby to self-soothe is creating and maintaining the same bedtime routine every night, even when you’re traveling or not in our own home.
At our house, bedtime lasts about 40 minutes and is the same every night, even down to the song we sing. We do bath time (don’t forget that soft baby towel for sensitive skin!), baby lotion, a special song or book, pajamas, white noise machine, feeding, then put the baby in his bed drowsy, but not asleep.
Another way to help your baby self-soothe is to create the ideal sleeping space: a cool, dark room with a noise machine. The goal is to create a routine and sleep cues so your baby will know when it’s time for bed.
Sleep Training Challenges: A Baby with Reflux and Breastfed Babies
There may be some additional challenges that you’ll face when trying to sleep train. For instance, sleeping training with a reflux baby–a baby who has reflux or spits up frequently–may be more complicated. If your baby has severe reflux, they may struggle with sleeping more than a baby who does not, because laying flat can trigger the reflux.
If you have a reflux baby, we recommend working with a professional, such as your baby’s pediatrician on some solutions you can take to try to manage the reflux symptoms and help you all get better rest. The good news is that reflux doesn’t usually last a very long time, so if your baby successfully outgrows it, you may be able to implement sleep training then.
You might also wonder if sleep training a breastfed baby is possible, and the answer is: yes! While you won’t ever want to try to sleep train a breastfed baby that still actively needs to eat at night, once a breastfed baby is able to tolerate not being fed at night (usually around 6 months, or when they start solids), you can talk to your doctor about sleep training.
What if We Share a Room?
Another challenge is: what if you share a room and want to sleep train your baby? There are a few ways to tackle this.
#1: Put the baby to sleep first
First, you could do the entire bedtime routine with your baby, put him or her down in their bassinet or crib, then leave the room and return later to go to sleep once your baby is sleeping more soundly, which usually takes about 20 minutes.
#2: Use a room divider
You might also consider putting the baby’s bed or bassinet behind a room divider. That way, your baby won’t be able to see you, which can complicate the sleep training process.
#3: Add a white noise machine
And if you’re sharing a room, don’t forget the white noise machine. It can help cancel out any sounds mom and dad accidentally make and keep everyone sleeping soundly, and hopefully, through the night.
Baby Sleep Training Books
If you want a more expanded and in-depth look into sleeping training your baby, there are several baby sleep training books you can buy (and try). Remember, it might be helpful to pick up a few different methods so you can find the one that’s right for you.
It’s also important to keep in mind that if you or your baby are truly struggling with sleep, there may be a more complex reason behind it and it’s always a good idea to talk with a medical professional to rule out any additional causes you might not be able to solve on your own.
Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems: New, Revised, and Expanded Edition
THE book on sleep training, written by none other than Richard Ferber, MD, himself, this is the book that will provide you with the full Ferber sleep training method solution. It's been through revisions, so it has all of the updated and latest information and covers sleep topics for infants and kids alike that include: bedtime difficulties and nighttime wakings, effective strategies for naps, sleep schedule abnormalities, a balanced look at co-sleeping, new insights into the nature of sleep terrors and sleepwalking, problems in setting limits, and sleep apnea, narcolepsy, bed-wetting, and head banging.
The Gentle Sleep Book For Calm Babies, Toddlers and Pre-Schoolers
This book is meant to serve up sleep solutions for parents of babies to five years old--all without any crying it out needed. According to the book's description, the author uses evidence-based approaches to tackle challenges such as waking up at night to wetting the bed to kids who just flat-out refuse to get into bed. (Been there.)
Baby Sleep Training in 7 Days: The Fastest Fix for Sleepless Nights
I'm not going to lie: I'm a mom of a toddler who currently hates sleep in all forms, so I'm extremely tempted by this book's premise. Sleep training in 7 days sounds almost too good to be true, but this book comes with excellent reviews and focuses on the basics of a sleep hygiene, including created a bedtime routine, sleep cues, and understanding your child's development. Plus, it's written by a nurse, so it does have a nice medical background to it as well.
Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, 5th Edition: A New Step-by-Step Guide for a Good Night's Sleep
Now on its 5th edition with over 1.5 million copies in print, this book might be the most comprehensive sleep training book ever. Also penned by a doctor, the book promises to deliver a step-by-step program of sleep training that works with your child’s natural sleep cycles, not against them. It's an interesting concept and it also includes topics such as bedtime routines, drowsy signs in babies, both caregivers' presence at bedtime, cultural challenges, and sleep habits from around the world.
Frequently Asked Questions
Which sleep training method works best?
How long do you let a baby cry it out?
First, be sure your baby is old enough to get through the night without eating (usually after around 6 months). Then, start with shorter intervals, from around a couple minutes.
What's the hardest night of sleeping training?
Usually the second or third night offers the most challenges as your baby adjusts to sleep training.
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