Remember that the human brain—yours and your baby's—runs on sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has linked babies' frequent night wakings to everything from postpartum depression in moms to future obesity and behavior problems in kids. As Marc Weissbluth, M.D., the author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, explains, children who don't get enough consolidated REM sleep have shorter attention spans, so they don't learn as well. These babies also release more of the stress hormone cortisol, setting them up for frequent night wakings and stunted naps. Tired yet?
Fifteen minutes is all you need to perform a soothing bedtime ritual that will help your baby's mind and body prepare for sleep. Remain in his nursery or near his crib and choose the same two or three quiet, calm activities, such as reading or singing. Be sure to keep anything stimulating (tickling, TV) out of the equation. For babies over 6 months, incorporate a favorite stuffed animal or blanket into the routine.
Sleep training will look a little bit different for every family, depending on what method you choose to follow. The different methods require different tactics from the parents in order to be successful. Melissa’s tip: take notes! Having a record of how your baby has progressed throughout the sleep training will come in handy when you’re too tired to remember how long (or little) they slept the previous night.
"A young child cannot yet understand what is best for him, and he may cry if he does not get what he wants," Ferber writes. "If he wanted to play with a sharp knife, you would not give it to him no matter how hard he cried, and you would not feel guilty or worry about psychological consequences. Poor sleep patterns are also harmful for your child and it is your job to correct them."
"My son is 6 months old and finally goes to sleep without a struggle! We thought the Ferber method was mean and that alternatives would be better. So we tried it all – Baby Whisperer, No-Cry Sleep Solution, Babywise, etc. None of it worked. Our son is an otherwise happy little guy, but every night and every nap was a battle. We'd spend hours trying to get him to sleep. We delayed trying Ferber until we'd tried everything else unsuccessfully. It worked after the first night! He wakes up better rested and happier (as do we)."
The idea behind extinction (or full extinction to differentiate it from graduated extinction) is that you want to extinguish the behaviour (crying) by not responding to it. As with the check-and-console method, go through your bedtime routine, put them in their crib awake, say good night and walk out. This is certainly the most controversial sleep-training method, and even experts disagree on what you should do next—it all depends on what stage your baby is at developmentally, as well as what works for the parents.
Crying isn't the goal of this sleep training method, but advocates say it's often an inevitable side effect as your baby adjusts to sleeping on his own. They say the short-term pain of a few tears is far outweighed by the long-term advantages: A child who goes to sleep easily and happily on his own, and parents who can count on a good night's rest.
As you might suspect, this method can be very difficult, depending on temperament, and can take many days or weeks. It can be difficult to avoid engaging with your child (and “watching them cry” is very difficult), and it will likely be a little confusing to the child (particularly younger ones) when you don’t. However, with time and consistency, this can be a good option for parents who do not want to leave their child alone to cry but who haven’t had success with other methods, either.
That said, sleep training isn’t a must-do for everyone, and many families who skip sleep training go on to have a child who learns to sleep through the night on her own. “It’s your family and your child, and I think there’s a misconception that pediatricians will force sleep training on your family, when that’s not the case,” Gold says. Experts emphasize that the best approach to sleep training is the one that fits your family.
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• DIY methods work. Don’t love the rigidity of a particular method? Modify it to suit your own family’s circumstances. Sometimes, a sleep coach can be helpful to come up with modifications that won’t affect the goal of getting baby to sleep through the night, but it’s fine to mix and match until you find a strategy you’re comfortable with. “I don’t think I’ve ever loved and loathed anything as much as I do sleep training. We did it with my son because he was still waking up every three hours at 3.5 months old, and I felt it was more out of habit,” says Margaret, a mom of one. “My husband and I decided that we valued teaching him self-soothing and that in the long run it was worth some short-term effort. I did a ton of research and came up with our own plan—similar to Ferber, but our time limits of letting him fuss weren’t as rigid. It worked, and he’s been a solid sleeper since.”
"As a last resort, I broke down and gave Ferber a try. It's been two and a half weeks, and I see no real improvement. My daughter goes down faster at night, but the crying breaks my heart. I miss snuggling with her. She still wakes up every 30 to 90 minutes after her first two-hour stretch. She shrieks when it's time for a nap. I broke down and nursed her to sleep for her afternoon nap because I couldn't stand to see her so exhausted."
While researching the different sleep training methods to decide which one is right for you, also remember that every baby and every family is different. What one mom swears by, another mom swears off. You will see the most success from sleep training if you use your intuition to pick a method that you know you and your baby will be comfortable with.
If you have a hard time remembering how many times your baby woke last night, much less how she slept last week, a log will help you notice patterns. After a week of tracking her days and nights, start by figuring out her ideal bedtime. You might say, "Oh, she's always fussy at 7 p.m.—that's probably when I should be putting her down, and I'm missing the window." A log will also let you see that your baby may not have cried during the night for as long as you thought. Five minutes of fussing can feel like 50 when it's 2 a.m.
Sleep experts who support the cry it out approach (as well as most pediatricians) disagree. They say it isn't traumatic for babies to cry alone for short periods of time with frequent check-ins by Mom or Dad – and the end result is a well-rested, happier child. They say no tears sleep strategies may cause babies to be overly dependent on comfort from a parent at bedtime, making it harder for them to learn to soothe themselves to sleep.
After going through your bedtime routine, put your baby in their crib, leave the room and wait a specific amount of time (say, a minute). Then go in and reassure your baby with words like “Mommy loves you” or some kind of touch, such as a rub or pat. McGinn says it’s preferable not to pick the baby up. Garden, on the other hand, reserves this method for babies seven months and older. (In her opinion, younger babies require a parental presence so they know they haven’t been abandoned, especially if they’ve worked themselves up into a frenzy.)