Most experts recommend starting when your baby is between 4 and 6 months old. By about 4 months, babies have typically started to develop a regular sleep-wake cycle and dropped most of their night feedings. These are signs they may be ready to start sleep training. Many babies this age are also developmentally able to sleep for long stretches at night.
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.
There’s an awful lot of information on how to sleep train out there, leaving most parents confused, frustrated, and still wondering what sleep training is and how to do it. In this article, we’ve rounded up all the facts from real moms and professional sleep consultants on what sleep training is, how to do it, and how to decide if it’s right for you.
Before you start any sleep-training method, make sure all the necessary people are on board. Talk to your pediatrician to rule out any underlying medical condition, such as reflux or GERD, sleep apnea, or allergies, that may be keeping your child awake at night. Then make sure you and your partner are on the same page; plan together how you'll react to wakings at given times. If your 10-month-old is nursing six times a night, both of you must agree that you'll feed him once before bed, then not again until morning.
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.
While you may have read up on various sleep training methods while pregnant or in the early weeks of baby’s life, it’s a good idea to speak with your pediatrician before you start. For example, if your child is gaining weight slowly or was a preemie, he may not be ready to drop a nighttime feeding and may need a sleep-training schedule that’s adapted to a few middle-of-the-night wake-ups.
• Ferber method. Also known as timed-interval sleep training, modified sleep training or graduated extinction sleep training, parents using this method put baby down to sleep even if he’s crying, then return to check on him at different time intervals —every five, 10 and 15 minutes, and so on. You don’t pick baby up during these checks but can verbally soothe or pat him. Gradually, the intervals will get longer until eventually baby is sleeping through the night. “We did Ferber once my son was 8 months old. He got the hang of it pretty quickly and has been sleeping on his own for 10 to 12 hours ever since,” says Anika, a mom of one.
Prepare yourself for a few difficult nights. Hearing your baby cry can be excruciating, as every parent knows. During the waiting periods, set a timer and go to a different part of the house, or turn on some music, so you don't have to hear every whimper. As one BabyCenter parent says, "The first week could be rough. Try to relax and know that when it's all over, everyone in your household is going to sleep more easily and happily."
“I knew I didn’t want to sleep train, so I co-slept with my son until he was about 5 months old,” says Corinna, a mom of two. “At 5 months, I was able to put him in a room on his own, but I would attend to him if he cried. By 10 months, he was sleeping through the night on his own. Maybe I was lucky, but I felt like what worked best for our family was following his lead.”
Fading, also known as adult fading or camping out, falls in the middle of the sleep training spectrum. In fading, parents gradually diminish their bedtime role by sitting near your baby until she falls asleep and gradually moving the chair farther away from the crib each night. Another fading approach is to check on your baby and reassure her (without picking her up) every five minutes until she falls asleep.
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.
West says once an infant is older than 3 or 4 months, habits like rocking, singing, or nursing her until she dozes off become "sleep crutches." "These are not negative or bad behaviors," says West, "but they become a problem when they're so closely linked in the child's mind with slumber that he cannot drift off without them." Continuing with these sleep crutches will mean every time your baby wakes up (multiple times throughout the night), she'll need you to rock, sing, or nurse her—but your goal is to teach her to self-soothe and put herself back to sleep.
It might be strange to think of sleeping as a skill that does not come naturally. As a new parent, you’re probably so exhausted that you pass out as soon as your head hits the pillow. Your baby, however, doesn’t have this same ability yet. Although they spend a lot of time sleeping, they need to learn when to sleep (day vs. night) and how to sleep. Until they do, they need your assistance, which is why you (as you should) help soothe them to sleep at bedtime and comfort them when they wake in the middle of the night. Sleep training is teaching your baby how to sleep without any help from you - just like you’re able to fall asleep without anyone there to help you do it.
Sleep training is a loaded phrase, and one that is often used synonymously with letting your baby self-soothe, or “cry it out,” but that’s not the whole picture, says Alanna McGinn, a certified sleep consultant and the founder of Good Night Sleep Site. “It’s more about being able to teach your baby that they are capable of falling asleep independently,” she says. You want your baby to be able to nod off on their own—ideally without nursing, rocking or using a pacifier—because whatever tools they use to fall asleep at bedtime are the same things they’re going to wake up looking for during the night. Yes, this can feel unloving and even downright cruel. You’ll find experts on both sides of the issue: Breastfeeding advocates say it’s normal for babies of all ages to wake up multiple times to nurse, and even the sleep coaches interviewed for this article disagree with how much crying and distress are acceptable.