It’s definitions like this that have given the general term “sleep training” a bit of a bad rep. There are certain methods of sleep training, such as “Cry-It-Out” or the Ferber method, that might make some parents wearisome of sleep training as a whole. However, sleep training does not necessarily equal cry it out. There are many different sleep training methods and practices behind sleep training, including gentle sleep training—the most important part of sleep training is finding the method that works best for you and your baby!
• Pick-up-put-down method. In this sleep-training method, you put your child to bed while he’s awake and check on him at gradual intervals, as you do with the Ferber method. Unlike with Ferber, you can pick him up and comfort him, holding him for a few minutes before putting him down. Eventually baby will become drowsy enough to fall asleep on his own.
Create a comfortable sleep environment that's tailored to your child. Some babies need more quiet and darkness than others. Recordings of soft music or nature sounds or the sound of a gurgling aquarium can be soothing. Make sure the sheets are cozy (warm them with a hot water bottle or a microwavable heating pad, for example, before laying your baby down) and that sleepwear doesn't chafe or bind. Younger babies may sleep better when swaddled. Don't overdress your child or overheat the room.
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.)
12 baby-sleep tips for exhausted new parents Before you even think about “training” your baby to fall asleep on their own, make sure you’re following a regular schedule and putting them to bed at a consistent time each night (hint: early is usually better, typically around 7 or 8 p.m.). Starting at about two months old, it’s a good idea to try to put them down drowsy but awake whenever you can, just to get them (and you) used to it, even if they fuss a bit. Make sure that they’ve been awake for an appropriate amount of time before bed (an over- or under-tired baby will have trouble falling asleep), and establish a calming and consistent bedtime routine, like a feed, bath or massage followed by pyjamas and stories or songs. Some experts recommend feeding at the beginning of the routine to avoid having the baby associate the feeding with falling asleep. Ideally, your baby won’t have started to nod off at any point during your bedtime routine. “You really want to make sure your baby is primed for sleep,” says Pamela Mitelman, a psychologist in Montreal who specializes in infant and child sleep. Be conscious, too, of filling their daytime awake periods with enough activity and stimulation, says Garden. “Kids need to be moving in all sorts of ways when they are awake, not just sitting in a bouncy chair,” she says.
The biggest reason why the solutions that work for one parent don’t work for another is simple. They’re not dealing with the same baby. Some babies are heavily reliant on sleep props. Others can’t sleep in a room that’s too warm. Some may not be getting enough daytime sleep, and others might be overtired. This baby might have developed an association between feeding and falling asleep, whereas that one might be ready to drop their second daytime nap. And, of course, it could be any combination of all of the above, or the many other sleep challenges that babies might experience.
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.
One of the biggest mistakes parents make, no matter what method they use, is being inconsistent. At some point your little one will cry for you in the middle of the night, even if you think you've all made it over the sleep-training hump. Go to his cribside to check on him and make sure all is well—just be sure not to restart an old sleep crutch during this check. After that, try comforting him from outside the door, if you can. If you regress due to illness or travel, get back on the training wagon as soon as possible. Otherwise you risk sabotaging the weeks of hard work you've already put in.
The age of your baby might determine what kind of sleep-training method you choose, though. You could try a gentle shush-pat technique with a five-month-old, but you’ll likely have to leave a one-year-old in the crib as they protest (cry or scream) about the new bedtime arrangement. Don’t attempt a formal sleep-training method before four months, until your baby is able to go longer in between feeds and their circadian rhythm starts to develop. (Many babies this age still feed in the night—contrary to popular thinking, sleep training isn’t synonymous with night weaning.) Dickinson says that many four-month-old babies are biologically able to go through the night without a feed, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respond and feed them if other methods of calming them aren’t working. Since every situation is different, we recommend checking with your doctor before withholding your baby’s night-time feeds.