Simply put, sleep training—also called sleep teaching or sleep learning—is the process of helping your infant learn how to fall asleep and stay asleep. It’s also become a pretty controversial topic, with experts and parents speaking for or against various sleep-training techniques. “It’s like talking politics,” says TJ Gold, MD, a pediatrician at Tribeca Pediatrics in New York City. “But there’s no one right way to get your child to sleep through the night. There are a lot of different ways.”
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.
Pantley offers a gentle and gradual approach to all aspects of sleep, customized to your baby's needs. She recommends rocking and feeding your baby to the point of drowsiness before putting him down – and responding immediately if he cries. Parents are urged to keep sleep logs, nap logs, and night-waking logs. Pantley also describes a six-phase process for teaching a child to sleep in a crib.
• Weissbluth method. This sleep-training method suggests you set up a bedtime routine (bath, book, lullaby), then put baby to sleep, shut the door and don’t re-enter until the next morning. “I tried this, and the first night was awful,” says Jen, a mom of one, who did the Weissbluth method at 4 months. “I turned on the shower and sat in the bathroom so I wouldn’t hear my son cry. But I was watching the baby monitor and saw that after an hour, he found his thumb and fell asleep. The next night was maybe 40 minutes of crying, then 20 minutes the night after that. He’s always happy in the morning, and I feel this was the right choice.”
There is no right or wrong method of sleep training; it all comes down to your unique baby and your unique parenting style. What works well for some babies does not work well for others, so do not be surprised if the techniques your friends or family members recommend don’t work the same way for your baby. The bottom line is to choose a technique that you feel comfortable with, and that you think will work well with your baby’s temperament.
"I tried Tracy Hogg's approach: Don't leave the baby to cry! Instead, when he starts up, go in there, pick him up, and love him until he stops. Once he's calm, lay him back down. If he starts crying again, repeat. Eventually he'll know it's time to sleep. Hogg said she had to do it 126 times with one child, but it dropped to 30 the next night, four the next, and soon she didn't have to do it at all. I tried this with my 3-month-old and it worked like a charm!"
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.
"I have a 5 1/2-month-old baby girl who has never once in her life "cried it out." From night one in the hospital, she has slept with me. She is rocked and nursed to sleep and when she starts to grunt/wiggle beside me, I simply shift near enough for her to latch on to my breast, and she nurses back to a deep sleep before either of us fully wakes. I follow Dr. Sears' attachment style parenting and my baby has never once in all her life cried during the night or even fully woken up."
On the advice of a sleep consultant, Welk and her husband took away Greyson’s pacifier, moved his bottle to before his bath (so he wouldn’t associate feeding with going to sleep) and chose to start with a very gentle method (because he was only four months old at the time). Greyson’s dad put him in the crib and stood next to him, patting him until he fell asleep, for about a week. That went well, and then they started leaving him immediately after putting him in the crib without patting him fully to sleep. “For about a month, he would cry or fuss every night for 10 to 15 minutes before falling asleep,” recalls Welk. It was hard to hear her baby cry, but she feels confident that it was for the greater good because they were both well rested and happy during the day. Now, Greyson is 11 months old and a champ sleeper, having weaned himself from night feeds at seven months.
• 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.
Whatever you decide, remember that sleep training baby is different for everyone. You’ll always hear about a baby who was able to sleep through the night from day one, but don’t expect overnight miracles. So how long does sleep training take? Experts say most strategies will take a week or longer to implement, and sticking them out is key to making them work.
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.)