All sleep-training methods have pros and cons, says Vanessa Vance, a child-sleep consultant in Austin, Texas, so it’s important to suss out which one is best for you. “When I work with a family, we discuss what their needs and goals are. Some families may not want any crying, so a gradual approach may work best,” she says. Here, an overview of some of the most popular sleep-training methods:
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.
The benefits of sleep training baby can be substantial: Everyone in the household will be well rested, and sleep is essential to baby’s development. A landmark 2007 study from the National Institutes of Health suggested that critical brain-development periods are dependent on adequate sleep. “Sleep training baby may not be fun, but I always tell families that it’s not dangerous, and developing good sleep hygiene is, in my opinion, one of the best things you can do for your child,” Gold says.
"My 3-month-old doesn't sleep through the night, and it's fine with me. I keep her in her crib or a bassinet until her 3 a.m. feeding, and then she joins my husband and me until we get up for work. She won't go in her crib unless she's already asleep, usually from nursing and rocking, but she'll fall asleep in her bassinet beside our bed. She's happy and we're happy, and even if it goes against the wisdom of the experts, it's working for us."
"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)."
Effective sleep-training tactics vary by family and even from one child to another. If crying it out hasn't stopped your baby's nighttime wakings, or simply isn't your style, there are no-cry sleep-training options. We spoke with Kim West, author of Good Night, Sleep Tight: The Sleep Lady's Gentle Guide to Helping Your Baby Go to Sleep and for tips on how to implement her "Sleep Lady Shuffle"—a gentle method of "teaching your child how to fall asleep on his own in a secure environment." And while West says some fussing is to be expected early on, her method doesn't involve shutting the door to your baby's room and leaving him to cry hysterically. Follow these steps to better snoozing in just a few weeks.
Sleep training advocates in this category encourage a more gradual approach – soothing the baby to sleep and offering comfort right away when the child cries. Pediatrician William Sears, author of The Baby Sleep Book, is a leading proponent. Parent educator Elizabeth Pantley outlines a step-by-step no tears approach in her book The No-Cry Sleep Solution.
"When my son was younger, we often 'walked him to sleep' by putting him in a sling. Now that he's older, reading him a book, nursing, and cuddling does it. Also, we stopped fighting the earlier bedtime. Since he sleeps with us, he snuggles down with us, and it's become a habit that when the lights go out and Mommy and Daddy snuggle with him, it's bedtime. We rarely struggle with sleeping unless he's having bad teething pain."
There's never a perfect time to start sleep training. But if you're using the Sleep Lady Shuffle method, it's best to start when you know you'll have at least three weeks without any changes in time zone, cribs, or bedrooms—especially if your baby is alert and sensitive. The most popular night to begin is Friday because of the upcoming weekend. Some parents use vacation days so they won't have to worry about being at work in the morning. And remember that you'll always be more successful if your baby has been napping well.
Most sleep coaches say the ideal time to start sleep training (or promote independent sleep, not necessarily using the cry-it-out method) is based on your baby’s development, but is usually somewhere between four and six months, when your baby hasn’t had much time to get used to nursing or rocking to sleep. At this stage, most babies are also developmentally ready to learn the skill of falling asleep on their own, explains Jennifer Garden, an occupational therapist who runs Sleepdreams in Vancouver. Around four months of age, some babies go through a sleep regression because their sleep cycles change and there are longer periods of lighter sleep per cycle. “It’s a great time to work on independent sleep skills,” says McGinn. Other babies’ slumber derails around this time because they are working on new skills, like moving around and rolling. Some parents choose to wait until things settle down before embarking on a sleep-training method, but you don’t have to, says McGinn.