Exhausted parents may be eager to get training underway—so how do you know when to start sleep training? “Most infants are ready for some sort of sleep training at 4 to 6 months,” says Lauren Kupersmith, MD, a clinical instructor at the department of pediatrics at NYU Langone Medical Center. “While some pediatricians adhere to the guidelines that infants are ready to be sleep trained when they achieve a particular weight, I feel it’s much more appropriate to wait until they are developmentally ready to self-soothe, at about 4 months old.”
• No tears method. Created by sleep expert Elizabeth Pantley, this technique, also known as the no-cry method, involves subtly shifting your child’s sleep habits. For example, one trick, known as “fading,” suggests gradually easing out of baby’s go-to sleep strategy. For instance, if she always needs to be rocked, you would rock less and less until you can put her down to sleep without any rocking. Another technique, called substitution, switches out the routine—so if baby always nurses before bedtime, read a book instead.
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:
"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)."
Do your research, talk to your doctor and if you’re overwhelmed, consider hiring a sleep consultant or taking a workshop. Your baby’s sleep might seem like a mystery to you, but there are people who understand the complexities and can help. While not everyone agrees with every approach, no one would argue with the benefits of a good night’s sleep, for babies and exhausted parents alike.
"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."
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.
“I always say bedtime and nap routines can start from day 1. A child is never too young to learn healthy sleep habits and routines! But to get a baby sleeping through the night there are a few things I check. The baby should be at least 15 lbs, no medical concerns, and on a healthy growth curve approved by their pediatrician. If all these points are met, then I'm ready to start getting that little one sleeping through the night!"
Sears emphasizes a nurturing, child-centered approach to sleep and warns parents to be wary of one-size-fits-all sleep training. He recommends patiently helping your baby learn to sleep in his own time. He encourages co-sleeping, rocking and nursing your baby to sleep, and other forms of physical closeness to create positive sleep associations now and healthy sleep habits down the road.
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.