There are various schools of thought on sleep training. Some sleep-training methods fall under the umbrella of “gentle sleep training,” which generally means you’re still going to pick up, rock and soothe baby if she cries. Other methods, often under the “extinction” label, advise parents to let baby self-soothe for the entire night and not open the door until morning. Neither of these methods are right or wrong—it all depends on what works best for you and your family.
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!
"My first cried it out, and all was well. My second cried it out but it took much longer until all was well. My third, if allowed to cry too long, literally freaked out. He threw himself around his crib and would rarely calm down and fall asleep. On the rare occasion that he fell asleep, he'd wake up within minutes screaming bloody murder. Letting him cry it out was clearly not working so I looked for other options. Find your child's groove. You'll be glad you did."
"I have a 3-month-old who I rock at night. He falls asleep very quickly (much quicker than if I leave him in his crib). If he wakes in the middle of the night, we go to him and comfort him. We don't take him out – we just help soothe him. Why make him feel lonely and abandoned? I have no problem losing a little sleep if it means that he feels like we will be there for him."
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.
"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."
There’s not an exact time that we can recommend, as all babies are unique and it will depend on how tired baby was, how much sleep they got that day, etc. Ou recommendation is to be sure baby falls fully asleep. You can also try working on your bedtime routine if baby is waking up fussy—white noise and dim the lights 20 min before bedtime. bath time, etc.
It’s okay if you’re not ready. You aren’t missing out on sleep training if you skip it at 4 months: You truly can start sleep training at any age, even in the toddler years, although experts say it’s smart to be aware of developmental milestones and adjust baby’s sleep schedule accordingly. For example, the week baby learns to walk may be tough to implement a sleep-training schedule, and even a sleep-trained baby may see a regression simply because he’s going through such a developmental shift.
That said, sleep training isn’t a must-do for everyone, and many families who skip sleep training go on to have a child who learns to sleep through the night on her own. “It’s your family and your child, and I think there’s a misconception that pediatricians will force sleep training on your family, when that’s not the case,” Gold says. Experts emphasize that the best approach to sleep training is the one that fits your family.
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.
"A young child cannot yet understand what is best for him, and he may cry if he does not get what he wants," Ferber writes. "If he wanted to play with a sharp knife, you would not give it to him no matter how hard he cried, and you would not feel guilty or worry about psychological consequences. Poor sleep patterns are also harmful for your child and it is your job to correct them."
"By the time your baby is 3 months old and has developed a fairly predictable 24-hour pattern, it becomes more important for you to provide increasingly consistent structure. If you do your best to establish a reasonable and consistent daily routine and keep to it as much as possible, then it is likely that your child will continue to develop good patterns. If instead you allow the times of your child's feedings, playtimes, baths, and other activities to change constantly, chances are his sleep will become irregular as well."
Fifteen minutes is all you need to perform a soothing bedtime ritual that will help your baby's mind and body prepare for sleep. Remain in his nursery or near his crib and choose the same two or three quiet, calm activities, such as reading or singing. Be sure to keep anything stimulating (tickling, TV) out of the equation. For babies over 6 months, incorporate a favorite stuffed animal or blanket into the routine.
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.
• Know there will be regressions. Teething, illness, vacation and routine shifts all can lead to poor sleep, and that’s all right, Vance says. “Often, you may have to go back to training for a day or two to get back on track, but you won’t lose ground. If your child has been trained to be a good sleeper, one week off schedule because of vacation won’t change that.”
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.
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.
There are many different sleep training methods to choose from, but the most common methods are one of or a variation of one the five we've explained below. You might find that one of these methods sounds like it would be a perfect match for you, OR you might find aspects from each plan that you like. Just like Melissa said, don't feel like you need to stick to a certain method 100%. Make the plan work for you!
Run through your bedtime routine with the lights on, then place your baby in the crib drowsy but awake. Expect some tears, especially if she's used to falling asleep in your arms. For the first three nights, sit next to the crib in a chair, offering gentle, intermittent reassurances and occasional touches. If she becomes hysterical you can pick her up, but put her back as soon as she calms down. Stay beside the crib until she's sound asleep. Respond to night wakings the same way.
• DIY methods work. Don’t love the rigidity of a particular method? Modify it to suit your own family’s circumstances. Sometimes, a sleep coach can be helpful to come up with modifications that won’t affect the goal of getting baby to sleep through the night, but it’s fine to mix and match until you find a strategy you’re comfortable with. “I don’t think I’ve ever loved and loathed anything as much as I do sleep training. We did it with my son because he was still waking up every three hours at 3.5 months old, and I felt it was more out of habit,” says Margaret, a mom of one. “My husband and I decided that we valued teaching him self-soothing and that in the long run it was worth some short-term effort. I did a ton of research and came up with our own plan—similar to Ferber, but our time limits of letting him fuss weren’t as rigid. It worked, and he’s been a solid sleeper since.”
“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!"
This method involves more tears than the previous two; however, you don’t leave your baby unattended in the room at all. Here’s how the chair method works: start by doing your normal bedtime routine. Then, put a chair very near the crib, bassinet, or bed and sit on the chair as your baby falls asleep. The goal is not to help your child fall asleep, nor to help her calm down necessarily, depending on how you implement it. You are generally not supposed to give your child any attention. The reason you are in the chair is only to reassure them that you are there with them and have not left them alone. Each night you move the chair farther and farther away from the crib until you are right outside the door until eventually, you no longer need the chair at all.
"No Tears" Techniques: Just as some parents and experts believe that it is harmless to allow an older baby to cry for set periods of time, others prefer sleep-training methods that gradually teach the baby to fall asleep without Mom or Dad’s help. For example, one "no tears" method involves sitting in a chair next to the crib while the baby falls asleep, and then, each night, moving the chair farther from the crib until it's in the doorway—and then, finally, outside the room.
Some families opt to hire a sleep consultant or sleep coach to help them with sleep training. Just like deciding what sleep training method is best for your family, the decision to hire a sleep coach is a completely personal one. We talked to Rachel Turner, a certified sleep consultant and owner of Hello Sleep, and asked her how why a family might consider hiring a sleep consultant. Here's what she had to say:
"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."