Some of these experts think cry it out methods are not good for babies. Pediatrician and "attachment parenting" advocate William Sears devotes an entire chapter of The Baby Sleep Book to a critique of cry it out approaches. Sears, along with no tears advocates such as Elizabeth Pantley (author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution), believes that cry it out techniques can give your child negative associations with bedtime and sleep that could last a lifetime.
There’s an awful lot of information on how to sleep train out there, leaving most parents confused, frustrated, and still wondering what sleep training is and how to do it. In this article, we’ve rounded up all the facts from real moms and professional sleep consultants on what sleep training is, how to do it, and how to decide if it’s right for you.
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.
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:
Also on the far end of the cry it out spectrum is the Baby Wise approach by pediatrician Robert Bucknam and co-author Gary Ezzo. In their book On Becoming Baby Wise, they advise against feeding babies on demand around the clock and instead advocate a parent-led feeding, wake, and sleep schedule. Their method involves following a strict nap and sleep schedule and putting your baby down awake so she can learn to soothe herself to sleep. This means there will be some crying, especially at first, as your baby adjusts to your schedule.
“There are many variations to any sleep training method. For example, you can do a cross between The Chair Method and PUPD with great success and fewer tears! There are also ways of breaking each method into smaller baby steps, which we recommend very often in our Personalized Sleep Plans®. Find what feels tolerable (because, frankly, no one ‘likes’ to sleep train), more comfortable for you, and what seems the gentlest, yet effective, on your baby, depending on his or her temperament and personality.”
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.
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.”
“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...sleep is a complicated issue and there’s very rarely one single thing that can remedy the situation overnight. A professional sleep consultant has the experience and training to recognize which problems result in specific symptoms, and can work with you to develop a personalized plan for your child that addresses those individual issues."
• Chair method. Also called the sleep lady shuffle or gradual withdrawal and popularized by Kim West, LCSW-C, author of Good Night, Sleep Tight, this method starts with you sitting in a chair next to baby’s crib. Each night, you move the chair farther away from the crib, verbally soothing or shushing baby when she cries (although occasional patting and picking up are okay) until you’re no longer in the room. This method can be helpful for older babies and toddlers who may suffer from separation anxiety and can understand that Mom and Dad are just on the other side of the door, but it also works for younger babies.
“I knew I didn’t want to sleep train, so I co-slept with my son until he was about 5 months old,” says Corinna, a mom of two. “At 5 months, I was able to put him in a room on his own, but I would attend to him if he cried. By 10 months, he was sleeping through the night on his own. Maybe I was lucky, but I felt like what worked best for our family was following his lead.”
"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."
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!
If your baby is older than six months, don’t worry, McGinn says: “It’s never too late to develop good sleep habits.” Dickinson says he finds nine months to be a bit of a sweet spot for parents in terms of getting babies to sleep through the night. “They are at a good age for understanding routines and don’t need to eat during the night,” he explains.