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 idea behind extinction (or full extinction to differentiate it from graduated extinction) is that you want to extinguish the behaviour (crying) by not responding to it. As with the check-and-console method, go through your bedtime routine, put them in their crib awake, say good night and walk out. This is certainly the most controversial sleep-training method, and even experts disagree on what you should do next—it all depends on what stage your baby is at developmentally, as well as what works for the parents.
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.
"As you modify your baby's sleep behavior, you are going to have to give up middle-of-the-night crutches, known as negative associations, that may get her back to sleep in the short run but won't prevent her from popping up again in an hour. She may resist the change. The behavior may even get worse before it gets better as she adjusts to new routines, to new positive associations."
"My 4-and-a-half-month-old will only sleep through the night if we do everything the experts say not to do. She must be nursed to sleep unless we want to see her turn purple and cry for 45 minutes or more. She's like a wind-up doll when she starts and never settles until she's comforted, and she's been that way from the beginning. It really became a matter of, "Do we want to sleep, or do we want to do what the books say?" If she's comforted and put down sleeping, she sleeps eight to 10 hours. To all you parents out there who have a baby like mine, do not despair – just do what works for you."
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.
Remember that the human brain—yours and your baby's—runs on sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has linked babies' frequent night wakings to everything from postpartum depression in moms to future obesity and behavior problems in kids. As Marc Weissbluth, M.D., the author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, explains, children who don't get enough consolidated REM sleep have shorter attention spans, so they don't learn as well. These babies also release more of the stress hormone cortisol, setting them up for frequent night wakings and stunted naps. Tired yet?
Create a comfortable sleep environment that's tailored to your child. Some babies need more quiet and darkness than others. Recordings of soft music or nature sounds or the sound of a gurgling aquarium can be soothing. Make sure the sheets are cozy (warm them with a hot water bottle or a microwavable heating pad, for example, before laying your baby down) and that sleepwear doesn't chafe or bind. Younger babies may sleep better when swaddled. Don't overdress your child or overheat the room.
“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.”
Cry It Out: This method involves putting your baby into the crib drowsy, but awake. The goal is for your child to learn to fall asleep without your help, so that when your baby inevitably wakes up in the middle of the night, he or she will be able to go back to sleep on his or her own. You say goodnight and leave the room—even if your baby cries. Then, you go back in at increasingly long intervals to briefly reassure your baby. It can be difficult to listen to your baby cry, but parents who have been successful with the technique report that it results in fewer tears overall and more sleep for everyone.
As we previously mentioned, introducing healthy sleep habits and routines as early as possible will help significantly during sleep training. If you haven’t already, try to establish a bedtime routine before you start sleep training baby — this will encourage healthy baby sleep patterns. This should be a series of soothing activities that help to calm your baby and prepare them for sleep - things like swaddling, bathing, and rocking usually work well, but every family’s routine will look different.
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:
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.