Simply put, sleep training—also called sleep teaching or sleep learning—is the process of helping your infant learn how to fall asleep and stay asleep. It’s also become a pretty controversial topic, with experts and parents speaking for or against various sleep-training techniques. “It’s like talking politics,” says TJ Gold, MD, a pediatrician at Tribeca Pediatrics in New York City. “But there’s no one right way to get your child to sleep through the night. There are a lot of different ways.”
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.
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.
If you’re on the fence about sleep training, it can be helpful to think of it this way: What is my baby’s developmental need right now? “At 11 months, they don’t need to eat during the night but they do need consistent sleep,” says Garden. Yes, those nights of crying are heartbreaking. But chances are, if you’re considering sleep training, it’s because what you’re currently doing isn’t working for you.
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.