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.
Effective sleep-training tactics vary by family and even from one child to another. If crying it out hasn't stopped your baby's nighttime wakings, or simply isn't your style, there are no-cry sleep-training options. We spoke with Kim West, author of Good Night, Sleep Tight: The Sleep Lady's Gentle Guide to Helping Your Baby Go to Sleep and for tips on how to implement her "Sleep Lady Shuffle"—a gentle method of "teaching your child how to fall asleep on his own in a secure environment." And while West says some fussing is to be expected early on, her method doesn't involve shutting the door to your baby's room and leaving him to cry hysterically. Follow these steps to better snoozing in just a few weeks.
This is considered a ‘cry’ method of sleep training. This technique entails allowing your baby to cry while checking on him at intervals. The goal here is to reassure him every so often that you are nearby and to reassure yourself that he is okay. When you go to check on your baby, you are not “supposed” to pick him up nor engage him much, but simply reassure him using your voice and a loving pat for 2-3 minutes, tops (watch the clock!). With this sleep training method, the goal is NOT to help baby fall asleep – that is what he is learning to do on his own! Instead, the idea is that he falls asleep on his own, in the same “environment” in which he will awaken periodically throughout the night. The knowledge of how to fall asleep unassisted at bedtime will pave the way for him/her to go BACK to sleep throughout the night. Over time, you gradually increase the amount of time between your ‘checks’. See a more detailed step-by-step explanation of this method here: The Ferber Method
Fading, also known as adult fading or camping out, falls in the middle of the sleep training spectrum. In fading, parents gradually diminish their bedtime role by sitting near your baby until she falls asleep and gradually moving the chair farther away from the crib each night. Another fading approach is to check on your baby and reassure her (without picking her up) every five minutes until she falls asleep.
"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."
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?
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.
Not to be confused with the bedtime-routine fading technique described above, bedtime-hour fading involves putting your baby into the crib at the time they usually end up dozing off, and making that their new bedtime for a couple of nights, and then gradually moving it to an earlier time. For example, say you always put your baby down at for the night at 7:30 p.m., but they tend to fuss or cry in the crib for 20 minutes or more, until they finally nod off around eight. This means 7:50 to 8 p.m. is actually their “natural bedtime,” even though you’d like it to be earlier. To figure out when your baby naturally falls asleep, keep a diary for a few nights to track when they finally settle for the night. (Using a video monitor can help with this.) A few nights later, move the whole routine 15 minutes earlier. Continue moving the bedtime earlier by 15 minutes each night (if needed) until your baby has shifted their old habits to nod off at the desired time instead of the later one.
There's never a perfect time to start sleep training. But if you're using the Sleep Lady Shuffle method, it's best to start when you know you'll have at least three weeks without any changes in time zone, cribs, or bedrooms—especially if your baby is alert and sensitive. The most popular night to begin is Friday because of the upcoming weekend. Some parents use vacation days so they won't have to worry about being at work in the morning. And remember that you'll always be more successful if your baby has been napping well.
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.
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.