You’re so tired you can barely see straight! How is it possible that your little one is getting 15 hours of sleep per day while you can’t ever seem to get any during the night?
If you feel delirious or are just worried that you or your little one aren’t getting sufficient sleep, you may wonder whether it’s time to start sleep training.
What are the cues that your baby is ready? What should you do and how long will it take? Will it be the key to actually getting some rest? If you’re trying to decide whether you and your baby are ready for sleep training, you’ve come to the right place.
If you’re planning to sleep train your baby, you’ll want to make sure that they’re old enough and weigh enough.
Experts aren’t in complete agreement about what age babies can be sleep trained, but you can begin establishing healthy sleep habits as soon as your baby is home from the hospital.
In general, experts suggest that your little one should be around 4 to 6 months before you begin sleep training. (But don’t worry if you’ve missed this window — even older toddlers may benefit from sleep training.)
These recommendations are based on how a sleep training method’s founder views feeding and development. As such, it’s important to check the recommended age and weight minimums for the sleep training method you’re considering and discuss your plan with your doctor to ensure its safety.
Premature babies, as well as infants with special needs or weight gain or feeding challenges, require special consideration when it comes to their readiness and a particular sleep training method’s appropriateness.
Also, keep in mind that young babies feed frequently! There’s a big difference between going 6–8 or 10–12 hours without food. Particularly in the first few months when your baby’s tummy is small, it’s important for them to get food during the night.
Sleep training should not be considered the same as night weaning. Many babies may still need dream feeds or a feed during the night even if they are “sleep trained.” Sleep training simply refers to helping your baby learn to soothe themselves and put themselves back to sleep between necessary feedings.
Sleep training is also not necessary for every family. If your current sleep routines are working for every member of the household, no need to mess with a good thing!
How much time sleep training requires is highly variable. It can depend on:
- the method you choose
- your baby’s personality and age
- your ultimate goals for sleep training
- your consistency with the method
- developmental changes/sleep regressions (These can make the process take longer or even require you to retrain your baby!)
Remember, sleep training doesn’t always mean sleeping through the night. Your baby may need to wake for food during the night (or simply cycle through times when they partially or fully wake up briefly as adults do) but still be considered “sleep trained” if they can soothe themselves back to sleep.
If you’ve decided the time has arrived to sleep train, the next step is determining which method you’d like to use.
Whether you plan to attack naps or nighttime sleeping (perhaps both!), you can consider a variety of methods. Some common methods include:
Cry it out (CIO)
Some say that this concept started as a way to avoid the spread of germs by minimizing touch! It has since evolved into an umbrella term for a type of sleep training that provides your child the opportunity to fall asleep on their own without interventions.
Though CIO means different things to different people, for most, one key part of CIO is not taking your child out of their crib. Depending on the particular CIO method, parents may acknowledge their child, but they’re advised not to take them out of their crib, as this may confuse them when they’re placed back in it.
The Ferber Method is all about sleep associations and a progressive waiting approach. With the Ferber Method, an infant will be placed in their bed while they are drowsy but still awake, and the parents will leave the room.
If the infant cries after the parents leave the room, they should check in to reassure the baby at increasingly spaced intervals (e.g., 3, 5, and then 10 minutes between check-ins). The goal of checking in isn’t to stop the baby from crying but rather reassure them that an adult is near.
Each night the checks should be spaced further apart.
Similar to the Ferber method, the controlled crying method involves placing your child into their crib drowsy but awake. Also similar to the Ferber method, parents should check on their infants at increasingly distanced intervals if they continue to cry.
However, one key difference between the Ferber method and controlled crying method is that the goal of check-ins is to calm your crying child.
Pick up, put down method
If you’re feeling patient and calm, the pick up, put down method may be the one for you. This method is intended for babies older than 4 months and involves picking up your child to comfort them each time their cry indicates they need comfort.
You’re encouraged to put your baby to sleep awake but drowsy (see a pattern emerging here?) and listen for a moment when they start to cry. If it appears baby needs assistance to calm down, pick them up, calm them, and then put them down to try sleeping again.
This strategy can take a lot of energy and patience, so you may want to make sure you’ve taken a nap of your own before attempting it!
When considering whether you and your baby are ready for sleep training, you’ll want to weigh the risks and benefits.
If you’re planning on allowing your baby to cry for any length of time, you may be particularly worried about the potential effects of this on their nervous system and hormones. You may also worry that they’ll feel abandoned or fail to properly bond with you.
You’re not the first parent to have these concerns, and studies have investigated some of these questions. However, it can be challenging to address them completely given the nature of the research.
Most sleep training studies rely on self-reporting from parents. In addition, they often combine sleep training instruction with other elements like support from medical providers and sleep education. As such, results can vary.
A 2006 review of studies found that 94 percent of researchers observed reduced bedtime resistance and fewer night wakings after sleep training interventions. However, these effects were noted at the time of the training — not over a long time period.
Also, a 2012 study that sought to focus on the long-term effects of sleep training examined children 5 years after the interventions. It found no meaningful long-term differences between children who had and hadn’t been trained.
This indicates that sleep training improves infant sleep, doesn’t appear to have any long-term negative effects, and benefits parents, too.
While your toddler may have slept through the night as a baby, they may now have some sleep issues you’d like to correct. If they’re fighting sleep, crying out for mom and dad in the middle of the night, or refusing to stay in their big kid bed, sleep training may be appropriate for toddlers as well.
If your child is older, you’ll want to consider your child’s personality and age when choosing a sleep training method. (Keep in mind that older children may have some ingrained habits that are hard to correct, so it may take some time and patience to retrain them!)
Some popular sleep training options for older children include:
- The fading method: Similarly to the pick up, put down method, this method can work well for children who are used to being rocked or physically comforted to sleep, as it employs a more gradual approach.
- The cry it out method: We won’t lie, this method can be difficult on parents’ ears! However, this may be your fastest bet if you have a determined, strong-willed toddler!
- Camp it out method: If you’re trying to transition your toddler to a new bed or environment, sleeping next to them for a few nights might be enough to give them the confidence they need.
Just like with a younger baby, you’ll want to consider any age-specific milestones that might indicate that it’s not a great time to work on sleep training, such as if your child is experiencing separation anxiety, an illness, or a big change in their routine.
If you or your partner aren’t getting sufficient sleep because you’re waking up multiple times a night to soothe the newest addition, the thought of sleep training may have crossed your mind!
Before deciding to sleep train your little one, you’ll want to think through your options and check with their doctor about your plan.
If you do decide it’s the right time to sleep train, it’s important to remember that every family and baby is different. Try not to compare yourself or your baby with anyone else. The day will come when you and your baby are both getting a good night’s sleep!