You may have expected sleepless nights with your newborn, but now that you have a 4-, 5-, or 6-month-old baby (or older!), you may be wondering if you’ll ever get a good night’s sleep again.
That’s when sleep training can come into play. While the purpose of baby sleep training is to help your baby learn how to fall and stay asleep through the night, there’s no single way to do this. In fact, there are many baby sleep training methods, and it can be a little overwhelming trying to decide which option is right for you and your baby.
When Is My Baby Ready for Sleep Training?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that it isn’t until a baby is around 6 months old that regular sleep cycles tend to begin. Babies usually begin sleeping at least 5-hour stretches at a time somewhere around 3 to 4 months.
And, according to the Mayo Clinic, a baby will begin sleeping around 10 hours at night sometime in the first year. But because all babies are different, when this begins will vary.
Your baby may be ready for sleep training if you’ve noticed they’re developing a regular pattern of sleep and awake times, and they’re taking fewer bottles or nursing less over the night. If you’re unsure, ask your doctor before starting sleep training.
Laying the Groundwork for Healthy Sleep Habits
Even if middle-of-the-night feedings make nighttime disruptive at least for the first few months, you can begin laying the groundwork for healthy sleep habits beginning around 6 weeks. These tips can help.
- Routine: Build a bedtime routine that suits your baby. If your baby is a night owl, consider making adjustments to your routine that will work with this pattern.
- Consistency: Be consistent with your bedtime routine so your baby begins to make associations between the pattern of dinner, bath time, story time, and snuggling, with going to sleep.
- Environment: When your baby wakes in the night for a feeding or a clean diaper, keep the lights dim and your voice soft. The idea is to make it clear that nighttime isn’t playtime.
- Daytime practices: Interact with your baby during the day. Talk and play with them during wakeful periods to make a distinction between night and day. All that activity and stimulation will also help them sleep longer at night.
- Plan ahead: Don’t wait until your baby is sound asleep to put them to bed. Instead, lay them down when they’re drowsy to help them learn how to fall asleep by themself in their own bed. If you feed, hold, or rock your baby until they’re completely asleep, they may have a hard time falling back to sleep on their own if they wake up during the night.
- Give it time: Allow time for your baby to settle down. If your baby fusses or begins crying after you put them down, they may just need a few minutes to get comfortable. You can try reassuring them with your voice or a gentle touch. That may be all they need.
The Two Categories of Baby Sleep Training
There are many sleep experts who recommend specific techniques to help babies learn how to fall and stay asleep. While the particulars may vary from one method to the next, most sleep training methods can be categorized into two categories: no tears and cry it out.
The No-Tears Approach to Sleep Training
The no-tears approach to baby sleep training is a gradual approach that allows parents to offer comfort to their baby immediately if they start to cry.
Dr. William Sears, a pediatrician and author of The Baby Sleep Book, is a well-known advocate of this technique. Elements of Dr. Sears’ sleep training method include co-sleeping, breast-feeding, and rocking your baby to sleep. He discourages the idea of one-size-fits-all sleep training, and instead advises parents to be patient and let babies learn how to fall asleep on their own timeline. Remember though, according to the AAP, bed sharing increases the risk of sleep-related deaths.
The No-Cry Sleep Solution, by Elizabeth Pantley, is another method that approaches sleep training with minimal tears. Pantley’s approach is similar to that of Sears, but she advises physical closeness with your baby until they’re drowsy and then laying them down to continue falling asleep. If your baby cries, you should respond immediately. This method also includes tracking your baby’s sleep patterns at night and during the day, plus a 6-phase process that is intended to teach a baby how to sleep in a crib.
A third method, Secrets of the Baby Whisperer, by Tracy Hogg, follows a similar no-cry approach, with slight variations. Instead of nursing, cuddling, and rocking your baby to sleep, Hogg, a registered nurse, advises picking your baby up when they cry, calming them, and laying them back down to sleep as many times as needed.
These experts agree that gentle, no-cry sleep training methods will keep your baby from developing negative associations with bedtime. But proponents of the cry-it-out method don’t agree.
The Cry-It-Out Approach to Sleep Training
This method of sleep training involves allowing your baby to cry at night, usually offering verbal comfort only, so that they’ll learn how to soothe themself. The idea isn’t to leave your baby crying alone all night long, but for specific lengths of time before you offer comfort.
The most well-known version of cry it out is the Ferber method, developed by Dr. Richard Ferber and laid out in his book, “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems.” You may have heard the term “Ferberizing,” which has become synonymous with cry it out.
The Ferber method acknowledges that crying is a normal part of any sleep training method, which is true. Instead of nursing or rocking a baby to sleep, which prevents them from learning how to fall asleep on their own, this method advocates a loving bedtime routine, followed by putting your baby to bed awake and then leaving, even if tears erupt, for progressively longer periods of time.
Coming in periodically to offer comfort with your voice and touch, without picking your baby up, will eventually teach them how to soothe themself. That way, they can use this skill if they wake up in the night.
“Sleeping Though the Night: How Infants, Toddlers, and Their Parents Can Get a Good Night’s Sleep,” by Jodi Mindell, is another approach to cry it out. Mindell, a doctor of psychology, developed a method that reliable scheduling, a consistent routine, and frequent reassurances to a crying baby.
Choosing the Method That’s Right for Your Family
There is no one-size-fits-all sleep training approach. Babies are all different and unique, and what works for one may not work for another. If you’re ready to try a sleep training technique, evaluate it based on your child.
Do you think it suits your baby’s temperament? Does it make sense? Does it feel right? If so, it may be worth trying.
Remember that no matter which you try, the most important element of any sleep training method is to be consistent. Learning how to fall asleep is a new skill for your baby, and it takes time to grasp.
Allow at least a week to gauge how effective a specific sleep training technique is, and be consistent during that week. If your baby isn’t showing any improvement at the end of the week, consider trying another technique instead.
If you have any concerns or questions about your baby’s sleeping habits or a particular sleep training method, speak with your doctor.