Once babies are gaining weight steadily and beginning to sleep in more regular rhythms, many parents choose to do some form of sleep training. There are many methods to sleep training, and it may take some trial-and-error to figure out which method works for you and your precious baby. If you feel that your baby needs some help sleeping longer stretches at a time or in a more regular schedule, sleep training may be a solution for you!
When can you start sleep training? Most experts agree that between 4 and 6 months of age, parents may begin to sleep train their babies. Around 4 months old, babies go through a major sleep regression as they move from erratic newborn sleep patterns into a more regular sleep/wake cycle typical of children and adults. Furthermore, by this age, many babies have dropped most, if not all, of their nighttime feedings (although this can vary widely between babies). From a developmental perspective, most babies 6 months or older are ready for sleep training to prepare them to sleep longer stretches at night.
The best way to begin sleep training is to be prepared. Here are some easy ways to prepare your child for sleep training:
- Follow a standard bedtime routine.
Come up with a bedtime routine that you use consistently with your baby to prepare them for sleep. Typical infant bedtime routines can include warm baths, singing, reading a story, massage with lotion, listening to soft music, or rocking in a chair. It is up to you to figure out what tends to soothe and settle your little one. Following the same routine every night can help your baby understand what to expect when it’s time for bed.
- Be consistent in your timing.
Bedtimes can vary widely between families, depending on their schedules and their children’s needs. Most doctors recommend putting babies to bed between 7 and 8pm, although some babies prefer to go to sleep much earlier, and others prefer to stay awake later. Figure out what time your baby typically starts getting sleepy and plan the bedtime routine around that time. Don’t wait until your baby is overtired – this tends to make bedtime much more difficult.
Even during the day, try to follow a sleep schedule. Plan naps for the same time every day, and try to ensure that your baby wakes up around the same time every day. Establish regular meal times. The more you follow a routine, the easier it will be for your baby to predict when it is time to go to sleep. Routines help babies feel secure and relaxed!
- Consult your child’s pediatrician.
Before starting any kind of sleep training, always talk to your pediatrician first. Your child may have an underlying medical condition that could affect sleep. Sleep apnea and reflux are a few medical issues that may affect a baby’s sleep patterns. Be sure to consult your baby’s doctor about what methods of sleep training may be appropriate for your baby, and address any medical conditions that may affect your baby’s sleep first.
Starting sleep training can seem like a daunting task. There are many methods, and it may be difficult to pick which one works for you and your baby. Research shows that consistency is key, so it may not matter much which sleep training method you choose, as long as you stick with it! Babies respond well to routine and predictability.
Here are a few common sleep training techniques:
This theory of sleep training involves letting your baby cry, in intervals, when you put them in bed and leave the room. No expert recommends letting a baby cry indefinitely, though! Cry-it-out methods involve putting your baby to bed sleepy but awake, and allowing short periods of crying followed immediately by a caregiver going in to comfort the baby back to sleep. Picking up your baby is not recommended, but methods such as patting your baby’s bottom, massaging your baby’s back, and stroking your baby’s hair may soothe them back to sleep.
The most famous proponent of cry-it-out is pediatrician Richard Ferber, who developed a technique to help babies fall asleep on their own. The Ferber method teaches a baby to self-soothe, an important part of sleep training.
Advocates of no-cry sleep solutions encourage parents to soothe their babies to sleep and comforting them immediately when they begin to cry. Pediatrician William Sears and parent educator Elizabeth Pantley have both written books outlining no-cry sleep solutions. This method may be helpful for babies (and parents!) who become too distressed by cry-it-out methods.
“Fading” presents a happy medium between cry-it-out and no-cry sleep training methods. In fading, parents gradually begin to lessen their role in bedtime by sitting near their babies until they fall asleep. In time, the caregiver gradually moves further away from the crib every night. Fading methods may also involve checking on your baby at regular intervals (such as every 5 minutes) to comfort and soothe without picking her up, until she falls asleep. This method teaches babies to learn how to self-soothe, the foundation of all sleep training methods.
While it can be frustrating and exhausting, it is important to note that not all babies are responsive to sleep training. Some babies, especially if they are breastfed, will continue to wake frequently at night well into their first year of life. Other babies need extra comfort and snuggles at night in order to feel secure. For some babies, sleep training can be too distressing. If your baby seems to not be responding well to sleep training, you may want to take a break, and begin again when your baby is older.
Sleep training isn’t a one-size-fits-all, and it is not for every family. Eventually, all babies learn to self-soothe and sleep through the night. Even siblings may have very different sleep patterns and respond differently to methods of sleep training. A child’s sleep can also be influenced by regressions, developmental leaps, growth spurts, and illnesses. It is important to keep an open mind and go with what feels right to both you and your little one!
Parents may desire to pick and choose aspects of several different sleep training methods. You may find one part of a particular method suits you, and another part of another method also works. Feel free to combine parts of sleep training techniques together to form the best plan for your baby!
Above all, make sure your baby feels loved, safe, and secure. Sleep training can be stressful both for parents and for their children! If sleep training is making you feel uneasy, or seems to make your baby overly anxious and overtired, take a pause for a while and revisit sleep training at a later time. Once you figure out what works best for you and your family, your sweet little baby will be sleeping through the night in no time!