Sleep Training for Babies
Different Methods and When To Start?
What is sleep training?
Almost all exhausted parents, certified sleep consultants and pediatricians will swear by the benefits of sleep training. In simple terms, sleep training is a process where your baby learns to fall asleep by themselves at the beginning of the night and if they suddenly wake up in the middle of the night, oftentimes they are able to put themselves back to sleep.
When should I start sleep training?
Most experts agree that you can start sleep training your child between the ages of 4 months and 6 months old. By this age, most babies are able to sleep 10 to 12 hours at a stretch and may no longer require night feedings. They are also old enough to be able to self-soothe and young enough to not fight the sleep training process. The older your child is, the harder it can be to sleep train, but it is not impossible.
How long does sleep training take?
The amount of time it takes to successfully sleep train your child will depend on the sleep training method you choose. Some methods may take longer than others, but generally speaking it should take anywhere from 3 to 5 nights. The most important part of sleep training is to follow the method as planned and to be consistent.
Is sleep training safe?
There has been a lot of research around sleep training and the evidence shows that sleep training does not psychologically or physically harm the child and it doesn’t increase cortisol levels.. While there may be a few tears, for both the child and the parents, sleep training is shown to improve a child’s quality of sleep, improve parental mood and does not disrupt attachment between children and their caregivers. As long as your baby is at the right age and is in a safe environment, sleep training is safe and healthy.
Sleep training methods
The goal of sleep training is to teach your little one how to fall asleep independently without needing to be rocked or soothed. Here are the most common sleep training methods.
Cry it out method (CIO)
The cry it out method (CIO), also known as the “extinction” method, involves putting your baby to bed while they are drowsy/tired but awake and letting them cry it out until they fall asleep without any comfort from you. Before putting your baby to bed, you must ensure they have a clean diaper, a full tummy, the room is at an ideal temperature and they are in a safe sleep environment. Once you kiss them goodnight, you don’t pick them up until they wake up the following morning or until their next scheduled night feed.
While this method is perhaps the most difficult for parents, it often works the quickest. The first two nights are often the roughest because your baby is so used to falling asleep in your arms or with your assistance. With consistency, your baby should be falling asleep by themselves within 3 to 4 nights.
Ferber method (check and console)
If you’re not a fan of letting your little cry it out without some intervention, then this method may be for you. The Ferber method, also known as “check and console,” is where you allow your baby to cry for a period of time before going in to check on them.
You put your little one down when they are tired/drowsy but still awake, kiss them goodnight and leave the room. You only go in to console your little one after a brief period of time where you can check in on them, or pat them or rub their back, but you should not pick up your baby as the goal is to not rock them back to sleep, but rather to reassure them that you are there. You re-enter the room only at designated intervals. For example, after putting your baby down, you check in on them after 3 minutes, then after 5 minutes and then after 8 minutes.
Every night, you will gradually increase the length of these intervals. For example, on the first night you might check in on them in 3 minutes, then 5 minutes and then every 8 minutes after that. On the second night, you may check in on them after 5 minutes, then 8 minutes and then every 12 minutes after that. And so on. Pretty soon your little one will no longer need these check-ins as they would have learned to self-soothe and put themselves to sleep.
Pick up, put down method
This method involves going through your baby’s normal bedtime routine and then putting them down when they are tired/drowsy but still awake. If and when your baby cries, you wait a few minutes to see if your little one will settle themselves, if they don’t, you provide direct comfort by picking them up and soothing them. When they are a little calm, you put them down in their crib and leave the room. You will continue to repeat this process until your baby falls asleep. It is important to note that this sleep training method often takes the most time and requires patience.
The chair method
The chair method is a very gradual sleep training method that requires a lot of patience and time. It also involves, you guessed it, a chair. You go through your baby’s normal bedtime routine and put them down in their crib tired/drowsy but awake. But instead of leaving the room, you sit in a chair next to their crib until they fall asleep. If your child is fussing, you can reassure them verbally without picking them up. You continue to sit in the chair until they fall asleep. If they wake up and begin to cry, you come back in and sit back in the chair. Every few nights, you move the chair a little further and further from their crib until one night you are eventually out of the room. While this sleep training method may work for some families, it may be tougher on other babies and parents. It can be hard to just sit there and not physically pick up or comfort your crying baby. It can also be confusing and distracting for your baby who may continue to get more upset by seeing you there.
Sleep training tips
No matter what method you adopt, sleep training requires patience and practice. The important thing is to remain consistent while you and your baby transition to better sleep habits. Here are a few additional tips to keep in mind:
- Establish a good bedtime routine. Getting your baby ready for bed and setting up all the right cues is as important as the sleep training itself. Babies don’t have a concept of time, but by setting up a routine, your little ones will be more attuned to what is going to happen next and can start winding down for the night.
- Timing is everything. Trying to sleep train a baby when they are sick, fighting an ear infection, traveling or have just started daycare will likely backfire. Wait until things have settled down and your little one isn’t going through a disruption before you introduce sleep training.
- Lookout for sleepy cues. Watch your baby’s sleep cues like yawning, rubbing their eyes or crankiness, which may happen at roughly the same time every night. It’s important to put your baby down in their crib when they are tired but still awake. An overtired baby will have a harder time winding down and will likely cry more. A baby that isn’t sleepy yet will also have a harder time falling asleep on their own. Tinker with their sleep schedule +/- 30 minutes to make sure you are putting them down at the right time.
- Don’t respond to every little noise or cry. As long as your baby is sleeping in a safe and comfortable environment, there is no reason to rush in at the first sign of a cry or some fussiness. No matter what sleep training method you choose, there will likely be some tears involved and immediately responding to every little noise will only derail your baby’s efforts to self-soothe. Give your little one some time and space to learn this important new skill.
- Be patient and confident in yourself. Children pick up on your emotional cues. The more confident and relaxed you can be through this process, the better it will be your baby as they will sense this too. After a few nights, your future self will thank you for making it through to the other side of sleep training.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you are feeling overwhelmed or nervous or if after 1 week you aren’t seeing much improvement in your baby’s sleep habits then talk to your pediatrician. You can also reach out to a certified sleep consultant to help guide you.