Simply put, sleep training—also called sleep teaching or sleep learning—is the process of helping your infant learn how to fall asleep and stay asleep. It’s also become a pretty controversial topic, with experts and parents speaking for or against various sleep-training techniques. “It’s like talking politics,” says TJ Gold, MD, a pediatrician at Tribeca Pediatrics in New York City. “But there’s no one right way to get your child to sleep through the night. There are a lot of different ways.”
While you may have read up on various sleep training methods while pregnant or in the early weeks of baby’s life, it’s a good idea to speak with your pediatrician before you start. For example, if your child is gaining weight slowly or was a preemie, he may not be ready to drop a nighttime feeding and may need a sleep-training schedule that’s adapted to a few middle-of-the-night wake-ups.
Most experts recommend starting when your baby is between 4 and 6 months old. By about 4 months, babies have typically started to develop a regular sleep-wake cycle and dropped most of their night feedings. These are signs they may be ready to start sleep training. Many babies this age are also developmentally able to sleep for long stretches at night.
Parents are often hesitant to go this route, worried about how much crying will be involved. While McGinn doesn’t deny it can be difficult at first, she finds parents are often surprised by how quickly it works. “Yes, there is a lot of crying, but it’s short term,” she says. “You might get a lot of crying for two to three nights, but then every night is less and less.” She says you should see significant improvement with this method by night three or four but adds that it’s important to try it for a week before determining that it’s not working.
• No tears method. Created by sleep expert Elizabeth Pantley, this technique, also known as the no-cry method, involves subtly shifting your child’s sleep habits. For example, one trick, known as “fading,” suggests gradually easing out of baby’s go-to sleep strategy. For instance, if she always needs to be rocked, you would rock less and less until you can put her down to sleep without any rocking. Another technique, called substitution, switches out the routine—so if baby always nurses before bedtime, read a book instead.
It’s okay if you’re not ready. You aren’t missing out on sleep training if you skip it at 4 months: You truly can start sleep training at any age, even in the toddler years, although experts say it’s smart to be aware of developmental milestones and adjust baby’s sleep schedule accordingly. For example, the week baby learns to walk may be tough to implement a sleep-training schedule, and even a sleep-trained baby may see a regression simply because he’s going through such a developmental shift.
The most well known cry it out technique is the one developed by pediatrician Richard Ferber, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children's Hospital Boston. Ferber says that in order to fall asleep on their own and sleep through the night, babies have to learn to soothe themselves. Ferber believes that teaching a baby to soothe himself may involve leaving him alone to cry for prescribed periods of time.
Parents often wonder how to know if your child needs sleep training or if their sleep habits are just something they’ll grow out of. If your baby is consistently cranky and overtired, it's probably time to look into helping them become a better sleeper. And as Melissa noted, she started sleep training the second time around because she could tell her son was just as frustrated as she was about not sleeping!