“You’ll never sleep again.” Sound familiar? There’s a reason this cliche is often repeated at baby showers: In those first few months of parenting, before baby has an established sleep-wake cycle and needs to be fed only every few hours, sleep is fractured and confusing, with a long stretch just as likely to occur midafternoon as it is in the middle of the night. And that’s normal. But once baby is a few months old—after she’s dropped those middle-of-the-night feedings and has established a somewhat predictable sleep-wake cycle—sleep training her can help your whole family get some much-needed nighttime shut-eye. Here, what you need to know before choosing the best sleep-training method for your family.
Though many of the parents I see in clinic have put up with terrible sleep for years, sleep training is a safe and effective tool to help babies learn to soothe themselves at night. For this guide, I reviewed the literature on infant sleep. As director of the Pediatric Sleep Center at Yale University, I have extensive experience helping families to address sleep problems. I have also written a book on the topic, which was inspired by sleepless nights with my own children.
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!
Sleep training will look a little bit different for every family, depending on what method you choose to follow. The different methods require different tactics from the parents in order to be successful. Melissa’s tip: take notes! Having a record of how your baby has progressed throughout the sleep training will come in handy when you’re too tired to remember how long (or little) they slept the previous night.
On the advice of a sleep consultant, Welk and her husband took away Greyson’s pacifier, moved his bottle to before his bath (so he wouldn’t associate feeding with going to sleep) and chose to start with a very gentle method (because he was only four months old at the time). Greyson’s dad put him in the crib and stood next to him, patting him until he fell asleep, for about a week. That went well, and then they started leaving him immediately after putting him in the crib without patting him fully to sleep. “For about a month, he would cry or fuss every night for 10 to 15 minutes before falling asleep,” recalls Welk. It was hard to hear her baby cry, but she feels confident that it was for the greater good because they were both well rested and happy during the day. Now, Greyson is 11 months old and a champ sleeper, having weaned himself from night feeds at seven months.
Nicole Johnson is the founder and lead sleep consultant of The Baby Sleep Site®. Since she began in 2008, and with the help of her team of sleep consultants, she has helped over 40,000 families improve their sleep. She has also held a position on the board of the International Association of Child Sleep Consultants (IACSC) since 2015. Millions of visitors land on The Baby Sleep Site each year, and Nicole and her team are here to find solutions for your family’s sleep problems that will match your baby's temperament and your parenting style.
Create a comfortable sleep environment that's tailored to your child. Some babies need more quiet and darkness than others. Recordings of soft music or nature sounds or the sound of a gurgling aquarium can be soothing. Make sure the sheets are cozy (warm them with a hot water bottle or a microwavable heating pad, for example, before laying your baby down) and that sleepwear doesn't chafe or bind. Younger babies may sleep better when swaddled. Don't overdress your child or overheat the room.
"My well-meaning friends are all Ferber addicts. I went against my own instincts with our son and tried with no success. They promised it would get better each night, but on the third night he cried for three hours, much longer than the first two. I felt like a failure and, of course, stressed from all of his crying. Babies have their own personalities, and you shouldn't feel pressured into doing something that 'works for everyone else.'"
But when he was about three-and-a-half months old, the routine fell apart. “I would feed him, but he wouldn’t be asleep at the end of the feed,” recalls Welk. “I would rock him until he fell asleep and put him down, and then he would wake up 30 minutes later and I would do it all over again.” Desperate for some rest, Welk brought Greyson into bed with her, but then she ended up just lying still, holding a pacifier in his mouth all night long. “I didn’t know anything about sleep,” says Welk. “I didn’t know you couldn’t just rock them to sleep and then put them down.”