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.
As your baby gets older and their sleep needs change, make sure that you’re adjusting wake times, naps and bedtimes accordingly to help them continue to easily fall asleep and stay asleep. Some parents think of sleep training as a “one-and-done” endeavour: You endure a lot of crying for a few days and your prize is a perfect sleeper. But it’s really a lifestyle change—once your child has the skills to fall asleep, they’ll still need routines, consistency and help adapting when life throws curveballs, like starting daycare, the arrival of a new sibling or going on a trip (where they may have to sleep in a different space or crib). Colds and illnesses, as well as time changes, can also throw a wrench in your perfect schedule. The trick here is to get back on track as soon as possible. If you start allowing or enabling the old, bad habits and sleep associations, it will take longer to return to the regular routine.
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.
• Having trouble? A consultant can help. Sleep consultants and coaches familiar with different sleep-training methods can answer questions, troubleshoot problems and help you find a method that works with your family. But before you enlist the aid of a sleep coach (whose services can range from a phone consultation to an overnight analysis at your house), look into their qualifications. There’s no national governing body for sleep coaching, but there are various programs that provide certification. For example, the Family Sleep Institute is a national training program; Gentle Sleep Coaches, led by Kim West, is another. Before you commit, find out about the coach’s training and credentials, and ask for referrals and experiences from past clients.
Finding the ideal bedtime can be tricky in the first few months of life. Infants who take a late afternoon nap (say, 4 to 6 p.m.) may go to bed as late as 9 or 10 p.m. A good rule of thumb is that your baby will probably sleep three to four hours after his last nap ends, but you may need to experiment, adjusting your baby’s nap and bedtime schedule to figure out what works best.
"A young child cannot yet understand what is best for him, and he may cry if he does not get what he wants," Ferber writes. "If he wanted to play with a sharp knife, you would not give it to him no matter how hard he cried, and you would not feel guilty or worry about psychological consequences. Poor sleep patterns are also harmful for your child and it is your job to correct them."
"As you modify your baby's sleep behavior, you are going to have to give up middle-of-the-night crutches, known as negative associations, that may get her back to sleep in the short run but won't prevent her from popping up again in an hour. She may resist the change. The behavior may even get worse before it gets better as she adjusts to new routines, to new positive associations."
• Ferber method. Also known as timed-interval sleep training, modified sleep training or graduated extinction sleep training, parents using this method put baby down to sleep even if he’s crying, then return to check on him at different time intervals —every five, 10 and 15 minutes, and so on. You don’t pick baby up during these checks but can verbally soothe or pat him. Gradually, the intervals will get longer until eventually baby is sleeping through the night. “We did Ferber once my son was 8 months old. He got the hang of it pretty quickly and has been sleeping on his own for 10 to 12 hours ever since,” says Anika, a mom of one.
Camping out involves gradually withdrawing your presence from your child’s room over the course of a week or two. This method is a good fit for parents who are not comfortable with prolonged crying, although it is important to recognize that, for some children, there is no such thing as a “no-cry” solution. The downside is that camping out takes longer than C.I.O.
Thank you for your comment! We agree, and we think most parents do, that cry-it-out is a last resort, and we always recommend trying a gentle sleep coaching method first. That said, the research on cry-it-out is that, done correctly and not as a replacement for parenting your baby, it is not harmful, and can indeed be beneficial when you consider the damage that lack of sleep can do to a baby’s overall health and well-being. We have an article with further information about our philosophy on cry-it-out here: https://www.babysleepsite.com/sleep-training/cry-it-out-age/
"I tried Tracy Hogg's approach: Don't leave the baby to cry! Instead, when he starts up, go in there, pick him up, and love him until he stops. Once he's calm, lay him back down. If he starts crying again, repeat. Eventually he'll know it's time to sleep. Hogg said she had to do it 126 times with one child, but it dropped to 30 the next night, four the next, and soon she didn't have to do it at all. I tried this with my 3-month-old and it worked like a charm!"
Crying isn't the goal of this sleep training method, but advocates say it's often an inevitable side effect as your baby adjusts to sleeping on his own. They say the short-term pain of a few tears is far outweighed by the long-term advantages: A child who goes to sleep easily and happily on his own, and parents who can count on a good night's rest.
One common misconception about sleep training babies (also called sleep coaching) is that there’s only one way to do it. But this could not be further from the truth! In reality, there are a number of ways many parents can work to help their babies develop healthy sleep habits and stop waking up in the middle of the night or taking short naps. Some methods involve crying, but others involve little to no tears and are very gentle.
"No Tears" Techniques: Just as some parents and experts believe that it is harmless to allow an older baby to cry for set periods of time, others prefer sleep-training methods that gradually teach the baby to fall asleep without Mom or Dad’s help. For example, one "no tears" method involves sitting in a chair next to the crib while the baby falls asleep, and then, each night, moving the chair farther from the crib until it's in the doorway—and then, finally, outside the room.
Sears emphasizes a nurturing, child-centered approach to sleep and warns parents to be wary of one-size-fits-all sleep training. He recommends patiently helping your baby learn to sleep in his own time. He encourages co-sleeping, rocking and nursing your baby to sleep, and other forms of physical closeness to create positive sleep associations now and healthy sleep habits down the road.
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.