A consistent bedtime routine is the cornerstone of good sleep for children. It should also be a time for parents and babies to bond. Bedtime routines need not be complex. Bathe your child (if you like), change her into pajamas, read her a story, sing a song and feed or soothe her, then put her in her crib. The key is consistency — performing the same activities, in the same sequence, at the same time each evening.
Typically, formula-fed infants who are growing well no longer need to feed at night by 6 months. Breastfed infants may continue a little bit longer, but typically no longer feed at night by 9 months. If your baby has been falling asleep independently at bedtime for a month but still waking to feed, you may want to consider weaning at night. Be aware that if you are breastfeeding, this may lead to a reduction in milk supply.
“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.
Cry It Out: This method involves putting your baby into the crib drowsy, but awake. The goal is for your child to learn to fall asleep without your help, so that when your baby inevitably wakes up in the middle of the night, he or she will be able to go back to sleep on his or her own. You say goodnight and leave the room—even if your baby cries. Then, you go back in at increasingly long intervals to briefly reassure your baby. It can be difficult to listen to your baby cry, but parents who have been successful with the technique report that it results in fewer tears overall and more sleep for everyone.
All sleep-training methods have pros and cons, says Vanessa Vance, a child-sleep consultant in Austin, Texas, so it’s important to suss out which one is best for you. “When I work with a family, we discuss what their needs and goals are. Some families may not want any crying, so a gradual approach may work best,” she says. Here, an overview of some of the most popular sleep-training methods:
After going through your bedtime routine, put your baby in their crib, leave the room and wait a specific amount of time (say, a minute). Then go in and reassure your baby with words like “Mommy loves you” or some kind of touch, such as a rub or pat. McGinn says it’s preferable not to pick the baby up. Garden, on the other hand, reserves this method for babies seven months and older. (In her opinion, younger babies require a parental presence so they know they haven’t been abandoned, especially if they’ve worked themselves up into a frenzy.)
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.
Honestly, in our personalized consultations, we try to avoid this method as much as possible. If you are going to use cry it out, we recommend your baby is at least 6 months old, but preferably 10 months or older, when we expect almost all babies to be able to get through the night without a feeding. It is not for the faint at heart. We find that laying a foundation in the beginning with other strategies and techniques can reduce crying even if this method is used in the end, however.
Also on the far end of the cry it out spectrum is the Baby Wise approach by pediatrician Robert Bucknam and co-author Gary Ezzo. In their book On Becoming Baby Wise, they advise against feeding babies on demand around the clock and instead advocate a parent-led feeding, wake, and sleep schedule. Their method involves following a strict nap and sleep schedule and putting your baby down awake so she can learn to soothe herself to sleep. This means there will be some crying, especially at first, as your baby adjusts to your schedule.
For my wife and me, those early days passed in a blur. Nights seemed endless, and no government ordinance was about to come along to shorten our shifts. When he was around 3 months old, our son started sleeping for longer periods and our relief was profound. But after about a month, the baby started waking up at night again. After one nightly waking became two, then three and four, I realized it was time to sleep train our son.
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.
That said, sleep training isn’t a must-do for everyone, and many families who skip sleep training go on to have a child who learns to sleep through the night on her own. “It’s your family and your child, and I think there’s a misconception that pediatricians will force sleep training on your family, when that’s not the case,” Gold says. Experts emphasize that the best approach to sleep training is the one that fits your family.
The biggest reason why the solutions that work for one parent don’t work for another is simple. They’re not dealing with the same baby. Some babies are heavily reliant on sleep props. Others can’t sleep in a room that’s too warm. Some may not be getting enough daytime sleep, and others might be overtired. This baby might have developed an association between feeding and falling asleep, whereas that one might be ready to drop their second daytime nap. And, of course, it could be any combination of all of the above, or the many other sleep challenges that babies might experience.
That’s right! Your baby of course needs to be ready - but before they are, YOU need to be ready too. Sleep training requires a commitment from parents. You’ll also want to be sure you’re logistically ready for sleep training, as it’s best to start when you don’t have anything that might disrupt the training coming in the near future, such as a vacation or trip.
"By the time your baby is 3 months old and has developed a fairly predictable 24-hour pattern, it becomes more important for you to provide increasingly consistent structure. If you do your best to establish a reasonable and consistent daily routine and keep to it as much as possible, then it is likely that your child will continue to develop good patterns. If instead you allow the times of your child's feedings, playtimes, baths, and other activities to change constantly, chances are his sleep will become irregular as well."
Hogg agrees with Sears that sleep associations should be positive but disagrees with his techniques. She cautions against letting your baby depend on "props" such as nursing, patting, and rocking to get to sleep. Instead, Hogg's approach calls for going to your baby when he cries, picking him up, and putting him back down as many times as necessary.
"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."
First, let us introduce you to Melissa, mom of 6 month old Theo (@mohrlivingmama on Instagram). After struggling with sleep training, Melissa offered to share her personal story and best tips for other moms thinking of giving sleep training a try. Since it's always most helpful to hear from a mom who's been there, throughout our Sleep Training Guide Melissa will be sharing what worked for her and her son during sleep training.
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.