It might be strange to think of sleeping as a skill that does not come naturally. As a new parent, you’re probably so exhausted that you pass out as soon as your head hits the pillow. Your baby, however, doesn’t have this same ability yet. Although they spend a lot of time sleeping, they need to learn when to sleep (day vs. night) and how to sleep. Until they do, they need your assistance, which is why you (as you should) help soothe them to sleep at bedtime and comfort them when they wake in the middle of the night. Sleep training is teaching your baby how to sleep without any help from you - just like you’re able to fall asleep without anyone there to help you do it.
12 baby-sleep tips for exhausted new parents Before you even think about “training” your baby to fall asleep on their own, make sure you’re following a regular schedule and putting them to bed at a consistent time each night (hint: early is usually better, typically around 7 or 8 p.m.). Starting at about two months old, it’s a good idea to try to put them down drowsy but awake whenever you can, just to get them (and you) used to it, even if they fuss a bit. Make sure that they’ve been awake for an appropriate amount of time before bed (an over- or under-tired baby will have trouble falling asleep), and establish a calming and consistent bedtime routine, like a feed, bath or massage followed by pyjamas and stories or songs. Some experts recommend feeding at the beginning of the routine to avoid having the baby associate the feeding with falling asleep. Ideally, your baby won’t have started to nod off at any point during your bedtime routine. “You really want to make sure your baby is primed for sleep,” says Pamela Mitelman, a psychologist in Montreal who specializes in infant and child sleep. Be conscious, too, of filling their daytime awake periods with enough activity and stimulation, says Garden. “Kids need to be moving in all sorts of ways when they are awake, not just sitting in a bouncy chair,” she says.
• Weissbluth method. This sleep-training method suggests you set up a bedtime routine (bath, book, lullaby), then put baby to sleep, shut the door and don’t re-enter until the next morning. “I tried this, and the first night was awful,” says Jen, a mom of one, who did the Weissbluth method at 4 months. “I turned on the shower and sat in the bathroom so I wouldn’t hear my son cry. But I was watching the baby monitor and saw that after an hour, he found his thumb and fell asleep. The next night was maybe 40 minutes of crying, then 20 minutes the night after that. He’s always happy in the morning, and I feel this was the right choice.”
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.
“I knew I didn’t want to sleep train, so I co-slept with my son until he was about 5 months old,” says Corinna, a mom of two. “At 5 months, I was able to put him in a room on his own, but I would attend to him if he cried. By 10 months, he was sleeping through the night on his own. Maybe I was lucky, but I felt like what worked best for our family was following his lead.”
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.
With the fading technique, continue with whatever method you were using to help your baby fall asleep (such as rocking or nursing), but decrease the amount of time you spend doing it until, in theory, you don’t have to do it at all. This is a great technique for minimizing crying, but unfortunately, many parents find it difficult to sustain. “There has to be an end in sight,” explains Mitelman. “For example, we’ll meet this need for five to seven days and then we’ll pull back a little bit.” But if you’re willing to stick to the plan and get your baby to the end goal of going to bed without your assistance, Mitelman says it’s worth a try. “Whichever way the child can get to sleep independently is fine because that’s the key ingredient to sleeping through the night.”
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.”