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.
• 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.
"There are good times to sleep-train and periods when it may be less likely to work," says developmental psychologist Isabela Granic, Ph.D., coauthor of Bed Timing: The 'When-To' Guide to Helping Your Child to Sleep. "This is because infants and toddlers go through mental growth spurts that make them especially clingy, fussy, and prone to night wakings. They're learning new cognitive skills and often don't sleep as well."
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.
This sleep training technique usually involves quite a bit of crying on your baby’s part for the first couple of nights but some say it tends to be less crying, overall, since sleep training is ‘done’ faster (for many, but not all, people). The way it works is simple – you do your bedtime routine, put your baby to bed awake, and then leave the room without returning for checks. If your baby cries, you are not supposed to go in to check on her; instead, you let her ‘cry it out’ on her own. The thinking here is that if you allow your baby to cry for a period of time, but then go in and ‘rescue’ her, you have all but guaranteed that she will cry for that amount of time the next night because she will expect you to come and “rescue” her again.
If you’re on the fence about sleep training, it can be helpful to think of it this way: What is my baby’s developmental need right now? “At 11 months, they don’t need to eat during the night but they do need consistent sleep,” says Garden. Yes, those nights of crying are heartbreaking. But chances are, if you’re considering sleep training, it’s because what you’re currently doing isn’t working for you.
As you might suspect, this method can be very difficult, depending on temperament, and can take many days or weeks. It can be difficult to avoid engaging with your child (and “watching them cry” is very difficult), and it will likely be a little confusing to the child (particularly younger ones) when you don’t. However, with time and consistency, this can be a good option for parents who do not want to leave their child alone to cry but who haven’t had success with other methods, either.
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.
Most sleep coaches say the ideal time to start sleep training (or promote independent sleep, not necessarily using the cry-it-out method) is based on your baby’s development, but is usually somewhere between four and six months, when your baby hasn’t had much time to get used to nursing or rocking to sleep. At this stage, most babies are also developmentally ready to learn the skill of falling asleep on their own, explains Jennifer Garden, an occupational therapist who runs Sleepdreams in Vancouver. Around four months of age, some babies go through a sleep regression because their sleep cycles change and there are longer periods of lighter sleep per cycle. “It’s a great time to work on independent sleep skills,” says McGinn. Other babies’ slumber derails around this time because they are working on new skills, like moving around and rolling. Some parents choose to wait until things settle down before embarking on a sleep-training method, but you don’t have to, says McGinn.