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.
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.
"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.'"
I know a lot of my clients felt that way before they hired me! But I know it’s a concern that a lot of parents have when they’re thinking about getting some professional help with their little ones’ sleep habits. And it’s a valid question! After all, your mother managed to get you to sleep at some point. Your friend might have four kids who are all champion sleepers, so she should have some answers for you, right? Well, yes.. .and no!
"My son is 6 months old and finally goes to sleep without a struggle! We thought the Ferber method was mean and that alternatives would be better. So we tried it all – Baby Whisperer, No-Cry Sleep Solution, Babywise, etc. None of it worked. Our son is an otherwise happy little guy, but every night and every nap was a battle. We'd spend hours trying to get him to sleep. We delayed trying Ferber until we'd tried everything else unsuccessfully. It worked after the first night! He wakes up better rested and happier (as do we)."
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.
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.
The idea behind extinction (or full extinction to differentiate it from graduated extinction) is that you want to extinguish the behaviour (crying) by not responding to it. As with the check-and-console method, go through your bedtime routine, put them in their crib awake, say good night and walk out. This is certainly the most controversial sleep-training method, and even experts disagree on what you should do next—it all depends on what stage your baby is at developmentally, as well as what works for the parents.