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.
Sleep training advocates in this category encourage a more gradual approach – soothing the baby to sleep and offering comfort right away when the child cries. Pediatrician William Sears, author of The Baby Sleep Book, is a leading proponent. Parent educator Elizabeth Pantley outlines a step-by-step no tears approach in her book The No-Cry Sleep Solution.
Sleep training means using behavioral techniques to teach your baby to sleep independently by altering her “sleep onset associations” — or the circumstances your baby needs to fall asleep at bedtime. By removing your presence at bedtime, you are providing new associations with the result that she will learn to fall asleep independently, both at bedtime and when she awakens during the night.
Create a comfortable sleep environment that's tailored to your child. Some babies need more quiet and darkness than others. Recordings of soft music or nature sounds or the sound of a gurgling aquarium can be soothing. Make sure the sheets are cozy (warm them with a hot water bottle or a microwavable heating pad, for example, before laying your baby down) and that sleepwear doesn't chafe or bind. Younger babies may sleep better when swaddled. Don't overdress your child or overheat the room.
Yes. Multiple studies have shown that sleep training is both safe and effective, without any studies showing evidence of harm. The best long-term study followed 326 children for the first six years of life. The authors reported that children who had sleep trained via any method in infancy slept better at 2 years of age than children who were not sleep trained, and their mothers were less likely to be depressed. Several years later, the researchers looked at these children again and noted that there was no evidence of emotional or behavioral problems in children who had been sleep trained versus those who had not. As part of this follow-up, the researchers measured the children’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is frequently cited by opponents of sleep training as the mechanism by which crying affects developing brains. The researchers did not find any evidence of differing levels of cortisol secretion between children who had been sleep trained and those who had not.
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.
"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)."
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.
The age of your baby might determine what kind of sleep-training method you choose, though. You could try a gentle shush-pat technique with a five-month-old, but you’ll likely have to leave a one-year-old in the crib as they protest (cry or scream) about the new bedtime arrangement. Don’t attempt a formal sleep-training method before four months, until your baby is able to go longer in between feeds and their circadian rhythm starts to develop. (Many babies this age still feed in the night—contrary to popular thinking, sleep training isn’t synonymous with night weaning.) Dickinson says that many four-month-old babies are biologically able to go through the night without a feed, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respond and feed them if other methods of calming them aren’t working. Since every situation is different, we recommend checking with your doctor before withholding your baby’s night-time feeds.