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There is no right or wrong method of sleep training; it all comes down to your unique baby and your unique parenting style. What works well for some babies does not work well for others, so do not be surprised if the techniques your friends or family members recommend don’t work the same way for your baby. The bottom line is to choose a technique that you feel comfortable with, and that you think will work well with your baby’s temperament.
"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."
No one likes to talk about sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS); it is a terrifying topic. SIDS is defined as the sudden death of an infant, which remains unexplained after a thorough investigation. These deaths occur in the first year of life, with the highest risk occurring between 2 and 6 months of age. Fortunately, these deaths are becoming less common, thanks in large part to the early ’90s Back to Sleep campaign, which urged parents to place infants to sleep on their backs. Suffocation is also a major risk for infants if they do not sleep in a safe sleeping environment.
It’s definitions like this that have given the general term “sleep training” a bit of a bad rep. There are certain methods of sleep training, such as “Cry-It-Out” or the Ferber method, that might make some parents wearisome of sleep training as a whole. However, sleep training does not necessarily equal cry it out. There are many different sleep training methods and practices behind sleep training, including gentle sleep training—the most important part of sleep training is finding the method that works best for you and your baby!
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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.
In clinic, I help parents with their children’s sleep problems. But in my own home, I found it challenging to apply the techniques I recommended to others. What seems obvious in a brightly-lit exam room is harder to follow at 2 a.m. Like many pediatricians do with their own children, I elected to try extinction sleep training, which involves letting a child cry in order to learn to soothe himself to sleep on his own. Night one was relatively easy, but night two left my wife in tears and me feeling like a heel. Things improved on night three, and our son scarcely cried on night four. By the end of the week, he was sleeping through the night again.
Some of these experts think cry it out methods are not good for babies. Pediatrician and "attachment parenting" advocate William Sears devotes an entire chapter of The Baby Sleep Book to a critique of cry it out approaches. Sears, along with no tears advocates such as Elizabeth Pantley (author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution), believes that cry it out techniques can give your child negative associations with bedtime and sleep that could last a lifetime.
• 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.
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.)