Simply put, sleep training—also called sleep teaching or sleep learning—is the process of helping your infant learn how to fall asleep and stay asleep. It’s also become a pretty controversial topic, with experts and parents speaking for or against various sleep-training techniques. “It’s like talking politics,” says TJ Gold, MD, a pediatrician at Tribeca Pediatrics in New York City. “But there’s no one right way to get your child to sleep through the night. There are a lot of different ways.”
The biggest reason why the solutions that work for one parent don’t work for another is simple. They’re not dealing with the same baby. Some babies are heavily reliant on sleep props. Others can’t sleep in a room that’s too warm. Some may not be getting enough daytime sleep, and others might be overtired. This baby might have developed an association between feeding and falling asleep, whereas that one might be ready to drop their second daytime nap. And, of course, it could be any combination of all of the above, or the many other sleep challenges that babies might experience.
"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)."
• Know there will be regressions. Teething, illness, vacation and routine shifts all can lead to poor sleep, and that’s all right, Vance says. “Often, you may have to go back to training for a day or two to get back on track, but you won’t lose ground. If your child has been trained to be a good sleeper, one week off schedule because of vacation won’t change that.”
The benefits of sleep training baby can be substantial: Everyone in the household will be well rested, and sleep is essential to baby’s development. A landmark 2007 study from the National Institutes of Health suggested that critical brain-development periods are dependent on adequate sleep. “Sleep training baby may not be fun, but I always tell families that it’s not dangerous, and developing good sleep hygiene is, in my opinion, one of the best things you can do for your child,” Gold says.
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 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.
Sleep training is a loaded phrase, and one that is often used synonymously with letting your baby self-soothe, or “cry it out,” but that’s not the whole picture, says Alanna McGinn, a certified sleep consultant and the founder of Good Night Sleep Site. “It’s more about being able to teach your baby that they are capable of falling asleep independently,” she says. You want your baby to be able to nod off on their own—ideally without nursing, rocking or using a pacifier—because whatever tools they use to fall asleep at bedtime are the same things they’re going to wake up looking for during the night. Yes, this can feel unloving and even downright cruel. You’ll find experts on both sides of the issue: Breastfeeding advocates say it’s normal for babies of all ages to wake up multiple times to nurse, and even the sleep coaches interviewed for this article disagree with how much crying and distress are acceptable.