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.”
"My 4-and-a-half-month-old will only sleep through the night if we do everything the experts say not to do. She must be nursed to sleep unless we want to see her turn purple and cry for 45 minutes or more. She's like a wind-up doll when she starts and never settles until she's comforted, and she's been that way from the beginning. It really became a matter of, "Do we want to sleep, or do we want to do what the books say?" If she's comforted and put down sleeping, she sleeps eight to 10 hours. To all you parents out there who have a baby like mine, do not despair – just do what works for you."
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.
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.
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.)
Not to be confused with the bedtime-routine fading technique described above, bedtime-hour fading involves putting your baby into the crib at the time they usually end up dozing off, and making that their new bedtime for a couple of nights, and then gradually moving it to an earlier time. For example, say you always put your baby down at for the night at 7:30 p.m., but they tend to fuss or cry in the crib for 20 minutes or more, until they finally nod off around eight. This means 7:50 to 8 p.m. is actually their “natural bedtime,” even though you’d like it to be earlier. To figure out when your baby naturally falls asleep, keep a diary for a few nights to track when they finally settle for the night. (Using a video monitor can help with this.) A few nights later, move the whole routine 15 minutes earlier. Continue moving the bedtime earlier by 15 minutes each night (if needed) until your baby has shifted their old habits to nod off at the desired time instead of the later one.
As your baby gets older and their sleep needs change, make sure that you’re adjusting wake times, naps and bedtimes accordingly to help them continue to easily fall asleep and stay asleep. Some parents think of sleep training as a “one-and-done” endeavour: You endure a lot of crying for a few days and your prize is a perfect sleeper. But it’s really a lifestyle change—once your child has the skills to fall asleep, they’ll still need routines, consistency and help adapting when life throws curveballs, like starting daycare, the arrival of a new sibling or going on a trip (where they may have to sleep in a different space or crib). Colds and illnesses, as well as time changes, can also throw a wrench in your perfect schedule. The trick here is to get back on track as soon as possible. If you start allowing or enabling the old, bad habits and sleep associations, it will take longer to return to the regular routine.
There’s an awful lot of information on how to sleep train out there, leaving most parents confused, frustrated, and still wondering what sleep training is and how to do it. In this article, we’ve rounded up all the facts from real moms and professional sleep consultants on what sleep training is, how to do it, and how to decide if it’s right for you.
Pantley offers a gentle and gradual approach to all aspects of sleep, customized to your baby's needs. She recommends rocking and feeding your baby to the point of drowsiness before putting him down – and responding immediately if he cries. Parents are urged to keep sleep logs, nap logs, and night-waking logs. Pantley also describes a six-phase process for teaching a child to sleep in a crib.
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.
Exhausted parents may be eager to get training underway—so how do you know when to start sleep training? “Most infants are ready for some sort of sleep training at 4 to 6 months,” says Lauren Kupersmith, MD, a clinical instructor at the department of pediatrics at NYU Langone Medical Center. “While some pediatricians adhere to the guidelines that infants are ready to be sleep trained when they achieve a particular weight, I feel it’s much more appropriate to wait until they are developmentally ready to self-soothe, at about 4 months old.”
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.
Cry It Out: This method involves putting your baby into the crib drowsy, but awake. The goal is for your child to learn to fall asleep without your help, so that when your baby inevitably wakes up in the middle of the night, he or she will be able to go back to sleep on his or her own. You say goodnight and leave the room—even if your baby cries. Then, you go back in at increasingly long intervals to briefly reassure your baby. It can be difficult to listen to your baby cry, but parents who have been successful with the technique report that it results in fewer tears overall and more sleep for everyone.
The Baby Sleep Site® is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and other product affiliate programs. If you click on a product link and make a purchase, The Baby Sleep Site® may (but not always) receive a small commission from the company selling the product, but will not affect your purchase price. We only recommend products that we believe are quality products and are good for our readers.
Thank you for your comment! We agree, and we think most parents do, that cry-it-out is a last resort, and we always recommend trying a gentle sleep coaching method first. That said, the research on cry-it-out is that, done correctly and not as a replacement for parenting your baby, it is not harmful, and can indeed be beneficial when you consider the damage that lack of sleep can do to a baby’s overall health and well-being. We have an article with further information about our philosophy on cry-it-out here: https://www.babysleepsite.com/sleep-training/cry-it-out-age/
Sleep training will look a little bit different for every family, depending on what method you choose to follow. The different methods require different tactics from the parents in order to be successful. Melissa’s tip: take notes! Having a record of how your baby has progressed throughout the sleep training will come in handy when you’re too tired to remember how long (or little) they slept the previous night.
"My daughter woke every hour on the hour in her crib. I tried every other method available. Finally, at 7 months, we let her cry it out. It took three to four weeks to complete the sleep training and even though it was the hardest thing I've had to do thus far, it was so worth it. She now sleeps about 10 hours a night and loves her crib. We're both happier and have more energy to play."
"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."
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.
This method involves more tears than the previous two; however, you don’t leave your baby unattended in the room at all. Here’s how the chair method works: start by doing your normal bedtime routine. Then, put a chair very near the crib, bassinet, or bed and sit on the chair as your baby falls asleep. The goal is not to help your child fall asleep, nor to help her calm down necessarily, depending on how you implement it. You are generally not supposed to give your child any attention. The reason you are in the chair is only to reassure them that you are there with them and have not left them alone. Each night you move the chair farther and farther away from the crib until you are right outside the door until eventually, you no longer need the chair at all.
"My first daughter was sleeping through the night (10 p.m. to 9 a.m.) by 6 months. We had a complete bedtime routine: a bath, a book, a bottle, then to bed, a little music in the crib, and asleep in 10 minutes. It was wonderful, but that scenario didn't work for my second daughter and hasn't worked for my son, so I've tried different things for each of them. Sometimes a plan doesn't work. Listen to your baby – he or she will tell you what you need to know."
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.