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.
Most experts recommend starting when your baby is between 4 and 6 months old. By about 4 months, babies have typically started to develop a regular sleep-wake cycle and dropped most of their night feedings. These are signs they may be ready to start sleep training. Many babies this age are also developmentally able to sleep for long stretches at night.
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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.
While researching the different sleep training methods to decide which one is right for you, also remember that every baby and every family is different. What one mom swears by, another mom swears off. You will see the most success from sleep training if you use your intuition to pick a method that you know you and your baby will be comfortable with.
• No tears method. Created by sleep expert Elizabeth Pantley, this technique, also known as the no-cry method, involves subtly shifting your child’s sleep habits. For example, one trick, known as “fading,” suggests gradually easing out of baby’s go-to sleep strategy. For instance, if she always needs to be rocked, you would rock less and less until you can put her down to sleep without any rocking. Another technique, called substitution, switches out the routine—so if baby always nurses before bedtime, read a book instead.
There are various schools of thought on sleep training. Some sleep-training methods fall under the umbrella of “gentle sleep training,” which generally means you’re still going to pick up, rock and soothe baby if she cries. Other methods, often under the “extinction” label, advise parents to let baby self-soothe for the entire night and not open the door until morning. Neither of these methods are right or wrong—it all depends on what works best for you and your family.
"I have a 6-month-old who has refused to sleep longer than 30 to 90 minutes day or night since he was born! I've tried everything out there except CIO. He's strictly breastfed and relies on that or rocking to get to sleep. He doesn't know how to soothe himself to sleep, and he naps for only 15 minutes. I'm severely sleep deprived. I don't have the heart for CIO, but I think I'll try the revised method where you pat him down and reassure him lovingly while allowing him the opportunity to comfort himself. He's been co-sleeping since day one, and it's going to be tough, but I'm at my wits' end and cannot function."
"As you modify your baby's sleep behavior, you are going to have to give up middle-of-the-night crutches, known as negative associations, that may get her back to sleep in the short run but won't prevent her from popping up again in an hour. She may resist the change. The behavior may even get worse before it gets better as she adjusts to new routines, to new positive associations."
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The most well known cry it out technique is the one developed by pediatrician Richard Ferber, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children's Hospital Boston. Ferber says that in order to fall asleep on their own and sleep through the night, babies have to learn to soothe themselves. Ferber believes that teaching a baby to soothe himself may involve leaving him alone to cry for prescribed periods of time.
"I have a 6-month-old who has refused to sleep longer than 30 to 90 minutes day or night since he was born! I've tried everything out there except CIO. He's strictly breastfed and relies on that or rocking to get to sleep. He doesn't know how to soothe himself to sleep, and he naps for only 15 minutes. I'm severely sleep deprived. I don't have the heart for CIO, but I think I'll try the revised method where you pat him down and reassure him lovingly while allowing him the opportunity to comfort himself. He's been co-sleeping since day one, and it's going to be tough, but I'm at my wits' end and cannot function."
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.
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