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.
Raising a healthy sleeper starts with a consistent bedtime routine. You can start enforcing this when your baby is roughly six weeks old. At the same time every night, read a book together, sing songs, and feed your baby before putting him or her into the crib. It may also help to get your child up at the same time every morning and put him down for naps at regular times.
"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."
McKenna advises against sleep training and encouraging babies to sleep for long stretches at night. Instead, he urges parents to follow their babies' cues and allow them to wake frequently through the night to feed. A strong advocate for co-sleeping, McKenna encourages bed-sharing and other co-sleeping arrangements, such as putting the baby in a bassinet or crib at the parent's bedside, while also following standard SIDS safety precautions – for example, making sure there are no blankets or stuffed animals around him.
It’s okay if you’re not ready. You aren’t missing out on sleep training if you skip it at 4 months: You truly can start sleep training at any age, even in the toddler years, although experts say it’s smart to be aware of developmental milestones and adjust baby’s sleep schedule accordingly. For example, the week baby learns to walk may be tough to implement a sleep-training schedule, and even a sleep-trained baby may see a regression simply because he’s going through such a developmental shift.
“I knew I didn’t want to sleep train, so I co-slept with my son until he was about 5 months old,” says Corinna, a mom of two. “At 5 months, I was able to put him in a room on his own, but I would attend to him if he cried. By 10 months, he was sleeping through the night on his own. Maybe I was lucky, but I felt like what worked best for our family was following his lead.”
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.
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.
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)."
With the fading technique, continue with whatever method you were using to help your baby fall asleep (such as rocking or nursing), but decrease the amount of time you spend doing it until, in theory, you don’t have to do it at all. This is a great technique for minimizing crying, but unfortunately, many parents find it difficult to sustain. “There has to be an end in sight,” explains Mitelman. “For example, we’ll meet this need for five to seven days and then we’ll pull back a little bit.” But if you’re willing to stick to the plan and get your baby to the end goal of going to bed without your assistance, Mitelman says it’s worth a try. “Whichever way the child can get to sleep independently is fine because that’s the key ingredient to sleeping through the night.”