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.
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.”
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Prepare yourself for a few difficult nights. Hearing your baby cry can be excruciating, as every parent knows. During the waiting periods, set a timer and go to a different part of the house, or turn on some music, so you don't have to hear every whimper. As one BabyCenter parent says, "The first week could be rough. Try to relax and know that when it's all over, everyone in your household is going to sleep more easily and happily."
"My 5-month-old was waking every two hours at night. I was so tired I wanted to die. I finally caved in, put in earplugs, and let him cry it out – which he did, all night! But then, something amazing happened the next night: He slept a full 12 hours and awoke rosy and cheerful. It's been that way ever since, and he's even a better napper now. I know that it is hard to listen to your precious little one cry, but a sleep-deprived, miserable mom and baby is a terrible thing too."
Proponents of these sleep training methods say it's okay for your child to cry when you put him to bed and leave the room, although they don't advocate letting a baby cry indefinitely. Typically, these methods suggest putting your baby to bed when he's still awake and allowing short periods of crying punctuated by comforting (but not picking up) your child.
As you might suspect, this method can be very difficult, depending on temperament, and can take many days or weeks. It can be difficult to avoid engaging with your child (and “watching them cry” is very difficult), and it will likely be a little confusing to the child (particularly younger ones) when you don’t. However, with time and consistency, this can be a good option for parents who do not want to leave their child alone to cry but who haven’t had success with other methods, either.
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.
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.
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.
This sleep training technique usually involves quite a bit of crying on your baby’s part for the first couple of nights but some say it tends to be less crying, overall, since sleep training is ‘done’ faster (for many, but not all, people). The way it works is simple – you do your bedtime routine, put your baby to bed awake, and then leave the room without returning for checks. If your baby cries, you are not supposed to go in to check on her; instead, you let her ‘cry it out’ on her own. The thinking here is that if you allow your baby to cry for a period of time, but then go in and ‘rescue’ her, you have all but guaranteed that she will cry for that amount of time the next night because she will expect you to come and “rescue” her again.
Adapt the method to fit your family. If you want to try a method like this but find it too harsh, you can use a more gradual approach. For instance, you can stretch out Ferber's seven-day program over 14 days, increasing the wait every other night rather than every night. Remember your primary objective: To give yourself and your child a good night's rest.
All sleep-training methods have pros and cons, says Vanessa Vance, a child-sleep consultant in Austin, Texas, so it’s important to suss out which one is best for you. “When I work with a family, we discuss what their needs and goals are. Some families may not want any crying, so a gradual approach may work best,” she says. Here, an overview of some of the most popular sleep-training methods:
While you may have read up on various sleep training methods while pregnant or in the early weeks of baby’s life, it’s a good idea to speak with your pediatrician before you start. For example, if your child is gaining weight slowly or was a preemie, he may not be ready to drop a nighttime feeding and may need a sleep-training schedule that’s adapted to a few middle-of-the-night wake-ups.
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.”