• DIY methods work. Don’t love the rigidity of a particular method? Modify it to suit your own family’s circumstances. Sometimes, a sleep coach can be helpful to come up with modifications that won’t affect the goal of getting baby to sleep through the night, but it’s fine to mix and match until you find a strategy you’re comfortable with. “I don’t think I’ve ever loved and loathed anything as much as I do sleep training. We did it with my son because he was still waking up every three hours at 3.5 months old, and I felt it was more out of habit,” says Margaret, a mom of one. “My husband and I decided that we valued teaching him self-soothing and that in the long run it was worth some short-term effort. I did a ton of research and came up with our own plan—similar to Ferber, but our time limits of letting him fuss weren’t as rigid. It worked, and he’s been a solid sleeper since.”
“You’ll never sleep again.” Sound familiar? There’s a reason this cliche is often repeated at baby showers: In those first few months of parenting, before baby has an established sleep-wake cycle and needs to be fed only every few hours, sleep is fractured and confusing, with a long stretch just as likely to occur midafternoon as it is in the middle of the night. And that’s normal. But once baby is a few months old—after she’s dropped those middle-of-the-night feedings and has established a somewhat predictable sleep-wake cycle—sleep training her can help your whole family get some much-needed nighttime shut-eye. Here, what you need to know before choosing the best sleep-training method for your family.
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.
• Have a solid bedtime routine. Experts say that regardless of which sleep-training method you use, having a stable bedtime—between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. for infants, Vance suggests—and a steady routine are key. Whether it’s bath, book, lullaby, bed or a different sequence, doing the same thing every evening is part of the bedrock of good sleep hygiene. Blackout curtains and a white noise app may also help.
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.
"When my son was younger, we often 'walked him to sleep' by putting him in a sling. Now that he's older, reading him a book, nursing, and cuddling does it. Also, we stopped fighting the earlier bedtime. Since he sleeps with us, he snuggles down with us, and it's become a habit that when the lights go out and Mommy and Daddy snuggle with him, it's bedtime. We rarely struggle with sleeping unless he's having bad teething pain."
Honestly, in our personalized consultations, we try to avoid this method as much as possible. If you are going to use cry it out, we recommend your baby is at least 6 months old, but preferably 10 months or older, when we expect almost all babies to be able to get through the night without a feeding. It is not for the faint at heart. We find that laying a foundation in the beginning with other strategies and techniques can reduce crying even if this method is used in the end, however.
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.
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.