• Chair method. Also called the sleep lady shuffle or gradual withdrawal and popularized by Kim West, LCSW-C, author of Good Night, Sleep Tight, this method starts with you sitting in a chair next to baby’s crib. Each night, you move the chair farther away from the crib, verbally soothing or shushing baby when she cries (although occasional patting and picking up are okay) until you’re no longer in the room. This method can be helpful for older babies and toddlers who may suffer from separation anxiety and can understand that Mom and Dad are just on the other side of the door, but it also works for younger babies.
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.”
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.
Finding the ideal bedtime can be tricky in the first few months of life. Infants who take a late afternoon nap (say, 4 to 6 p.m.) may go to bed as late as 9 or 10 p.m. A good rule of thumb is that your baby will probably sleep three to four hours after his last nap ends, but you may need to experiment, adjusting your baby’s nap and bedtime schedule to figure out what works best.
"A young child cannot yet understand what is best for him, and he may cry if he does not get what he wants," Ferber writes. "If he wanted to play with a sharp knife, you would not give it to him no matter how hard he cried, and you would not feel guilty or worry about psychological consequences. Poor sleep patterns are also harmful for your child and it is your job to correct them."
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.)
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.
• Pick-up-put-down method. In this sleep-training method, you put your child to bed while he’s awake and check on him at gradual intervals, as you do with the Ferber method. Unlike with Ferber, you can pick him up and comfort him, holding him for a few minutes before putting him down. Eventually baby will become drowsy enough to fall asleep on his own.
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:
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Create a comfortable sleep environment that's tailored to your child. Some babies need more quiet and darkness than others. Recordings of soft music or nature sounds or the sound of a gurgling aquarium can be soothing. Make sure the sheets are cozy (warm them with a hot water bottle or a microwavable heating pad, for example, before laying your baby down) and that sleepwear doesn't chafe or bind. Younger babies may sleep better when swaddled. Don't overdress your child or overheat the room.
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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.
Sears emphasizes a nurturing, child-centered approach to sleep and warns parents to be wary of one-size-fits-all sleep training. He recommends patiently helping your baby learn to sleep in his own time. He encourages co-sleeping, rocking and nursing your baby to sleep, and other forms of physical closeness to create positive sleep associations now and healthy sleep habits down the road.
This is a very gradual sleep-training method ( McGinn gives her clients a two-week plan for implementation) and requires a lot of discipline on the part of the parents. Again, you prep your baby for bed, but instead of leaving the room, you sit in a chair next to the crib. When they fall asleep, leave the room, but every time they wake up, sit back down in the chair until they fall back asleep. Every few nights, move the chair further and further away until you’re out of the room.