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.
In the first several weeks of life, babies are hungry at night, leading to an apparent reversal of day and night and erratic sleep patterns. Fortunately, this usually resolves by about 3 weeks of age, after which your child settles into a three- or four-hour cycle, typically following a pattern of waking, feeding and sleeping. At this point, exposing your baby to natural light during the day can help encourage longer periods of daytime wakefulness and more sleep at night.
If your baby is older than six months, don’t worry, McGinn says: “It’s never too late to develop good sleep habits.” Dickinson says he finds nine months to be a bit of a sweet spot for parents in terms of getting babies to sleep through the night. “They are at a good age for understanding routines and don’t need to eat during the night,” he explains.
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Sleep training means using behavioral techniques to teach your baby to sleep independently by altering her “sleep onset associations” — or the circumstances your baby needs to fall asleep at bedtime. By removing your presence at bedtime, you are providing new associations with the result that she will learn to fall asleep independently, both at bedtime and when she awakens during the night.
Do your research, talk to your doctor and if you’re overwhelmed, consider hiring a sleep consultant or taking a workshop. Your baby’s sleep might seem like a mystery to you, but there are people who understand the complexities and can help. While not everyone agrees with every approach, no one would argue with the benefits of a good night’s sleep, for babies and exhausted parents alike.
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.
It’s definitions like this that have given the general term “sleep training” a bit of a bad rep. There are certain methods of sleep training, such as “Cry-It-Out” or the Ferber method, that might make some parents wearisome of sleep training as a whole. However, sleep training does not necessarily equal cry it out. There are many different sleep training methods and practices behind sleep training, including gentle sleep training—the most important part of sleep training is finding the method that works best for you and your baby!
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.
This is a very gentle, no-tears/no-cry (or very little cry) method of sleep coaching where you “fade it out” (FIO). With the Fading method, you continue to help your baby fall asleep (by rocking or feeding to sleep, for instance), but over time, you gradually do less and less of the ‘work’ to put your baby to sleep, and your baby does more and more. For instance, if you normally rock your baby completely to sleep, you may shorten the amount of time you rock each night until you are rocking for only a few minutes only as a part of the bedtime routine. This method requires quite a bit of patience on the parent’s part, in some cases, but it’s great for families who want to minimize crying as much as possible.
Nicole Johnson is the founder and lead sleep consultant of The Baby Sleep Site®. Since she began in 2008, and with the help of her team of sleep consultants, she has helped over 40,000 families improve their sleep. She has also held a position on the board of the International Association of Child Sleep Consultants (IACSC) since 2015. Millions of visitors land on The Baby Sleep Site each year, and Nicole and her team are here to find solutions for your family’s sleep problems that will match your baby's temperament and your parenting style.
“I always say bedtime and nap routines can start from day 1. A child is never too young to learn healthy sleep habits and routines! But to get a baby sleeping through the night there are a few things I check. The baby should be at least 15 lbs, no medical concerns, and on a healthy growth curve approved by their pediatrician. If all these points are met, then I'm ready to start getting that little one sleeping through the night!"
"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)."
"My well-meaning friends are all Ferber addicts. I went against my own instincts with our son and tried with no success. They promised it would get better each night, but on the third night he cried for three hours, much longer than the first two. I felt like a failure and, of course, stressed from all of his crying. Babies have their own personalities, and you shouldn't feel pressured into doing something that 'works for everyone else.'"
"I tried Tracy Hogg's approach: Don't leave the baby to cry! Instead, when he starts up, go in there, pick him up, and love him until he stops. Once he's calm, lay him back down. If he starts crying again, repeat. Eventually he'll know it's time to sleep. Hogg said she had to do it 126 times with one child, but it dropped to 30 the next night, four the next, and soon she didn't have to do it at all. I tried this with my 3-month-old and it worked like a charm!"
As your baby gets older and their sleep needs change, make sure that you’re adjusting wake times, naps and bedtimes accordingly to help them continue to easily fall asleep and stay asleep. Some parents think of sleep training as a “one-and-done” endeavour: You endure a lot of crying for a few days and your prize is a perfect sleeper. But it’s really a lifestyle change—once your child has the skills to fall asleep, they’ll still need routines, consistency and help adapting when life throws curveballs, like starting daycare, the arrival of a new sibling or going on a trip (where they may have to sleep in a different space or crib). Colds and illnesses, as well as time changes, can also throw a wrench in your perfect schedule. The trick here is to get back on track as soon as possible. If you start allowing or enabling the old, bad habits and sleep associations, it will take longer to return to the regular routine.