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.
Once you launch your plan, stick to it. Parents who've been through sleep training agree that consistency is the key. Unless you realize that your child simply isn't physically or emotionally ready and you decide to put the program on hold for a while, follow through with it for a couple of weeks. When your baby wakes you up at 2 a.m., you may be tempted to give in and hold or rock him, but if you do, your hard work will be wasted and you'll have to start over from square one.
The age of your baby might determine what kind of sleep-training method you choose, though. You could try a gentle shush-pat technique with a five-month-old, but you’ll likely have to leave a one-year-old in the crib as they protest (cry or scream) about the new bedtime arrangement. Don’t attempt a formal sleep-training method before four months, until your baby is able to go longer in between feeds and their circadian rhythm starts to develop. (Many babies this age still feed in the night—contrary to popular thinking, sleep training isn’t synonymous with night weaning.) Dickinson says that many four-month-old babies are biologically able to go through the night without a feed, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respond and feed them if other methods of calming them aren’t working. Since every situation is different, we recommend checking with your doctor before withholding your baby’s night-time feeds.
"As you modify your baby's sleep behavior, you are going to have to give up middle-of-the-night crutches, known as negative associations, that may get her back to sleep in the short run but won't prevent her from popping up again in an hour. She may resist the change. The behavior may even get worse before it gets better as she adjusts to new routines, to new positive associations."
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.)
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.
There are various schools of thought on sleep training. Some sleep-training methods fall under the umbrella of “gentle sleep training,” which generally means you’re still going to pick up, rock and soothe baby if she cries. Other methods, often under the “extinction” label, advise parents to let baby self-soothe for the entire night and not open the door until morning. Neither of these methods are right or wrong—it all depends on what works best for you and your family.
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.
I know a lot of my clients felt that way before they hired me! But I know it’s a concern that a lot of parents have when they’re thinking about getting some professional help with their little ones’ sleep habits. And it’s a valid question! After all, your mother managed to get you to sleep at some point. Your friend might have four kids who are all champion sleepers, so she should have some answers for you, right? Well, yes.. .and no!
As we previously mentioned, introducing healthy sleep habits and routines as early as possible will help significantly during sleep training. If you haven’t already, try to establish a bedtime routine before you start sleep training baby — this will encourage healthy baby sleep patterns. This should be a series of soothing activities that help to calm your baby and prepare them for sleep - things like swaddling, bathing, and rocking usually work well, but every family’s routine will look different.
“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.”
Sleep training advocates in this category encourage a more gradual approach – soothing the baby to sleep and offering comfort right away when the child cries. Pediatrician William Sears, author of The Baby Sleep Book, is a leading proponent. Parent educator Elizabeth Pantley outlines a step-by-step no tears approach in her book The No-Cry Sleep Solution.
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.