“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.
On the advice of a sleep consultant, Welk and her husband took away Greyson’s pacifier, moved his bottle to before his bath (so he wouldn’t associate feeding with going to sleep) and chose to start with a very gentle method (because he was only four months old at the time). Greyson’s dad put him in the crib and stood next to him, patting him until he fell asleep, for about a week. That went well, and then they started leaving him immediately after putting him in the crib without patting him fully to sleep. “For about a month, he would cry or fuss every night for 10 to 15 minutes before falling asleep,” recalls Welk. It was hard to hear her baby cry, but she feels confident that it was for the greater good because they were both well rested and happy during the day. Now, Greyson is 11 months old and a champ sleeper, having weaned himself from night feeds at seven months.
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.
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.
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.
Fading, also known as adult fading or camping out, falls in the middle of the sleep training spectrum. In fading, parents gradually diminish their bedtime role by sitting near your baby until she falls asleep and gradually moving the chair farther away from the crib each night. Another fading approach is to check on your baby and reassure her (without picking her up) every five minutes until she falls asleep.
Crying isn't the goal of this sleep training method, but advocates say it's often an inevitable side effect as your baby adjusts to sleeping on his own. They say the short-term pain of a few tears is far outweighed by the long-term advantages: A child who goes to sleep easily and happily on his own, and parents who can count on a good night's rest.
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.
"I have two kids. The first one was never left to cry it out – we rocked, sung, walked, drove her to sleep until she was old enough to be read a story. Then, with baby number two, I decided to try CIO and after one night, it worked. At 12 months, she goes to sleep at night by herself and never cries. It was the best thing I did. My husband was against it, but he wasn't the one up four or five times every night for nine months straight! Now our household is very happy and everybody sleeps well."
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.”
There are many different sleep training methods to choose from, but the most common methods are one of or a variation of one the five we've explained below. You might find that one of these methods sounds like it would be a perfect match for you, OR you might find aspects from each plan that you like. Just like Melissa said, don't feel like you need to stick to a certain method 100%. Make the plan work for you!
Typically, formula-fed infants who are growing well no longer need to feed at night by 6 months. Breastfed infants may continue a little bit longer, but typically no longer feed at night by 9 months. If your baby has been falling asleep independently at bedtime for a month but still waking to feed, you may want to consider weaning at night. Be aware that if you are breastfeeding, this may lead to a reduction in milk supply.
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.