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.
For my wife and me, those early days passed in a blur. Nights seemed endless, and no government ordinance was about to come along to shorten our shifts. When he was around 3 months old, our son started sleeping for longer periods and our relief was profound. But after about a month, the baby started waking up at night again. After one nightly waking became two, then three and four, I realized it was time to sleep train our son.
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.
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.
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!
Parents are often hesitant to go this route, worried about how much crying will be involved. While McGinn doesn’t deny it can be difficult at first, she finds parents are often surprised by how quickly it works. “Yes, there is a lot of crying, but it’s short term,” she says. “You might get a lot of crying for two to three nights, but then every night is less and less.” She says you should see significant improvement with this method by night three or four but adds that it’s important to try it for a week before determining that it’s not working.
"My 3-month-old doesn't sleep through the night, and it's fine with me. I keep her in her crib or a bassinet until her 3 a.m. feeding, and then she joins my husband and me until we get up for work. She won't go in her crib unless she's already asleep, usually from nursing and rocking, but she'll fall asleep in her bassinet beside our bed. She's happy and we're happy, and even if it goes against the wisdom of the experts, it's working for us."
C.I.O. is the most famous sleep training technique, and the most controversial — although, despite its daunting name, it is safe and effective. In its simplest form, unmodified extinction, you place your infant down at bedtime, drowsy but awake, and then leave the room, without returning to check on or soothe your baby. This method will work quickly, but often produces prolonged periods of crying for a few nights, which can be difficult for parents to tolerate.
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 have a 6-month-old who has refused to sleep longer than 30 to 90 minutes day or night since he was born! I've tried everything out there except CIO. He's strictly breastfed and relies on that or rocking to get to sleep. He doesn't know how to soothe himself to sleep, and he naps for only 15 minutes. I'm severely sleep deprived. I don't have the heart for CIO, but I think I'll try the revised method where you pat him down and reassure him lovingly while allowing him the opportunity to comfort himself. He's been co-sleeping since day one, and it's going to be tough, but I'm at my wits' end and cannot function."
"My 4-and-a-half-month-old will only sleep through the night if we do everything the experts say not to do. She must be nursed to sleep unless we want to see her turn purple and cry for 45 minutes or more. She's like a wind-up doll when she starts and never settles until she's comforted, and she's been that way from the beginning. It really became a matter of, "Do we want to sleep, or do we want to do what the books say?" If she's comforted and put down sleeping, she sleeps eight to 10 hours. To all you parents out there who have a baby like mine, do not despair – just do what works for you."
"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)."
Cry It Out: This method involves putting your baby into the crib drowsy, but awake. The goal is for your child to learn to fall asleep without your help, so that when your baby inevitably wakes up in the middle of the night, he or she will be able to go back to sleep on his or her own. You say goodnight and leave the room—even if your baby cries. Then, you go back in at increasingly long intervals to briefly reassure your baby. It can be difficult to listen to your baby cry, but parents who have been successful with the technique report that it results in fewer tears overall and more sleep for everyone.