There’s an awful lot of information on how to sleep train out there, leaving most parents confused, frustrated, and still wondering what sleep training is and how to do it. In this article, we’ve rounded up all the facts from real moms and professional sleep consultants on what sleep training is, how to do it, and how to decide if it’s right for you.
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!
• Having trouble? A consultant can help. Sleep consultants and coaches familiar with different sleep-training methods can answer questions, troubleshoot problems and help you find a method that works with your family. But before you enlist the aid of a sleep coach (whose services can range from a phone consultation to an overnight analysis at your house), look into their qualifications. There’s no national governing body for sleep coaching, but there are various programs that provide certification. For example, the Family Sleep Institute is a national training program; Gentle Sleep Coaches, led by Kim West, is another. Before you commit, find out about the coach’s training and credentials, and ask for referrals and experiences from past clients.
• Ferber method. Also known as timed-interval sleep training, modified sleep training or graduated extinction sleep training, parents using this method put baby down to sleep even if he’s crying, then return to check on him at different time intervals —every five, 10 and 15 minutes, and so on. You don’t pick baby up during these checks but can verbally soothe or pat him. Gradually, the intervals will get longer until eventually baby is sleeping through the night. “We did Ferber once my son was 8 months old. He got the hang of it pretty quickly and has been sleeping on his own for 10 to 12 hours ever since,” says Anika, a mom of one.
If you’re on the fence about sleep training, it can be helpful to think of it this way: What is my baby’s developmental need right now? “At 11 months, they don’t need to eat during the night but they do need consistent sleep,” says Garden. Yes, those nights of crying are heartbreaking. But chances are, if you’re considering sleep training, it’s because what you’re currently doing isn’t working for you.
“There are many variations to any sleep training method. For example, you can do a cross between The Chair Method and PUPD with great success and fewer tears! There are also ways of breaking each method into smaller baby steps, which we recommend very often in our Personalized Sleep Plans®. Find what feels tolerable (because, frankly, no one ‘likes’ to sleep train), more comfortable for you, and what seems the gentlest, yet effective, on your baby, depending on his or her temperament and personality.”
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.
• DIY methods work. Don’t love the rigidity of a particular method? Modify it to suit your own family’s circumstances. Sometimes, a sleep coach can be helpful to come up with modifications that won’t affect the goal of getting baby to sleep through the night, but it’s fine to mix and match until you find a strategy you’re comfortable with. “I don’t think I’ve ever loved and loathed anything as much as I do sleep training. We did it with my son because he was still waking up every three hours at 3.5 months old, and I felt it was more out of habit,” says Margaret, a mom of one. “My husband and I decided that we valued teaching him self-soothing and that in the long run it was worth some short-term effort. I did a ton of research and came up with our own plan—similar to Ferber, but our time limits of letting him fuss weren’t as rigid. It worked, and he’s been a solid sleeper since.”
• Have a solid bedtime routine. Experts say that regardless of which sleep-training method you use, having a stable bedtime—between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. for infants, Vance suggests—and a steady routine are key. Whether it’s bath, book, lullaby, bed or a different sequence, doing the same thing every evening is part of the bedrock of good sleep hygiene. Blackout curtains and a white noise app may also help.
"By the time your baby is 3 months old and has developed a fairly predictable 24-hour pattern, it becomes more important for you to provide increasingly consistent structure. If you do your best to establish a reasonable and consistent daily routine and keep to it as much as possible, then it is likely that your child will continue to develop good patterns. If instead you allow the times of your child's feedings, playtimes, baths, and other activities to change constantly, chances are his sleep will become irregular as well."
• No tears method. Created by sleep expert Elizabeth Pantley, this technique, also known as the no-cry method, involves subtly shifting your child’s sleep habits. For example, one trick, known as “fading,” suggests gradually easing out of baby’s go-to sleep strategy. For instance, if she always needs to be rocked, you would rock less and less until you can put her down to sleep without any rocking. Another technique, called substitution, switches out the routine—so if baby always nurses before bedtime, read a book instead.
• 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.
The biggest reason why the solutions that work for one parent don’t work for another is simple. They’re not dealing with the same baby. Some babies are heavily reliant on sleep props. Others can’t sleep in a room that’s too warm. Some may not be getting enough daytime sleep, and others might be overtired. This baby might have developed an association between feeding and falling asleep, whereas that one might be ready to drop their second daytime nap. And, of course, it could be any combination of all of the above, or the many other sleep challenges that babies might experience.
But when he was about three-and-a-half months old, the routine fell apart. “I would feed him, but he wouldn’t be asleep at the end of the feed,” recalls Welk. “I would rock him until he fell asleep and put him down, and then he would wake up 30 minutes later and I would do it all over again.” Desperate for some rest, Welk brought Greyson into bed with her, but then she ended up just lying still, holding a pacifier in his mouth all night long. “I didn’t know anything about sleep,” says Welk. “I didn’t know you couldn’t just rock them to sleep and then put them down.”