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.”
"The more practice your baby gets putting himself to sleep, the quicker the process works. He will fall asleep on his own, and you will get the sleep you need...Don't wait too long, though. The earlier, the better. Remember, once your baby gets older – that is, at least 5 or 6 months – the process of getting your child on a sleep schedule and to sleep through the night gets more difficult."
"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 first cried it out, and all was well. My second cried it out but it took much longer until all was well. My third, if allowed to cry too long, literally freaked out. He threw himself around his crib and would rarely calm down and fall asleep. On the rare occasion that he fell asleep, he'd wake up within minutes screaming bloody murder. Letting him cry it out was clearly not working so I looked for other options. Find your child's groove. You'll be glad you did."
12 baby-sleep tips for exhausted new parents Before you even think about “training” your baby to fall asleep on their own, make sure you’re following a regular schedule and putting them to bed at a consistent time each night (hint: early is usually better, typically around 7 or 8 p.m.). Starting at about two months old, it’s a good idea to try to put them down drowsy but awake whenever you can, just to get them (and you) used to it, even if they fuss a bit. Make sure that they’ve been awake for an appropriate amount of time before bed (an over- or under-tired baby will have trouble falling asleep), and establish a calming and consistent bedtime routine, like a feed, bath or massage followed by pyjamas and stories or songs. Some experts recommend feeding at the beginning of the routine to avoid having the baby associate the feeding with falling asleep. Ideally, your baby won’t have started to nod off at any point during your bedtime routine. “You really want to make sure your baby is primed for sleep,” says Pamela Mitelman, a psychologist in Montreal who specializes in infant and child sleep. Be conscious, too, of filling their daytime awake periods with enough activity and stimulation, says Garden. “Kids need to be moving in all sorts of ways when they are awake, not just sitting in a bouncy chair,” she says.
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.
It’s okay if you’re not ready. You aren’t missing out on sleep training if you skip it at 4 months: You truly can start sleep training at any age, even in the toddler years, although experts say it’s smart to be aware of developmental milestones and adjust baby’s sleep schedule accordingly. For example, the week baby learns to walk may be tough to implement a sleep-training schedule, and even a sleep-trained baby may see a regression simply because he’s going through such a developmental shift.
"As a last resort, I broke down and gave Ferber a try. It's been two and a half weeks, and I see no real improvement. My daughter goes down faster at night, but the crying breaks my heart. I miss snuggling with her. She still wakes up every 30 to 90 minutes after her first two-hour stretch. She shrieks when it's time for a nap. I broke down and nursed her to sleep for her afternoon nap because I couldn't stand to see her so exhausted."
A consistent bedtime routine is the cornerstone of good sleep for children. It should also be a time for parents and babies to bond. Bedtime routines need not be complex. Bathe your child (if you like), change her into pajamas, read her a story, sing a song and feed or soothe her, then put her in her crib. The key is consistency — performing the same activities, in the same sequence, at the same time each evening.
Hogg agrees with Sears that sleep associations should be positive but disagrees with his techniques. She cautions against letting your baby depend on "props" such as nursing, patting, and rocking to get to sleep. Instead, Hogg's approach calls for going to your baby when he cries, picking him up, and putting him back down as many times as necessary.
That said, sleep training isn’t a must-do for everyone, and many families who skip sleep training go on to have a child who learns to sleep through the night on her own. “It’s your family and your child, and I think there’s a misconception that pediatricians will force sleep training on your family, when that’s not the case,” Gold says. Experts emphasize that the best approach to sleep training is the one that fits your family.
“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...sleep is a complicated issue and there’s very rarely one single thing that can remedy the situation overnight. A professional sleep consultant has the experience and training to recognize which problems result in specific symptoms, and can work with you to develop a personalized plan for your child that addresses those individual issues."
One common misconception about sleep training babies (also called sleep coaching) is that there’s only one way to do it. But this could not be further from the truth! In reality, there are a number of ways many parents can work to help their babies develop healthy sleep habits and stop waking up in the middle of the night or taking short naps. Some methods involve crying, but others involve little to no tears and are very gentle.
"A young child cannot yet understand what is best for him, and he may cry if he does not get what he wants," Ferber writes. "If he wanted to play with a sharp knife, you would not give it to him no matter how hard he cried, and you would not feel guilty or worry about psychological consequences. Poor sleep patterns are also harmful for your child and it is your job to correct them."
"My 5-month-old was waking every two hours at night. I was so tired I wanted to die. I finally caved in, put in earplugs, and let him cry it out – which he did, all night! But then, something amazing happened the next night: He slept a full 12 hours and awoke rosy and cheerful. It's been that way ever since, and he's even a better napper now. I know that it is hard to listen to your precious little one cry, but a sleep-deprived, miserable mom and baby is a terrible thing too."
There is no right or wrong method of sleep training; it all comes down to your unique baby and your unique parenting style. What works well for some babies does not work well for others, so do not be surprised if the techniques your friends or family members recommend don’t work the same way for your baby. The bottom line is to choose a technique that you feel comfortable with, and that you think will work well with your baby’s temperament.
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.