In the first several weeks of life, babies are hungry at night, leading to an apparent reversal of day and night and erratic sleep patterns. Fortunately, this usually resolves by about 3 weeks of age, after which your child settles into a three- or four-hour cycle, typically following a pattern of waking, feeding and sleeping. At this point, exposing your baby to natural light during the day can help encourage longer periods of daytime wakefulness and more sleep at night.
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.
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.”
• 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.
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.
McKenna advises against sleep training and encouraging babies to sleep for long stretches at night. Instead, he urges parents to follow their babies' cues and allow them to wake frequently through the night to feed. A strong advocate for co-sleeping, McKenna encourages bed-sharing and other co-sleeping arrangements, such as putting the baby in a bassinet or crib at the parent's bedside, while also following standard SIDS safety precautions – for example, making sure there are no blankets or stuffed animals around him.
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.