Most sleep coaches say the ideal time to start sleep training (or promote independent sleep, not necessarily using the cry-it-out method) is based on your baby’s development, but is usually somewhere between four and six months, when your baby hasn’t had much time to get used to nursing or rocking to sleep. At this stage, most babies are also developmentally ready to learn the skill of falling asleep on their own, explains Jennifer Garden, an occupational therapist who runs Sleepdreams in Vancouver. Around four months of age, some babies go through a sleep regression because their sleep cycles change and there are longer periods of lighter sleep per cycle. “It’s a great time to work on independent sleep skills,” says McGinn. Other babies’ slumber derails around this time because they are working on new skills, like moving around and rolling. Some parents choose to wait until things settle down before embarking on a sleep-training method, but you don’t have to, says McGinn.
Sleep training will look a little bit different for every family, depending on what method you choose to follow. The different methods require different tactics from the parents in order to be successful. Melissa’s tip: take notes! Having a record of how your baby has progressed throughout the sleep training will come in handy when you’re too tired to remember how long (or little) they slept the previous night.
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.
“I knew I didn’t want to sleep train, so I co-slept with my son until he was about 5 months old,” says Corinna, a mom of two. “At 5 months, I was able to put him in a room on his own, but I would attend to him if he cried. By 10 months, he was sleeping through the night on his own. Maybe I was lucky, but I felt like what worked best for our family was following his lead.”
Nicole Johnson is the founder and lead sleep consultant of The Baby Sleep Site®. Since she began in 2008, and with the help of her team of sleep consultants, she has helped over 40,000 families improve their sleep. She has also held a position on the board of the International Association of Child Sleep Consultants (IACSC) since 2015. Millions of visitors land on The Baby Sleep Site each year, and Nicole and her team are here to find solutions for your family’s sleep problems that will match your baby's temperament and your parenting style.
"When my son was younger, we often 'walked him to sleep' by putting him in a sling. Now that he's older, reading him a book, nursing, and cuddling does it. Also, we stopped fighting the earlier bedtime. Since he sleeps with us, he snuggles down with us, and it's become a habit that when the lights go out and Mommy and Daddy snuggle with him, it's bedtime. We rarely struggle with sleeping unless he's having bad teething pain."
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.”
• 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.
“I always say bedtime and nap routines can start from day 1. A child is never too young to learn healthy sleep habits and routines! But to get a baby sleeping through the night there are a few things I check. The baby should be at least 15 lbs, no medical concerns, and on a healthy growth curve approved by their pediatrician. If all these points are met, then I'm ready to start getting that little one sleeping through the night!"
The benefits of sleep training baby can be substantial: Everyone in the household will be well rested, and sleep is essential to baby’s development. A landmark 2007 study from the National Institutes of Health suggested that critical brain-development periods are dependent on adequate sleep. “Sleep training baby may not be fun, but I always tell families that it’s not dangerous, and developing good sleep hygiene is, in my opinion, one of the best things you can do for your child,” Gold says.
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.
"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 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."
• 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.
It might be strange to think of sleeping as a skill that does not come naturally. As a new parent, you’re probably so exhausted that you pass out as soon as your head hits the pillow. Your baby, however, doesn’t have this same ability yet. Although they spend a lot of time sleeping, they need to learn when to sleep (day vs. night) and how to sleep. Until they do, they need your assistance, which is why you (as you should) help soothe them to sleep at bedtime and comfort them when they wake in the middle of the night. Sleep training is teaching your baby how to sleep without any help from you - just like you’re able to fall asleep without anyone there to help you do it.
"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."
"I tried Tracy Hogg's approach: Don't leave the baby to cry! Instead, when he starts up, go in there, pick him up, and love him until he stops. Once he's calm, lay him back down. If he starts crying again, repeat. Eventually he'll know it's time to sleep. Hogg said she had to do it 126 times with one child, but it dropped to 30 the next night, four the next, and soon she didn't have to do it at all. I tried this with my 3-month-old and it worked like a charm!"
The idea behind extinction (or full extinction to differentiate it from graduated extinction) is that you want to extinguish the behaviour (crying) by not responding to it. As with the check-and-console method, go through your bedtime routine, put them in their crib awake, say good night and walk out. This is certainly the most controversial sleep-training method, and even experts disagree on what you should do next—it all depends on what stage your baby is at developmentally, as well as what works for the parents.