The age of your baby might determine what kind of sleep-training method you choose, though. You could try a gentle shush-pat technique with a five-month-old, but you’ll likely have to leave a one-year-old in the crib as they protest (cry or scream) about the new bedtime arrangement. Don’t attempt a formal sleep-training method before four months, until your baby is able to go longer in between feeds and their circadian rhythm starts to develop. (Many babies this age still feed in the night—contrary to popular thinking, sleep training isn’t synonymous with night weaning.) Dickinson says that many four-month-old babies are biologically able to go through the night without a feed, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respond and feed them if other methods of calming them aren’t working. Since every situation is different, we recommend checking with your doctor before withholding your baby’s night-time feeds.
“You’ll never sleep again.” Sound familiar? There’s a reason this cliche is often repeated at baby showers: In those first few months of parenting, before baby has an established sleep-wake cycle and needs to be fed only every few hours, sleep is fractured and confusing, with a long stretch just as likely to occur midafternoon as it is in the middle of the night. And that’s normal. But once baby is a few months old—after she’s dropped those middle-of-the-night feedings and has established a somewhat predictable sleep-wake cycle—sleep training her can help your whole family get some much-needed nighttime shut-eye. Here, what you need to know before choosing the best sleep-training method for your family.
Most experts recommend starting when your baby is between 4 and 6 months old. By about 4 months, babies have typically started to develop a regular sleep-wake cycle and dropped most of their night feedings. These are signs they may be ready to start sleep training. Many babies this age are also developmentally able to sleep for long stretches at night.
Sleep training means using behavioral techniques to teach your baby to sleep independently by altering her “sleep onset associations” — or the circumstances your baby needs to fall asleep at bedtime. By removing your presence at bedtime, you are providing new associations with the result that she will learn to fall asleep independently, both at bedtime and when she awakens during the night.
• 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.
If your baby is growing poorly or is difficult to console, you should talk to your child’s pediatrician to ensure that your child’s sleeping difficulties have no medical cause. Likewise, if you are struggling with depression, it is critical to discuss this with your child’s pediatrician as well as your own physician. Poor sleep can prolong postpartum depression in mothers.
It’s difficult if not impossible to sleep train if you share a bed with your child. There’s good evidence that bed sharing is associated with sleep difficulties in infancy and beyond. One survey of more than 50,000 Norwegian families showed that bed sharing was associated with more frequent night awakenings at both 6 and 18 months. Switching your child to sleeping independently for a week or so prior to sleep training can be helpful as you can soothe your child to sleep in the new sleeping environment first.
I know a lot of my clients felt that way before they hired me! But I know it’s a concern that a lot of parents have when they’re thinking about getting some professional help with their little ones’ sleep habits. And it’s a valid question! After all, your mother managed to get you to sleep at some point. Your friend might have four kids who are all champion sleepers, so she should have some answers for you, right? Well, yes.. .and no!
After going through your bedtime routine, put your baby in their crib, leave the room and wait a specific amount of time (say, a minute). Then go in and reassure your baby with words like “Mommy loves you” or some kind of touch, such as a rub or pat. McGinn says it’s preferable not to pick the baby up. Garden, on the other hand, reserves this method for babies seven months and older. (In her opinion, younger babies require a parental presence so they know they haven’t been abandoned, especially if they’ve worked themselves up into a frenzy.)