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.
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.
It’s definitions like this that have given the general term “sleep training” a bit of a bad rep. There are certain methods of sleep training, such as “Cry-It-Out” or the Ferber method, that might make some parents wearisome of sleep training as a whole. However, sleep training does not necessarily equal cry it out. There are many different sleep training methods and practices behind sleep training, including gentle sleep training—the most important part of sleep training is finding the method that works best for you and your baby!
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 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."
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“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.”
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.
With the fading technique, continue with whatever method you were using to help your baby fall asleep (such as rocking or nursing), but decrease the amount of time you spend doing it until, in theory, you don’t have to do it at all. This is a great technique for minimizing crying, but unfortunately, many parents find it difficult to sustain. “There has to be an end in sight,” explains Mitelman. “For example, we’ll meet this need for five to seven days and then we’ll pull back a little bit.” But if you’re willing to stick to the plan and get your baby to the end goal of going to bed without your assistance, Mitelman says it’s worth a try. “Whichever way the child can get to sleep independently is fine because that’s the key ingredient to sleeping through the night.”
This is another gentler technique. The PUPD method works just the way it sounds: when it’s time to sleep, and your baby is fussing or crying in his crib or bassinet, you pick him up and comfort him until he’s calm and drowsy. Then, you put him back in his crib to sleep, repeating this cycle until your baby is finally asleep. PUPD is another method that requires quite a bit of patience, depending on your baby, and it won’t work for every baby; some babies find being picked up and put down so often over-stimulating, and they gradually become frustrated and worked up, instead of relaxed.
"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."
• Know there will be regressions. Teething, illness, vacation and routine shifts all can lead to poor sleep, and that’s all right, Vance says. “Often, you may have to go back to training for a day or two to get back on track, but you won’t lose ground. If your child has been trained to be a good sleeper, one week off schedule because of vacation won’t change that.”
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!
This method involves more tears than the previous two; however, you don’t leave your baby unattended in the room at all. Here’s how the chair method works: start by doing your normal bedtime routine. Then, put a chair very near the crib, bassinet, or bed and sit on the chair as your baby falls asleep. The goal is not to help your child fall asleep, nor to help her calm down necessarily, depending on how you implement it. You are generally not supposed to give your child any attention. The reason you are in the chair is only to reassure them that you are there with them and have not left them alone. Each night you move the chair farther and farther away from the crib until you are right outside the door until eventually, you no longer need the chair at all.
"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."
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.
Sleep training is a loaded phrase, and one that is often used synonymously with letting your baby self-soothe, or “cry it out,” but that’s not the whole picture, says Alanna McGinn, a certified sleep consultant and the founder of Good Night Sleep Site. “It’s more about being able to teach your baby that they are capable of falling asleep independently,” she says. You want your baby to be able to nod off on their own—ideally without nursing, rocking or using a pacifier—because whatever tools they use to fall asleep at bedtime are the same things they’re going to wake up looking for during the night. Yes, this can feel unloving and even downright cruel. You’ll find experts on both sides of the issue: Breastfeeding advocates say it’s normal for babies of all ages to wake up multiple times to nurse, and even the sleep coaches interviewed for this article disagree with how much crying and distress are acceptable.