How to sleep train a baby: Tactics and tips for new parents
March 21, 2022
Author: Josie Sivigny
There are few things as beautiful and peaceful as a sleeping baby. Watching your little one’s slow, rhythmic breathing as they snuggle down is one of the greatest perks of being a new parent. Not only is a happy sleeping baby a heartwarming sight, it also gives moms and dads some much-needed time to take care of other responsibilities (or even catch a few ZZZs themselves), secure in the knowledge that baby is comfortable and content.
Unfortunately, not every baby takes to sleep as easily as others.
If you’re having a difficult time helping your baby bed down for naps or night-time sleep, then it’s natural to feel frustrated. After all, your baby’s sleep schedule affects more than their own mood; regular, reliable sleep time is necessary for parents to be able to recharge their own batteries, and when your child refuses to snooze, it can take a serious toll on your mental and even physical health.
Well, don’t worry—we’re here to help! In this post, we’ll provide a breakdown on some of the most-effective sleep training methods, as well as tips to help new parents get in some much-needed naps of their own.
A crash course in sleep training
They may not always seem like it, but your baby is an absolute sponge for learning new things. Every moment of every day, they’re taking in new information, figuring out new abilities, and creating a more complete picture of this strange new world they inhabit. But not everything comes easily, and sometimes these perfect little people need some help to set them on the right path. And when it comes to learning how to rest, sleep training may be the best way to go.
What is sleep training?
Sleep training is an umbrella term that describes the various methods designed to lovingly teach a baby how to fall asleep on their own, without relying on you for a breast, a bottle, or a middle-of-the-night rocking session. In essence, a sleep-trained baby is one that can be put down to bed fully awake, and will then drift off to sleep on their own with minimal fussing. Sleep training also provides babies the skills to get themselves back to sleep when they inevitably wake up overnight.
It’s also worth noting that sleep training is not the same thing as night weaning; even babies that are able to fall asleep on their own may need to feed during the night. But once they’ve had their fill, they should be able to fall back asleep quickly and easily.
When should you start sleep training?
Even among experts, there is no definitive age at which a baby should begin sleep training. Instead, your baby should be old enough and weigh enough to help ensure an effective and healthy transition into self sleeping.
Many babies reach this stage in development when they are about four to six months old. That said, some babies may demonstrate readiness as early as two months. And even older babies (or toddlers) who were never properly sleep trained may be capable of learning some good habits.
Keep in mind that your baby—particularly if he or she is a younger baby—needs food more than sleep. Infants have tiny tummies, and keeping those baby bellies full is more important than ensuring that they get several hours of uninterrupted rest. So, before you start sleep training, be sure to check with your baby’s doctor to make sure that your baby is developmentally ready.
If your baby isn’t ready to begin sleep training but you’re desperate for more sleep yourself, consider working with your partner or another trusted adult to schedule some time off, so you can catch up on your rest while your baby’s needs are being taken care of.
Top sleep training methods
With all of that out of the way, let’s look at some of the most popular sleep training methods.
Crying It Out (Extinction) Method
Perhaps the most well-known and controversial sleep training technique, the alarmingly-named Extinction Method is also perhaps the most direct. It involves laying the baby down at the close of the bedtime routine, saying goodnight, and then leaving them to fall asleep on their own. The idea is that by refusing to respond to the baby’s inevitable cries, you teach them how to soothe themselves to sleep without relying on you.Sounds harsh? It can certainly feel that way, and some parents find this method simply too stressful. However, many childcare experts suggest that this approach is more difficult for the parents than it is for the baby; the child learns and adapts relatively quickly, often within a matter of nights.
If you choose to try the Extinction Method, you’ll need to determine ahead of time when and how you will go back in to offer reassurance. Some experts say to stay out all night, only going in at preset feeding times. Others suggest that you should wait for baby to wake a number of times before reassuring them and laying them back down.
For this method to work, you will need to remain consistent. Try to stick with the method for at least one week and then evaluate whether there has been any improvement.
Check and Console (Ferber) Method
If letting your baby cry it out all on their own doesn’t appeal to you, consider the Ferber Method. Unlike the Extinction Method, Ferber suggests that parents wait a preset amount of time before going back in to reassure and help settle down a crying baby.This doesn’t mean restarting the entire bedtime routine; ideally, the reassurance should be brief, consisting of a gentle touch and a soothing voice, but not involving picking up, rocking, feeding, etc. After which, you leave the room again, and allow your child to cry for a longer period of time before returning. Initially, you may choose to only wait one to three minutes before going back in, but you should be able to gradually increase that time to 10 or 15 minutes across a few days.
The main idea behind the Ferber Method is that within a few days, your baby will learn that crying and fussing is not a get-out-of-bedtime-free card. They’ll learn to fall asleep (or fall back to sleep) on their own, while still knowing that you are there for them.
The Shush-Pat Method is somewhat of a departure from crying it out. It postulates that while the baby is responsible for learning how to fall asleep, parents need to be there to calm down an agitated child and help them relax when they get fussy.With this technique, you remain in the room while the baby falls asleep, gently patting their tummy and speaking soothingly, reassuring them with your presence. You may also decide to let your baby cry for a little while, but then pick him or her up and rock them briefly to help calm them down before returning them to the crib.
Shush-Pat is more effective for younger infants; babies that are about six months or older may get too much stimulation from being picked up and put back down, potentially having a negative effect on their ability to fall back asleep.
If leaving your baby to fall asleep alone in their room doesn’t appeal to you, you might consider the chair method. The Chair Method is a more-gradual approach, usually taking about two weeks to really take effect. It also demands a bit more effort on the part of the parent.In the Chair Method, you follow through on your baby’s established sleep routine, but rather than leaving once the baby is in the crib, you sit down in a nearby chair and wait for them to fall asleep before you leave the room. When your baby wakes up, you go back in and sit down in the chair while they go back to sleep. Every few nights, move the chair progressively further away from the crib, until you’re near the doorway, and then outside of the door but still in view, until your baby no longer needs to know that you’re there.
This method may feel less traumatic, but it does have its downsides. For one thing, a baby who goes to sleep with mom or dad in the room and wakes to find them gone may be startled completely out of sleep and into full panic mode. Likewise, some babies may feel confused having a parent in the room when it’s time to go to sleep, and may become even more frustrated when the parent refuses to pull them out of the crib—effectively eliminating any chance of self soothing.
Sleep training tips
There is more to sleep training than just knowing the right techniques. Here are several tips to help you and your baby achieve success when it’s time to get some rest.
- Some babies learn to self soothe and fall asleep on their own without sleep training. If your baby is sleeping just fine, don’t worry about trying to train them.
- Sleep training can be difficult, so before you get started make sure that you have the right elements in place. Set and follow a regular nap and bedtime schedule, and try to put your baby down when they are drowsy, but not fully asleep.
- Identify routines that help your baby relax, such as songs, baths, stories, or just simple cuddle time.
- Be sure that your baby has a full tummy before bed, but consider taking care of feeding at the beginning of the routine rather than at the end, so that baby can learn to fall asleep without relying on food.
- Fill your baby’s awake time with mental stimulation and physical play; infants sleep better when they’ve had an active day.
- Try not to judge a particular method’s effectiveness based upon a single bad night—look for trends, and see if your baby is showing improvement across weeks.
- Regularly take your baby outside. Being outside (and well protected) during the day time can help reset your baby’s internal clock, and make them more ready to go to sleep once the sun goes down.
- Listen to your instincts; if you are uncomfortable with a specific approach, then trying to force it will only make you feel all the more frustrated, stressed, and guilty, and you might pass that distress onto your child.
- Recognize that what works for one child may not work for another. Just like any other students in any other discipline, babies are unique individuals who respond differently to different teaching methods.
- Don’t neglect your own sleep. Sleep is just as important to your health and wellbeing as it is to your baby’s, so take time whenever possible to catch some extra sleep. As previously mentioned, this may mean working out a schedule with your partner or with another trusted caregiver. Remember, your sleep is more important than almost any other task you might have for yourself, so don’t be afraid to ignore the laundry or skip out on a video meeting when you need to squeeze in a nap.