When to Start Sleep Training

Ah, sleep training. Perhaps one of the most researched parenting topics, and yet, the information you carefully processed before your bundle of joy arrived disappears when you're rolling into your third month of constant sleep deprivation.

It might seem weird that you have to teach a baby to sleep, if you haven't spent much time with one. Yes, that fresh newborn sleeps on your chest for twenty hours a day and it is precious. But eventually, you have to teach your child to sleep in their own crib, through the night, and things get decidedly less precious from there on out.

There's a lot to think about when starting sleep training, so let this be a jumping off point for you.

What is Sleep Training?

Sleep training is the process of teaching your baby how to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the course of a night. Most parents start sleep training their babies at around 4-6 months, when children start sleeping for roughly 8-12 hours per night.

Some parents find the concept of sleep training to be a little controversial, and there is plenty of research available that supports all sides of the argument. But sleep training doesn't just refer to closing the nursery door and letting your kiddo cry themselves to sleep–typically the method that gives sleep training a bad name. Teaching your baby good sleep habits from day one can help save both of you a lot of pain in the long run. Babies don't naturally know how to sleep on their own in a crib, so when you feel your baby is ready, there are a few things you can do to make the transition easier. 

When Should I Start Sleep Training?

There are so many methods to choose from (and argue about in sleep training Facebook groups) but let's start with probably the least understood aspect of sleep training: When do you actually start sleep training?

Every baby is different, and what works for one may be too soon for another. It's okay that your baby might be ready for sleeping on their own later than another.

That being said, there are few developmental milestones that most babies will hit that can help you understand their sleep.

Prior to about twelve weeks old, do yourself a favor and accept that there are no rules. Just survive, and brush your teeth.

Around the fourth month, things start shifting for your baby. They go from being able to drop into a deep sleep anytime to having sleep cycles that are more like ours. This is known as the "four month regression" and it can be a real, excuse the pun, nightmare. Some babies will wake up hourly, trying to adjust to their new cycles, some will cry more, others start to reverse cycle and stay up all night, just to sleep all day. It can be tough, but remember that just like every other phase, this is temporary. Training during a regression is bold, but it can be done, and it will help both of you when the next one comes around.

Another thing to keep in mind is making sure your baby is ready to sleep for longer stretches. If your kiddo's weight gain looks good to your pediatrician, they'll probably give you the go ahead to stop feeding every three hours. If your baby doesn't have any other medical needs or feeding needs, it's time to pick a method.

What does awake but drowsy mean?

You've probably seen this phrase a thousand times if you're researching sleep training. Almost every method of sleep training recommends that this elusive state is the perfect way to put your baby down, but it can be hard to figure it out.

This phrase is trying to help you prevent the emotional and physical rollercoaster that is an overtired baby. If you've never had the pleasure of interacting with a baby that should have gone to bed an hour ago, it can be a harrowing experience. Once a baby hits "overtired" they experience a burst of cortisol and adrenaline, which keeps them in a heightened state and can make getting them down impossible. The key is to get them in the crib, fed, dry, and cozy before they get to this stage.

You can tell a baby is tired way before they can. Some signs to watch for are red eyebrows, rubbing their eyes, yawning, and in older babies, delusional babbling that seems cute at first until you realize how exhausted they are.

If you've missed all of these signs and your baby starts crying, you might feel like you've gone too far. Not to worry, overtired babies are survivable. Here's a method of calming a melting down infant that actually works, and will save both of you from crying. Once you've soothed your little one, they should be able to fall asleep, and hopefully nap long enough to forget all about it.

How to Choose a Sleep Training Method

Choosing a sleep training method can be hard to do, but just know that you don't have to stick with something that doesn't feel right just because you started down one path. There's something that works for every family, and the goal is always to do what's right for you and your baby. Teaching them to sleep can be an intimidating process, but there's a method for everyone. And if one of these doesn't work out, try another. Eventually your baby will sleep, and so will you.

Cry it out and traditional sleep training

The most commonly debated method of sleep training is probably the extinction/cry it out method, or CIO on all of the mommy blogs you're following and desperately trying to translate. It can be a divisive method, but there's plenty of research that backs it up when applied carefully. Some babies take to this method really well, because they learn how to self soothe. When done right, it can help teach your baby how to be more independent, and give you all back your sleep. Ensure that your baby's needs are being met, and more often than not it only takes them a few nights to get the hang of it.

Controlled crying methods

There are a ton of methods out there that experts recommend for parents who aren't ready for cry it out, or don't want to subject their babies to it. Controlled crying methods implement check ins at certain intervals that remind your baby that while they might be upset, you're still nearby. Some babies actually respond worse to knowing you're just down the hall, but some do great after a few check ins. It's all about what works for both of you. If this sounds like something you're interested in, research the Ferber Method, which involves as little crying as possible.

No cry sleep training methods

No cry methods are ideal for parents that aren't interested in trying the more traditional methods, and are sometimes gentler on both worried parents and stressed out babies. This usually involves switching up how you're helping your baby get to sleep so that they don't become too reliant on any one method, and gradually allowing them to mature into sleeping through the night. Eventually, every baby stops waking up at night regularly, though it can take years for some kids to get the hang of it. Every child is different and has different needs, which is important to remember if you're going to approach a no cry method.

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Shelly Weaver-Cather
Shelly Weaver-Cather

Shelly Weaver is part of the Content Team at Tuft & Needle, leading the writing and editing of our blog. Not quite a Phoenix native, (They take that sort of thing super seriously.) Shelly has spent most of her life in the Phoenix Metro area and has no plans of leaving anytime soon. She made the unexpected jump out of wedding photography and onto T&N’s team in 2016, and found a passion for the people that keep the lights on. She still finds herself shooting in her free time, though these days there are less bridal portraits and more masterpieces of her first child, Duke, a lab-pit mix with an unparalleled love for both T&N mattress hogging and couch destroying.

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