Babies are notoriously bad sleepers. More often than not, they cry the moment you place them in their crib, they wake up randomly throughout the night, and they hate most of the things that are supposed to allow them a safe and sound night’s rest (i.e. any sleeping surface other than their bouncer). If you’re feeling exhausted and overwhelmed by lack of rest, like all parents of tiny newborns are, you might be considering sleep training your baby. Sleep training is safe and many, many families choose to do it. When it comes to sleep training your baby, it’s really important to make a plan and stick to it. First, it’s good to know all of the basics, like exactly when to start sleep training, and how to make it work for you.
Sleep training could cut down on, or eliminate middle-of-the-night wakings, a bedtime routine that takes hours, and unwanted co-sleeping. Sleep training is also completely safe when done correctly: A 2018 study looked at 235 infants with an average age of 7 months, and found that sleep training improved sleep problems for baby and improved the overall moods of moms with no adverse effects. While this is a small study, the chance of a better night’s sleep and a happier day for you and baby sounds pretty enticing.
What is sleep training?
Sleep training is the act of training your baby to sleep independently. While the ultimate goal is to get your baby to sleep several consecutive hours overnight, that’s not actually what you’re teaching. “The point is not to get babies to sleep throughout the night, but to teach baby or child to fall back asleep independently if they do wake up,” explains Alanna McGinn, a pediatric sleep coach.
When to start sleep training
The general rule is that you can start to sleep train a baby as early as 4 months of age, and McGinn agrees with this timeline. However, speak to your pediatrician first, especially if your baby was premature or has any health concerns, particularly if there are concerns about weight gain.
Why wait until they’re 4 months old or older? Because, before 4 months, babies likely lack the ability to self-soothe, and sleep training is all about encouraging them to learn to self-soothe. Basically, if you try to sleep train a baby younger than 4 months, you’ll be trying to teach them something they may not be capable of learning. “The most important aspect is the concept of ‘object permanence,’ says Dr. Michael Breus, a sleep specialist and clinical psychologist. “This is a developmental stage where the baby knows that when you leave, you are not leaving forever.” The development of object permanence is a huge developmental milestone, and usually happens around four to six months of age — often coinciding with the dreaded 4 month sleep regression.
What are the most popular sleep training methods?
There are several different methods of sleep training that you could follow. Each one comes with a careful plan to follow. Some take longer to become effective than others, and some may lead to a little more crying than others.
Full extinction (cry-it-out)
Extinction, sometimes also called cry-it-out (CIO) involves parents putting their baby down to sleep wide awake and allowing them to put themselves to sleep. No checking or patting required. It’s straightforward and to the point. When you do full extinction, you simply put your baby down, and you don’t go back into the room in the morning, no matter how much they’re crying.
“The pro is that, out of all of the methods, this is the quickest,” McGinn says. Many parents choose extinction because their baby will cry a lot for the first three to four nights, and then they’ll be sleep trained (or, at least, that’s the goal).” The con? “It’s hard!” McGinn says. “It’s hard to hear your child cry, of course. Even though your child will be fine and still love you in the morning, it’s never easy to hear your child cry, so it can be harder to remain consistent with the extinction method.”
The Ferber method
The Ferber method was first introduced by Dr. Richard Ferber in his book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, published in 1985, and has been extremely popular since then. Known also as “graduated extinction, it’s a more, well, gradual form of sleep training than full extinction. In this method, the parent puts Baby down awake, then goes into their room in timed intervals to check and console until they eventually fall asleep on their own. There are slightly different variations out there, but typically it’s a seven-day process. “Every day the intervals get longer and longer to allow baby to practice the skill of independent sleep on their own,” McGinn says.
For example, for the first night, you would put your baby down and the first check-in would be after three minutes of crying. The second check-in would be after five minutes of crying, and the third and any check-in after that would be after 10 minutes of crying. The second night it would be five, 10, and 12 minutes, and so on and so forth.
“A pro of the Ferber method is that parents can go in and do the checks, but the con would also be the same reason,” McGinn says. “Sometimes going in and out and doing those checks can reset baby’s sleep and make them cry longer and louder.” If you think your baby will do better with check-ins, try this one, but if you feel it’s making things worse, stop it and try something different.
The chair method
The chair method is similar to Ferber in that it is gradual and longer. With this method, you put your baby to bed awake while you sit in a chair next to the crib to soothe them. Every few days, you move the chair further and further away from the crib, and it usually takes about 14 days.
“The pro is that the parent is in the room the entire time until the child falls asleep,” McGinns ays. “I always say this method is more for the parent than the child, although this can work very well for some children.” The con is also that you’re in the room with the child. “Even though you’re sitting in the char, you’re still not responding to your child how they are used to you responding to them, i.e. feeding to sleep or rocking them. They’re watching you watch them, which can cause more crying.”
The fading method
The fading method is meant to shift your baby’s sleep schedule by following their natural sleeping and waking cycle, or their circadian rhythm. You determine their natural bedtime and then put them to bed a little later. The idea is that if they’re really ready to go to sleep, they’ll put up less of a fight. Parents will go through their bedtime routine, then put the baby in the crib and observe when they fall asleep for several nights. They pat them to comfort them if they’re crying and log the time they fall asleep. Parents should do this for five nights and once they have a set time down, put their child to bed 30 minutes after that natural bedtime.
The pro is that you’re in the room while they’re going to sleep. The con is that this can take a while and can feel confusing. Again, your baby might cry more if you’re in the room and not picking them up.
The put down/pick up method
This method is exactly what it sounds like: You put your baby down, if they fuss you go in and hold them for a bit, then you put them back down when they’re calm. These steps are repeated as necessary until baby falls asleep.
The pro is that, while this does involve some crying, you also get to pick your baby up and comfort them. The con is that going in and out like this can mean that sleep training takes a long time. “I typically don’t recommend this method once baby turns four to six months of age because it is too stimulating,” McGinn says. “As baby gets older, it’s better that they are in their crib themselves without too much stimulation from the parent.”
While picking the right method is important, McGinn notes that establishing a good sleep routine is just as important. “Incorporate a relaxing and calming sleep environment and find a good bedtime/naptime routine,” McGinn says. “Whether that includes singing or reading books to baby, giving baby a massage — whatever you can do to prepare baby for sleep, on top of choosing the method and approach.”
Can your child be “too old” to sleep train?
Once your child reaches that 1-year milestone, 18 months, or even 2 years, you might assume they’re too old to have any luck with sleep training. But both Dr. Breus and McGinn agree that there is no such thing as a child who is “too old” to sleep train. Both recommend teaching children healthy sleep habits regardless of their age.
When to consider hiring a sleep consultant
Sleep consultants aren’t worth the money, Breus says. “I think this is a huge waste of time and money for most parents,” he says. “And most times they are very poorly trained. In fact, I have yet to meet one who has the correct liability insurance for working with kids.” If you’re set on hiring one, he recommends looking for someone who has kids of their own, can thoroughly explain every detail of their method, have proper liability insurance, and have some sort of educational background. Overall, the most common sleep training methods are very simple, and you likely can get some help learning how to sleep train from other parents who have been there. The hardest part of sleep training is simply deciding to do it. Other parents will likely support you, free of charge.
“Our industry is not a board-regulated industry, so anyone can become a sleep trainer,” McGinn stresses, though she herself offers such services. “You want someone who has been certified by a reputable institute and has the proper education and experience to work with you.”
Sleep training can be tough, but in the end, it can also be worth it. Figuring out the right method for you is key, as is setting up a good bedtime routine.
Dr. Michael Breus, leading sleep specialist and clinical psychologist