If you are reading this post, then you may be considering sleep training your baby or young child. You may be wondering what the different baby sleeping training methods are and what baby sleep training method is right for you and your family.
When it comes to baby sleep training methods, the one misconception is that there is only one method, but this is not correct.
There are several ways that parents can help their babies sleep through the night. Some methods involve crying (commonly known as Cry It Out – CIO). Others involve little to no crying and are very gentle.
The key to selecting a baby sleep training method is to choose a method that works for your family and then to be consistent. I know from experience that going from one method to another does not work. Before using the Sleep Sense Program to sleep train my son, I tried different methods. However all this did was cause frustration and confusion for both my son and myself. Once I selected the Sleep Sense Program, I followed it consistently, and within two weeks, my son was sleeping through the night.
When Can I Expect my Baby to Sleep Through the Night?
In the early months of parenthood, sleep-deprivation, and 24-hour newborn care are the norms. Nothing can prepare you for the sleep deprivation. Fortunately, these first months do not last forever and by 6-months of age (or younger) babies can sleep through the night.
Sleeping through the night at this age means 10-12 hours in a single stretch. Between 3 to 6 months of age, your baby may sleep “through the night”. At this age this is typically around 6-8 hours in a single stretch. Before this, your baby is still a newborn and will generally not sleep for more than 2-6 hours in a single stretch. Every baby is different, and bottle-fed babies tend to sleep for longer single stretches than exclusively breastfed babies.
What is Baby Sleep Training?
As parents, it seems strange to think that we need to train our babies to sleep. But the reality is that babies sleep a lot, and initially, they do not know when or how to sleep. The words Sleep Training often conjure up images of crying babies (perhaps parents too).
The best way to describe sleep training is “Helping your baby learn good sleep habits”. You want your baby to be able to fall asleep independently without any sleep props/aids. Sleep props are anything that currently helps your baby to fall asleep – rocking, nursing, pacifier etc. If your baby can only fall asleep using a sleep prop. Then when they wake in the night, they will look for this same prop to help them get back to sleep again.
Parents can understandably struggle with the idea of sleep training. It seems unnatural or unloving to let your baby cry even if for a short time or not to nurse them for comfort. Add to this the fact that experts do not always agree and choosing a baby sleep training method can feel confusing.
Sleep training is the term for several methods. There are five baby sleep training methods, each of which we will discuss below. Each method requires a different level of parent participation, and each will prompt a different response from your baby.
- The Chair Method
- Controlled Crying
Research has shown that in babies older than six months, sleep training with controlled crying improved babies' sleep and cortisol levels did not increase. So, you can rest assured, knowing that a little bit of crying will not harm your baby.
What is the Right Age for Baby Sleep Training?
The right age for sleep training is probably one of the most challenging questions to answer as there are so many opinions. However the consensus is somewhere between 4-6 months, at this age, your baby is developmentally ready. They have not had too much time to become used to being rocked or fed to sleep.
At the 4-month mark, babies tend to go through a sleep regression, this can be a great time to work on independent sleep skills. As your baby nears the 6-month mark, other developments like learning to roll over can impact their sleep. You may decide to wait until this development period settles down, but you certainly do not have to. It is also important to remember there will never be a perfect time. There will be teething, changes to the amount of daytime sleep your baby needs or moving your baby out of your room or bed if you co-sleep.
It is never too late to help your baby or young child to develop good sleep habits, so if your baby is older than 6 months, don't worry. Your baby's age may, however, influence what training method you use. For a 4-month old a gentler approach may be appropriate. However you may need to leave a 1-year-old to cry for a period as they will likely protest the new arrangement far more.
Starting any formal sleep training before your baby is 4-months old is generally not recommended. The reason is that before 4-months, your baby's sleep cycle has not yet matured, and they may still require feeding during the night. It is always best to check with your doctor before stopping nighttime feeds.
This does not mean that you cannot start to create good sleep habits in babies younger than 4-months of age. Setting up a good bedtime routine, establishing a newborn sleep schedule, and ensuring your baby gets enough sleep all help to set you and your baby up for success when you are ready to sleep train your baby.
This simple table shows the different ages and stages of sleep training.
During this stage, the most important thing to focus on is getting enough sleep (for both you and your newborn). You can start to follow a sleep schedule, but this is not the stage to worry about sticking to this rigidly. Having a schedule helps to set you and your newborn up for success later, but it is essential to be flexible and know some days you will have to do whatever it takes to ensure everyone is getting enough sleep.
It is still a bit early for formal sleep training; however, now is the time to focus on having a more set sleep schedule and consistent bedtime routine.
You can now start with more 'formal' sleep training. Around the 4 month mark, your baby's sleep cycle matures. If your baby cannot yet fall asleep independently, this is the time to focus on this.
Am I Ready for Sleep Training?
Yes, you read that right. As much as this is about your baby, this is also about you. Before you start sleep training, you need to be ready. Sleep training your baby takes commitment and consistency. You also do not want to start sleep training if you have a vacation or other significant disruption to your routine coming up.
10 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Sleep Training
- What does my schedule look like for the next 2-4 weeks?
- Are there any events or trips that may derail sleep training?
- Have I researched the different baby sleep training methods?
- Have I chosen a baby sleep training method that I am comfortable with?
- Do I know how I am going to implement the method I have selected properly?
- Am I prepared to follow the plan for the next 2-4 weeks consistently?
- Have I discussed the chosen baby sleep training method with my partner?
- Is the whole family on board and willing to follow the plan?
- Have I discussed the plan with any other caregivers – daycare, grandparents etc?
- Am I willing to make the changes necessary for sleep training to be successful?
Keep these questions in mind as we go through each baby sleep training method in detail.
How do I Know if My Baby Needs Sleep Training?
Sometimes parents think they “do not have a good sleeper” or wonder if their baby will eventually outgrow their poor sleep habits. The reality is most babies are not naturally good sleepers until they are taught how to sleep.
As adults, we may think this sounds strange as sleeping seems so natural. Babies have different sleep cycles, and before they were born, you rocked them to sleep with your constant movement throughout the day.
If your baby is continuously overtired, cranky and fussy, then it is probably time to help them become a better sleeper which will lead to a happier baby.
Healthy sufficient sleep is critical to you and your baby. Sleep deprivation in children has been linked to obesity, weakened immune systems, irritability and learning difficulties later on. Babies are not the only ones impacted by sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation in adults can lead to poor judgement, health problems and depression.
Before Getting Started
Before starting to sleep train, you should ideally have the following in place:
- A regular sleep schedule and a routine for naps and bedtime.
- A consistent bedtime each night, ideally between 7 to 8 pm.
- A Bedtime routine that is calming and follows the same pattern each evening. For example, feed, bath, massage, book/song and then down for sleep.
- Be putting your baby or young child down drowsy but awake whenever possible. They may fuss and cry a bit, but this will help you to both get used to them being put down awake.
- Appropriate awake windows will ensure that your baby is not over or under tired. If they are over or under tired, they will struggle to fall asleep.
- Daytime awake periods that involve sufficient activity and stimulation.
Finally, but most importantly do your research. There are several methods for sleep training. Understanding each one, what to expect and what is required will help you feel more prepared for the process.
Which Method is Right for You and Your Baby?
Ultimately you know your baby better than anyone. Some babies are more sensitive than others, and therefore specific methods may not feel right for you and your baby. It is essential to pick a method that you feel comfortable with as consistency is key.
There are five methods that we will discuss in detail, and these go from the gentlest to the least gentle in approach.
What is essential to understand is that all sleep training methods no matter how gentle will involve some crying. This crying is not your baby feeling abandoned; this is your baby's way of protesting the changes you are making. The older your baby is the more protesting you can expect. If you have been rocking or feeding your baby to sleep, it is natural for them to want that to continue and protest any changes.
Baby Sleep Training Methods
This method is also known as the No-Cry method.
This method is the gentlest of all the sleep training methods and is more suitable for younger babies. Generally, after 6 or 7 months of age, the picking up and putting down can make your baby more upset and cause overstimulation.
With this method after your bedtime routine, you place your baby in their cot awake. If they cry you pick them up and soothe them and then put them back down drowsy, before they fall asleep. You keep repeating this until your baby falls asleep.
As you can imagine, this method will take longer to see results. This method can require quite a lot of time commitment from you as you will need to pick them up each time they start to cry. Some babies also get more worked up and agitated the more you pick them up and put them back down. It is, however, an excellent method if you do not want to hear your baby cry.
This method is also known as bedtime-routine fading or Fade-it-Out (FIO)
This method is a gentle method of sleep training that has little to no crying. With this method, you continue to use whatever technique you have been using to get your baby to fall asleep (rocking, nursing, patting etc.). However you decrease the amount of time you do this until eventually, you do not have to do this at all.
Fading is an excellent method for reducing crying but can be more challenging to sustain and take longer to see results.
This method can, however, be used for babies as young as 6-8 weeks old.
There is a variation of this method known as bedtime-hour fading. This method is not to be confused with the above. With this method, you place your baby in their cot at the time they tend to fall asleep. Let’s say that you put your baby down at 7.30 pm, but they usually fuss a little and then only fall asleep at around 8:00 pm. You start this method by putting your baby down when they usually fall asleep so 8.00 pm and then gradually move the bedtime back to 7.30 pm over a week or so. So, wait a few nights then move from 8.00 pm to 7.45 pm then wait a few more nights and then move the bedtime to 7.30 pm.
3. The Chair Method
This method is in between the gentlest and lest gentle methods. This method requires a fair amount of discipline from the parents.
After your bedtime routine, place your baby in their cot. Then either you or your partner sits on a chair next to the cot. With this method, you do not interact with your baby with any verbal or physical comforting, you sit in the chair until they are asleep and then leave the room. When they wake in the night, you follow the same process.
Every few nights, you move the chair a bit further away from the cot until you are eventually out of the room.
The positive of this method is that either you or your partner are with your baby in the room, but the negative is that your baby may become more agitated by you sitting there and not comforting or responding to them. This lack of response can be incredibly hard for younger babies.
A gentler variation of this is Kim West's Sleep Lady Shuffle. With this method, you periodically respond to your baby with a gentle pat or verbal reassurance but then return to your chair.
4. Controlled Crying
This method is also known as Check and Console, Graduated Extinction, The Ferber Method or Progressive Waiting.
There are several variations of the controlled crying method, but the principles for each are the same. After your bedtime routine, you put your baby in their cot awake, then leave the room. If they cry, you wait pre-set intervals before going in to check on them.
When checking in, do not pick your baby up but console them with a gentle pat on the back, some shushing or a few reassuring words. The key is to keep the consoling to no more than 2-3 minutes and to ensure you are not shushing or patting them to sleep. The check-in is to console your baby and let them know you are still there, but it is not to put them to sleep, this is what your baby needs to learn to do on their own.
Once you leave the room after a check-in, extend the amount of time before the next check-in. If you started by waiting 5 minutes, then wait 7 minutes before you do the second check-in and repeat the process. Each time increase the waiting time until you get to 10-15 minutes, then keep it at this interval until your baby falls asleep.
When they wake in the night, follow the same process all over again. Parents generally start seeing results after a few nights. Keep a sleep training log this way you will reassure yourself that there is progress (less crying for less time) and this will help you stay consistent with the method. I used this method with my son (Sleep Sense), and I saw improvement in just two nights. The Sleep Sense program can also be followed using The Chair Method if Controlled Crying does not feel right for you.
One thing to note is that some parents find that going in to check on their baby gets their baby more worked up and therefore opted for Cry-it-Out or Extinction which we will discuss next.
5. Cry-it-Out (CIO)
This method is also known as Extinction.
This method is the most controversial of all sleep training methods. The method involves following your bedtime routine and placing your baby in their cot awake and then not responding to them when they cry.
For many parents, this may seem harsh, but supporters of CIO and parents who have used this method say there is less crying overall. Yes, the first few nights may involve a lot of crying, but the results usually are relatively quick (approx. 3 nights), so there is not as much crying.
Some parents also worry that their child will feel abandoned, or it will cause trauma. Studies, however, are inconclusive as to whether there are any psychological effects of letting your baby CIO.
This method is not right for you if you do not want to hear your baby cry or if your baby has a persistent temperament.
There are conflicting views as to whether you should check in on your baby at all using this method. Some experts believe that unless you have decided that they still require a night feed, you should not go to them at all during the night. Other experts believe that you should wait for at least one or two wake ups before going to your baby and comforting them for a few minutes.
This method is not recommended for babies under 6 months old and is more suitable for babies 10 months or older as by this age most babies no longer require a night time feed if they have not already dropped all their feeds at night.
Dealing with Mum Guilt
No matter which method you finally decide to use, you may still find yourself experiencing some ‘Mum Guilt'. The best way to deal with this is to think about what your baby needs developmentally. They get to an age where they physically do not need a nighttime feed, but they do need consistent, quality sleep.
The first few nights may be difficult, but if you have read this far, you also know that you probably need to do something because what you are doing right now is not working.
Remember that once your baby has learned how to fall asleep on their own, you still need to have a consistent routine. You may also have to help them from time to time to adjust to changes that may occur like moving to a new house, starting daycare, going on holiday, teething etc. The important thing is to get back on track and back into your routine as quickly as possible. You will also need to adjust wake times and naps as your baby gets older.
Choosing a sleep training method is a personal decision, and whilst everyone may not agree with every method, most would agree with the benefits a good night's sleep has on the whole family.