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10 FAQs About Sleep Training Your Baby

One mom's story of sucking at sleep training, plus expert answers to 10 common questions about getting your little one to sleep.

10 FAQs About Sleep Training Your Baby

Photo: Stocksy

My son, Cal, is 20 months old, and so far, my husband, Patrick, and I have been too chicken to sleep train him. While Cal's sleep isn't terrible, it's not great, either—whether or not he'll sleep until morning is pretty much 50/50. A tummy rub while popping the pacifier back in if he wakes up usually works like a charm. Plan B is rocking him back to dreamland, and on really rough nights (or just lazy ones), the last resort is letting him cuddle with us in our bed.

We're wondering if we should be okay with this "good enough" sleep or try sleep training methods like cry-it-out to help Cal learn to self-soothe and sleep independently.

Is sleep training the same as cry-it-0ut?

Sleep training and CIO aren't the same thing. Cry-it-out is one method of sleep training, and sleep training is the broader goal of creating good sleep habits. Doctors and baby-book authors sometimes call this "good sleep hygiene."

"Sleep training means creating a good sleep environment, establishing a healthy bedtime routine, and separating feeding from sleep," says paediatrician Ian Paul, author of a Penn State study of infant sleep patterns published by Pediatrics in June 2022. "It's building good sleep associations and teaching a baby to self-soothe."

Epidemiologist Michelle Garrison, a Seattle Children's Research Institute sleep researcher, has encountered the same confusion. "It's frustrating that there's a dichotomy of either cry-it-out or nothing at all. The reality is there are so many middle-ground options." Garrison, a new mom herself, explains that learning to sleep is a set of developmental skills that require practice, just like walking. "Some kids are slower to reach those milestones—and it's the same with sleep."

What is the Ferber Method?

The Ferber method, popularized in a 1985 book by paediatrician Richard Ferber, is the most well-known approach. It means letting a baby cry with intermittent check-ins. You may also hear it referred to as "modified cry-it-out," "gradual extinction," "controlled crying," or the "cry-and-console" method. Parents must leave their baby in the crib to wail but then follow a strict schedule of checking on her at intervals that get further apart as the night goes on.

What is Fading (Camping Out)?

Other cry-it-out methods fall into the "fading" or "camping out" group, which involves staying with your baby while she cries herself to sleep in the crib. Some allow back rubs; others suggest a parent initially sleeps on the nursery floor. A few "fading" or "gradual retreat" plans advise sitting on a chair and moving it away from the crib over a few nights until you're keeping watch from the hall. (Online, it's called the "disappearing chair" technique, but let's agree that it should be renamed the "definitely bring wine and your phone" approach.)

Recent research has examined the efficacy of the bedtime fading method for improving infant sleep. A 2018 study published in Sleep Medicine found that bedtime fading led to reductions in sleep onset latency and wake-after-sleep onset and a decrease in bedtime tantrums.

These findings suggest that the bedtime fading approach can effectively address sleep difficulties and associated behavioral issues in infants.

What is the Complete Extinction Method?

"Total" or "complete extinction"—the Weissbluth method—is when parents shut the door and don't go in again until morning. While it sounds extreme, frequent parent check-ins can be stimulating or confusing for some babies, who calm down faster if they're left to figure it out on their own and aren't enraged or puzzled by a present (but non-responsive) parent.

What method is healthiest?

Another Pediatrics study out of Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, received lots of media attention this past summer. The study looked at different sleep training methods with 43 babies, ages six to 16 months, divided into three groups: fading or camping out; gradual extinction (a.k.a. crying with checks); and a control group (whose parents kept doing their usual bedtime routine).

The researchers found that fading—when the parent stays in the room as their baby falls asleep and then sneaks out—and gradual extinction—letting your baby cry for increasingly longer periods before returning to check on her—are both effective, and neither causes long-term harm. (Total extinction wasn't part of the study.)

After three months, the babies from the fading and the crying-with-checks group dozed off faster than the control group babies, who hadn't been sleep-trained. The crying-with-checks infants slept longest overall and were less likely to wake at night. The researchers also found that cortisol levels, a stress hormone, were lower in the sleep-trained infants than in the non-sleep-trained ones, reassuring many parents who have fretted about attachment issues and whether or not it's "unnatural" to leave their child to cry. (Thank you, science!)

Paul says CIO is misunderstood and often demonized. "Cry-it-out implies that even if a child vomits from crying, we should ignore him, and I think that's extreme. We're not that militant. It's not 'shut the door and that's it.' Letting a baby cry could be part of sleep training, but it's not the only component."

What are the benefits of sleep training?

In Paul's Penn State study, the babies who hadn't been sleep trained had poor sleep associations—meaning, their parents relied on common crutches like rocking or feeding to sleep. He found that the sleep-trained babies who had been taught how to self-soothe and could fall asleep in their cribs on their own (using various sleep-training methods) began sleeping through the night at a younger age, woke less and slept, on average, 80 minutes longer.

Furthermore, the babies who were routinely rocked to sleep while nursing or drinking from a bottle were more likely to be overweight by age one. That's a pretty resounding victory for the pro-sleep training camp.

When I outlined the bedtime routine at our house to Paul, who is also a dad of three kids (ages eight, six and almost two), he wasn't impressed. Cal's nightly ritual includes a bedtime bottle while we read stories. Then he asks for his "bink" (pacifier) and drifts off to dreamland, snuggled in our arms.

"Are you going to get him a cellphone when he's four? What about a TV in his room? It's about setting limits," Paul scolded me, albeit playfully. I couldn't help but sputter excuses. Yup, I'm an editor at a parenting magazine, committing cardinal bedtime sins. But just because I still rock my toddler to sleep doesn't mean I'm an overly permissive parent, right? (Right?)

I admire parents who have the fortitude to commit to CIO, and I don't think it's akin to child abuse like some attachment parenting proponents might. (For the record, you can be an attachment parent who lovingly and gently sleep-trains her baby.) But I find it hard to listen to a crying baby when (a) I'm trying to sleep nearby, and (b) I know a simple feed could quiet him faster. (My husband and I used to joke, "Put a boob in it!"—our Beyoncé-inspired solution to any baby problem.) So my opposition isn't philosophical; it's impatience plus laziness.

Recent studies strongly support the benefits of sleep training, advocating for improved sleep quality for both infants and parents, reduced stress levels, and healthier body weight in children.

A 2022 article in The Journal of Pediatrics also concluded that sleep training methods do not negatively affect parents or infants. In fact, more intensive extinction methods were associated with better infant sleep outcomes.

Should I give my baby food, bottles or pacifiers?

Paul says babies older than one don't need bottles, and many doctors advise that using pacifiers past two is probably a bad idea, too. Pacifiers can cause orthodontic issues later on and change the way a child's lips and tongue muscles develop. However, the bedtime bottle is especially problematic because kids usually brush their teeth before the bottle, not after, leading to tooth decay.

"The most effective strategies are not, sadly, the best strategies long-term," Paul says. "When babies wake, many parents' first instinct is to feed them. But setting them up for that expectation is a bad cycle. If they can only nod off after being fed, how are they supposed to soothe themselves after a brief wake-up at 2 a.m.?

It's important to recognize how sleep, comfort, food and rewards can get tangled up as our kids get older. We know that babies who sleep less are more likely to become obese or overweight. My patients say, 'Stick a bottle in their mouth—they'll stop crying!' Well, it does work, but we should be using food for hunger, not other things. Feeding isn't a reward or for soothing. It's about developing healthy long-term patterns."

What's the best age to sleep train?

Neither the American Academy of Pediatrics nor the Canadian Paediatric Society have a position statement on sleep training, nor do they recommend a specific age. Michael Dickinson, a spokesperson for the CPS and a paediatrician in Miramichi, NB, says there is no data on the proportion of Canadian parents who sleep train. Still, it's a common question he gets from exhausted parents.

"Most of my patients say, 'Dear God, please let this get better on its own,'" he says. "But for most people, I'm sorry to say, it doesn't."

Darn. I had hoped that, like many of the toughest phases, if we simply waited it out, it would eventually resolve itself. (And that in a few years we'd laugh at ourselves for fretting so much.) But Dickinson says once you're past the six-month mark, the earlier you sleep train, the better. "The first six months is dicey—you're in survival mode. Feed to sleep or rock to sleep if you need to. But six to 12 months is the sweet spot."

Physiologically, by two months, a baby should be able to go five hours between feedings. The ability to make sleep associations (good or bad) really kicks in when your baby is around four months old, explains Garrison. This is when you should start creating rituals to signal it's bedtime, and treating nighttime sleep differently from the rest of the day (for example, changing into PJs is a nighttime thing, not a nap thing).

You could try phasing in new, positive sleep associations (like a white noise machine or special bedtime song to signal the beginning of the routine) and then phasing out the bad ones (like rocking or feeding to sleep). Feel free to skip the bath and books, too. "Bath time and stories are too exciting for my child," says Garrison, whose son is now nine months old. Take some time to find out what's relaxing for your baby.

There are a slew of reasons why it never felt like the right time for us. Cal had always been smallish—25th percentile—and I think that made us err on the side of "he's probably hungry" more often than if we'd had a baby in the 95th. He'd also been diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease at two months old, which meant he spit up a lot and needed heartburn medication to keep his milk down.

We were always worried whether he was getting enough. Then we had to endure the lovely infant phase known as the four-month sleep regression. During the magical six-to-12-month window, we were traveling across time zones to visit family on both coasts. Keeping a routine was tricky and we felt we were already asking Cal to adapt to a lot of change—it felt unfair to enforce a bedtime crackdown, too.

Then he started daycare and it felt like everything was changing again: teething, milestones like walking and talking, a new nap schedule, winter colds, and winter colds that turned into ear infections. I cherished our nightly cuddles in the rocking chair, and I convinced myself that Cal needed them, too.

The bottles allayed any calorie intake concerns now that he was no longer nursing. Plus, he clearly loved the ritual and started asking for his "baba" (bottle) when he was tired.

"Most parenting decisions start from a place that's understandable," says Dickinson. "Solutions that are justified in the short term turn into long-term habits that aren't the best for the infant or for the family, and then the parents don't have an exit strategy."

Having the space to attempt something like sleep training is a privilege— not everyone can devote the time and energy to it. If you have other big stressors, focusing solely on your baby's sleep for a week or two is probably low on your list of priorities. "Sleep training does take a certain amount of mental fortitude while the kid cries," says Dickinson.

"You have to be in a good place to pull it off, and that's why I'm sympathetic to families who can't do it." On the other hand, some parents don't have the privilege of not sleep training, like if you're working long shifts or have a physical job and can't function well on broken sleep.

Some parents don't find night wakings to be that big a deal. "If you're happy waking up with your baby, and sleeping through the night isn't your goal, that's fine," says Dickinson. "Many people just can't let their baby cry, and we support that."

Sleep training older babies and toddlers is much more difficult, he says. "Some people come to me with kids who are two or three years old, and we're trying to undo bad habits. You're fighting a bigger battle at 18 months than at nine months." Garrison agrees, but he reassures me I haven't missed the sleep training window. The toddler years can be an ideal time to create healthy sleep associations. Kids this age love patterns and routines.

Why is it important to be consistent?

Sleep training requires planning and consistency among all caregivers. Dabbling in CIO but then failing at follow-through is exactly what not to do. "If you start and backtrack, you're worse off than if you never tried at all," says Garrison.

Instead, commit to the routine. Start on a weekend instead of a work night, stock up on good ice cream and trashy magazines, queue up some Netflix shows to binge-watch as a distraction—whatever helps you cope. Or plan for your partner to be on screaming baby duty while you go for a walk to get out of the house.

What's the role of fathers in sleep training?

Interestingly, Garrison says there's some evidence that sleep training is more successful when dads are involved, but scientists don't quite know why. "It could be that dads have an easier time being consistent. It could be that moms do the feedings more often and the baby is associating Mom with food, or it could even be the tone of voice: Dads have a lower, flatter, more modulated voice. When women talk to babies, our voices go up and down a lot."

Christine Davidson, a Toronto mom of two, found CIO to be easier at night when her partner, Dave, was there. "He didn't waver—he had no problem going in, shushing the baby and walking out." It was harder to ignore the cries of their five month- old son, Sam, when she was home alone, enforcing a two-hour afternoon nap and trying not to second-guess herself. "He'd cry alone in his crib for half an hour. I was thinking, What am I doing? This is crazy!"

With their first baby, Alexandra (now three), Davidson says she didn't even know what sleep training was. Her daughter slept through the night from three months on. "Alex was so easy. She didn't need soothing and was comfortable being alone. I loved mat leave because I could take her anywhere," says Davidson.

But Sam was a fussy baby and didn't settle easily. She remembers leaving a mom and baby music class in tears, apologizing because Sam had been so disruptive. "I was always saying, 'I can't figure you out.' He was unpleasant, and I was, too."

Davidson reached her breaking point after Sam barely slept—just catnaps—for two days and two nights straight. "Some people say, 'Oh, I would never let my baby cry it out.' But talk to me when you have a screaming baby in your arms and you haven't slept in three days," says Davidson. "My emotions were all over the place: I was laughing my head off and then suddenly crying. That's when I said, 'Okay, this has to change.'"

Night-weaning Sam and instituting CIO with check-ins worked after just two nights. "We kept telling ourselves that it was the best thing for everybody, and it was," says Davidson. "Sam's a good sleeper now, and I really think it's because we taught him how. It wasn't until Sam was getting enough rest that his goofy, loving personality emerged and he was a lot more fun to care for."

For my birthday this year, I asked for something unusual: eight hours of sleep alone in a fluffy hotel bed. My wish was granted. With my husband on baby duty for the night, I was free to do whatever I wanted. I had a bath. I read a book in peace while drinking a glass of wine, luxuriating in the high-thread-count sheets. I didn't set an alarm. And then I woke up at 1 a.m., 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. My son had sleep-trained me so thoroughly that I could no longer sleep through the night.

It was a clear sign that we had to make changes at our house. Both Paul and Dickinson told me to go cold turkey, especially with the bedtime bottles and rocking to sleep. And yet I'm still dragging my feet about when to do it. Not before our upcoming vacation and cross-country flights—terrible idea. Not the week the grandparents are in town; they're total softies.

And definitely not the week I'm solo parenting—that would be disastrous. It never seems like a good time.

"Just circle the date on the calendar: D-Day," says Dickinson. "Throw out the bottles and never go back."

Some sleep do's and don'ts

By four months, it's not normal for an infant to wake up multiple times a night, says paediatrician Ian Paul. Here are his tips for better baby sleep.

  • Don't rock or feed your baby to sleep. Instead, put her into the crib drowsy, but still awake.
  • Don't feed as your first response to fussiness.
  • Respond to night wakings with other "care-taking behaviours:" Go in, let your baby know she's not abandoned, pat her on the back and use a calm, reassuring voice.
  • If your baby is older than two months, try not to pick her up while soothing, because if you do, it's hard not to move on to feeding, especially if you're a nursing mom.
  • Be consistent.

If your baby or toddler is waking up in the night, try this gentle, no-tears tactic first: an earlier bedtime. Sleep consultant Alanna McGinn of Good Night Sleep Site explains that if your baby has entered the overtired zone, bedtime becomes a battle and the stress hormone cortisol contributes to more restless sleep and frequent wake-ups. "Shifting bedtime earlier, even just by 15 to 30 minutes, can allow your child to accept sleep much easier at bedtime and then sleep through the night," she says.

McGinn suggests a bedtime of 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., but it depends on your child's age and the quality of his or her daytime sleep. ("The 5:30 p.m. bedtime is for the younger babies who aren't napping great yet," she says.) She recommends even two-year-olds go to bed no later than 7 p.m. "This might necessitate having separate meal times for the baby instead of family dinners, but remember that it's not forever and focus on quality time together in the morning instead."

She knows it's easier said than done. "Parents pushing back against my early bedtime advice is probably the biggest fight I get from clients, and I completely understand," says McGinn. "As a sleep educator and a working mom of three, I have also had to make adjustments to our schedule, like meal planning and keeping routines consistent, to facilitate earlier bedtimes. But once parents see how well their child does with an earlier bedtime, they get it."

Try starting a bedtime routine by reading one of these calming books:

Books about sleep

Sleepy Bird by Jeremy Tankard

cover art for sleepy bird book Photo: Scholastic Books

How many different ways have you tried to get your little one to fall asleep? Bird’s friends can relate – trying numerous bedtime rituals to get him to go to bed.

Crinkle, Crinkle, Little Star by Justin Krasner

Cover for the board book, Crinkle Crinkle Little star. Show tow blue bears with their respective star constellations overlaid on their bodies. Photo: Workman Publishing

Your little one will love tracing their fingers over the crinkly constellations as you read each page of this adorable illustrated board book. More than just a bedtime story, this book engages your baby’s sense of sight, hearing and touch all to the familiar tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

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Good Day, Good Night by Margaret Wise Brown

Cover of the book, Good Day, Good night. Shows a cat and a rabbit sitting on a hill looking up at the sky. one side of the sky is day and the other is night Photo: HarperCollins

This charming book is from the same author that gave us the beloved bedtime story, Goodnight Moon. Your kids will enjoy looking at the rich detail on each page—see if you can find the animal reading Goodnight Moon to their little ones!

Bedtime 123 by Eric Walters

10 FAQs About Sleep Training Your Baby Photo: Orca Book

When the moon rises and the stars come out, all the animals get cozy in their beds and go to sleep. Count all the different animals that snuggle up—by the time you get to 10 its time to go to sleep!

Dinosaur vs. Bedtime by Bob Shea

10 FAQs About Sleep Training Your Baby Photo: Disney-Hyperion

Little dinosaur usually wins every battle, but what about the biggest challege of all—bedtime? Little dinosaur roar, roar, roars until he snore, snore, snores.

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Five Little Monkeys Jumping On The Bed by Eileen Christelow

10 FAQs About Sleep Training Your Baby Photo: MySmartChild.com

Our favourite mischievious monkeys each fall off the bed and bump their heads even though doctor keeps telling them no more jumping. By the end of the story your little monkey will be ready for bed, too.

Goodnight, Canada by Andrea Lynn Beck

10 FAQs About Sleep Training Your Baby Photo: Scholastic Books

We may be a little biased, but we love this one! Your baby gets to learn about Canada by saying goodnight to each province and territory and explore illustrations that show just how unique each each is.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

10 FAQs About Sleep Training Your Baby Photo: HarperCollins

Bunny wishes a sweet goodnight to everything he can see in this classic book. (We know that this one is technically for kids older than three but everyone – we mean everyone – loves to read this one to their baby!)

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If I Were A Kangaroo by Mylisa Larsen

10 FAQs About Sleep Training Your Baby Photo: Viking Children's Books

Reassure your baby that no matter what, you’ll always put them to sleep with love, even if you’re both kangaroos, bats or giraffes.

It’s Time to Sleep, My Love by Eric Metaxas

10 FAQs About Sleep Training Your Baby Photo: Big W

Send your little one off to sleep with this story full of love. All the animals are sleepy, even the cows, tigers, frogs and hopefully you, so go to sleep my love. The repetition and your voice repeating “my love, my love” with surely lull them to sleep in no time.

Night Cars by Teddy Jam

10 FAQs About Sleep Training Your Baby Photo: House of Anansi Press

Baby can’t seem to fall asleep and spends the night watching the cityscape through the window.

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Nighty-Night by Leslie Patricelli

10 FAQs About Sleep Training Your Baby Photo: Emissourian.com

“Dinner is done. Bye-bye, sun. See you soon. Hello, moon!” Baby goes through his bedtime routine and little ones will be giggling the whole time (especially when this saucy baby takes a naked dance before bathtime!)

The Going to Bed Book by Sandra Boynton

10 FAQs About Sleep Training Your Baby Photo: Simon and Schuster

The animals in this book take you on a journey through their nighttime routine; putting on pyjamas and brushing their teeth which ends in them – and your kid– going to sleep. The short story has a great rhyming scheme and can even be sung as a soft lullaby.

Nighttime Slumber by Jane Sanders

10 FAQs About Sleep Training Your Baby Photo: BNC CataList

Here comes a new sensory experience in the world of bedtime board books. Send your little ones off for a sweet slumber with the soothing tones of hushed words, and experience the wonders of whispering.

This article was originally published on Oct 11, 2020

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