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Baby Sleep Training: A Comprehensive Guide

Learn the basics of popular sleep training methods, including cry-it-out and no-cry options

Baby Sleep Training: A Comprehensive Guide

Ask any parent, and they'll tell you that sleeping through the night can be challenging. You never know when your baby will wake up crying, and trying to soothe them can often feel futile. This is when baby sleep training comes in. According to Macall Gordon, M.A., a certified gentle sleep coach, sleep training helps babies learn to fall asleep on their own and stay asleep through the night without needing help from parents or caregivers.

"Sleep training refers to the strategies for helping a child learn to fall asleep and stay asleep without a lot of input from parents," Gordon says. "Although there are various methods to achieve this, they all share this same goal. Methods differ in how fast this happens and how much support is offered: from the fastest/least support (cold turkey, crying-it-out) to slower/a lot of support (Sleep Lady Shuffle/chair method, no cry method). "

Thinking about sleep training your baby? This guide will walk you through popular techniques—some that involve your baby crying and some that don't—when to sleep train your baby, mistakes to steer clear of, plus extra resources for effective sleep training.

Understanding Baby Sleep Patterns

Gordon points out that each baby is different, leading to significant variations in sleep patterns. She explains that because sleep development is tied to brain development, newborns can't fully consolidate their nighttime sleep until the pineal gland in their brain becomes active, which typically happens between eight and twelve weeks.

"Babies need time to adjust to sleeping on a flat, still surface after being held, suspended, and jostled in the womb," she says. "During this adjustment period, contact and motion help babies regulate, as they are naturally inclined to be close to a caregiver."

Gordon says that the best sleep training age is when babies are at least six months old and free from physiological issues like reflux or feeding problems before starting sleep training. It's also important to assess whether there is a real sleep problem before sleep training.

"Sleep training is only necessary if the current situation is unsustainable for the parent and the baby is not getting the expected amount of sleep for their age," she adds. "If sleep patterns are manageable and everyone is well-rested, there is no need for sleep training."

When to Start Baby Sleep Training

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Most parenting books suggest beginning sleep training when babies are three to four months old or even earlier. However, Gordon points out that there is no research supporting the use of crying-based methods on infants this young.

She says, "There has never been any research on using extinction techniques with very young babies. Considering the significant brain and neurological development occurring in these early months, we are unsure of the potential consequences of sleep training at this age or if any improvements last past a few months."

Gordon advises that if parents can wait until their baby is six months old, they might find sleep training easier because the baby is more developmentally prepared. "But remember, there is no perfect time," she adds. "Parents can address sleep issues at any stage. The notion that it becomes harder if you delay has never been studied."

A man and woman smile at a baby in the woman's arms.

Popular Baby Sleep Training Methods:

Cry it Out (CIO) Method: 

Sarah Bossio, a certified pediatric sleep expert, doesn't recommend the Cry It Out (CIO) method to her clients. However, she says it can be an effective way to teach children over four months old to sleep on their own.

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To try out this sleep training method successfully, Bossio advises parents to establish a solid sleep schedule, an early bedtime, and a plan for necessary night feedings. "After the bedtime routine, parents should place their child in their own sleep space while fully awake and allow them to self-soothe throughout the night," she continues. "Parents should not re-enter the room until the scheduled wake-up time, except for planned feedings."

This method is often just as difficult for parents who have to listen to their babies cry as it is for the babies and isn't any more effective than other methods.

Ferber Method: 

Gordon explains that most sleep training methods are variations of 'graduated extinction' (Ferber), where parents leave the room and return at increasing intervals.

However, she says that while experts often claim this method is quick and effective, it doesn't work for everyone.

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"In research studies, graduated extinction took weeks and the result was just ‘improvement' in sleep, not “sleeping through the night. It’s also widely acknowledged that it can be quite difficult for many parents to use. The good news is that it’s not the only option or even the best. No method has been shown to work better than any other. So parents have options.”

Chair Method: 

In the chair method, Gordon says that parents stay in the room with their child, sit in a chair, and gradually move the chair away.

"This approach scaffolds the child's ability to fall asleep with less and less help while allowing parents to be present and offer comfort," she says. "They also get to calm the child down if they get really upset. This method can take a bit longer but also feels more tolerable for parents and so they can stick with it.”

Pick-Up/Put-down Method:

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According to Dr. John Barbara IV, a pediatrician with Children’s Hospital New Orleans, this sleep training method involves any time the baby cries and the parent picks up the child.

"Once the baby is calm, the parent places them back in the crib," he says. "This approach tends to result in less crying during the night, although the response time may be slower."

Preparing for Sleep Training

When getting ready for sleep training, Dr. Shelby Harris, a clinical psychologist and sleep health expert at Sleepopolis, says it's always a good idea to create a comfortable sleep environment for your child.

"To help your baby sleep better, keep the bedroom dark, cool and quiet," Harris advises. "Blackout curtains can block out light, and a quiet sound machine placed across the room—not next to the crib—can provide soothing background noise if desired. Ensure the crib is safe with a firm mattress and a fitted sheet, avoiding plush toys or blankets for safety reasons."

Tips for Successful Sleep Training

Consistency: 

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Regardless of the sleep training method you select, Harris emphasizes the importance of consistency.

"Sticking to the routine or plan specified in the sleep training program is crucial," she says. "Consistency and patience are vital because inconsistent responses or schedules can hinder achieving the desired results. Additionally, inconsistency can result in an overtired child, making the process even more challenging."

Timing: 

Bossio advises that the ideal time for sleep training is when you have a clear schedule for two consecutive weeks, free from significant life events.

"Avoid travel plans or major outings during this period," she says. "Since it's challenging to predict when your child might get sick, it's best to have a plan ready and start sleep training right after they recover from their latest illness."

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Promote Drowsy but Awake: 

"Put your baby to bed when they are drowsy but awake," suggests Bossio. "Up to 16 weeks old, drowsy but awake is a great way for a baby to practice falling asleep somewhat independently.

Talk To Your Doctor: 

If you've experimented with a couple of sleep training methods and haven't seen any results after a few weeks, Dr. Harris advises consulting your doctor. "For any unusual sleep issues like snoring or head banging, it's important to speak with your pediatrician for further guidance," she says.

Baby Sleep Training: A Comprehensive Guide

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Common Baby Sleep Training Mistakes to Avoid

Giving Up Too Soon: 

Gordon points out that one of the biggest mistakes in baby sleep training is giving up after a short amount of time. She explains that while the first night is usually the toughest, the second night tends to improve.

"Parents often encounter strong opposition and conclude: 'That was terrible. We're not trying that again'," Gordon says. "However the second night might be somewhat better and the third night could improve further."

Mixed Signals: 

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A lot of times parents try a method for 15 minutes to an hour then give up and just rock and feed until the baby falls asleep, thinking they will just try again tomorrow, says Gordon.

"However, working and working and then just rocking or feeding to sleep actually sets the bar for how hard the child will fight next time because you have just shown them that rocking or feeding is *somewhere* on the table, and they just have to find it," she explains. "If you are not going to feed to sleep, you need to push through."

Picking a Method That Doesn't Match Your Values: 

Gordon emphasizes the importance of choosing a sleep training method you genuinely believe in.

"Sleep training isn’t a one-time venture," she explains. "It does not 'stay done'. Parents should pick a method they know they can live with and can see through because they will have to do it after any big disruption. Any method works. Parents should pick one that doesn’t cause them to second guess the choice or feel horrible about using it."

Additional Resources

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To support parents in their sleep training efforts, pediatric sleep consultant Kim Rogers advises seeking out valuable resources that can offer assistance. "One such resource is the sleep training subreddit on Reddit, where mothers can ask for recommendations or advice from a community of parents who genuinely want to help and share their successful sleep training experiences," she says.

Rogers also recommends exploring books or sleep training programs, such as "Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems" by Dr. Richard Ferber and "Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child" by Marc Weisbluth, MD, which can provide helpful guidance.

Using a printable sleep training log or chart can help you track progress. As Rogers explains, "One of the benefits of keeping a log is the ability to calculate the time it takes for a child to fall asleep after being put to bed. If this duration is prolonged, it may indicate the need for adjustments, such as extending the wake window or increasing alertness during feeds, bedtime routine, and the wake window before bedtime."

Experts: 

  • Macall Gordon, M.A., a certified gentle sleep coach
  • Dr. Shelby Harris, a licensed clinical psychologist and director of sleep health at Sleepopolis
  • Kim Rogers, a pediatric sleep consultant
  • Sarah Bossio, a certified pediatric sleep expert
  • Dr. John Barbara IV, MD, a pediatrician with Children’s Hospital New Orleans
This article was originally published on Jun 12, 2024

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Courtney Leiva has over 11 years of experience producing content for numerous digital mediums, including features, breaking news stories, e-commerce buying guides, trends, and evergreen pieces. Her articles have been featured in HuffPost, Buzzfeed, PEOPLE, and more.

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