Sleep training is one of the most polarizing topics in new parenthood. But many people do swear by it—like a friend of mine who had the date she was going to start sleep training her second child circled on the calendar shortly after he was born.
This raises the question: If you’re planning on sleep training, when exactly should you do it? Most parents do it between four and nine months, and yet, some parents online are sharing that they’ve done it earlier—much earlier, when their babies are just eight-weeks-old. Is that okay? We asked the experts to find out.
Not really, says Sanjeev Bhatla, a member of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s Early Years Task Force and a family physician based in Calgary. Eight weeks is simply too young, he says. “I think if you asked the other members of the Early Years Task Force, they would universally say no, that’s too early,” he says.
Elizabeth Murray, a pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, agrees. “They’re not developmentally meant to do it at that age—and they still need the calories from eating at night,” she says.
There’s no hard and fast rule, but almost all of the research that supports sleep training has been done on babies who are six months old. “There’s good evidence that once babies are six months old, it doesn't do any harm to attachment, and even five years later, there are no cognitive or emotional drawbacks,” Bhatla says. “But below that age is a big grey zone that nobody has studied very much.”
It also makes sense, he says, because six months is when most babies can go through the night without eating, but they haven’t yet learned fun sleep-delaying tricks like standing up in the crib while not being able to sit back down without assistance.
That said, he says that there are rare circumstances where he has told parents it’s okay to sleep train at three months. Those situations usually involve a mother who is struggling with postpartum depression and doesn’t have outside support she can tap into. That’s because he’s balancing the potential risks of sleep training against the risks from PPD. “There is tons of evidence that prolonged sleep deprivation increases the risk of maternal depression, and there’s a huge amount of evidence that maternal depression does lead to emotional and cognitive issues in children,” he explains, adding that parents who want to sleep train at earlier ages should consult their doctors before doing so.
In addition to unknown risks, sleep training younger babies also might just not work. While a six month old baby should be sleep trained after about three days, younger babies might cry incessantly, says Bhatla. “A babies’ job is to grow—there's a reason why they eat frequently,” explains Murray. “Trying to fight against that [by] is going to be really challenging.”
For parents who are struggling in those early months with a newborn, there are ways to work on sleep that don’t involve sleep training. The first is that once your doctor has confirmed that your baby is growing well, you should stop waking them to feed at night. After the first three weeks, you can add a bedtime routine to your nights, like a bath, milk, and a book.
At around eight weeks, trying to put baby down awake instead of having them fall asleep in your arms can help set up good sleep habits. Switching your bedtime earlier to match your baby’s can also help: since most babies have their longest stretch of sleep in the first part of the night and then wake frequently after that, going to bed when the baby does can help parents get a longer uninterrupted period of sleep every night. Knowing that sleep training is a safe option at six months also helps, says Bhatla. That makes sense to me—as my friend with the circled date knew, having a finish line to look forward to can make all the difference.