Whether you’re a first-time parent or a veteran mom or dad, getting an infant to sleep through the night is a tiresome task. Sleeping for long periods of time is not something babies can do right away, though. Temperament, developmental phases, and tummy troubles can all keep a baby from sleeping all night long.
It can be really disappointing for parents when their babies aren’t sleeping. But don’t lose hope! Even though it may not feel like it, your baby is probably right on schedule. And with a little bit of sleep training, you can help them build strong sleep habits that help them get to sleep a little faster. Here is the information you need on sleep training to make it through the night and not lose your mind.
Setting the (Safe) Environment
First thing’s first — set the scene. If babies are going to learn to sleep through the night, their sleeping environment needs to be one that helps them fall asleep.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following criteria for a safe sleeping environment. Following these guidelines has proven to help babies fall asleep and lower the potential of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
- Put your baby on their back for all naps and at night.
- Use a firm, flat sleep surface.
- Instead of bed sharing, room share with your baby.
- Keep soft objects and loose bedding out of your baby’s sleep area.
- Don’t let your baby get overheated.
Click here for more sleep-safe resources.
When to Start Sleep Training
One of the most important things to know is that babies are not ready to sleep train until they are at least 3 months old. Many babies aren’t ready until they are 6 months old. That’s because they won’t know how to self-soothe until their brains have developed a little bit. They will need someone to help regulate their emotions and comfort them so they can fall asleep. If you leave a baby in a crib who isn’t able to self-soothe, they will cry until someone helps them. They won’t “get over it” or “cry themselves out.” They really truly honestly need help finding rest.
What Sleep Training Isn’t
The goal of sleep training is to help a baby sleep through the night sooner than they naturally would. And there are lots of different ways to accomplish that.
Unfortunately, many people equate the phrase “sleep training” with what’s known as the Cry It Out (CIO) Method.
CIO is exactly what it sounds like. Parents place their child in their crib and walk away for the entire night. In order for CIO to be effective, parents can’t comfort their child. This method forces a child to self-soothe to go to sleep.
Parents who use the CIO Method say that their children learn to self-soothe faster. However, there is research that shows that it isn’t the most effective way for parents to sleep train their children. And while CIO doesn’t do long-term damage to a child’s psyche, it can be really hard for parents to endure.
So don’t feel pressured to use CIO if it sounds like a bad option for you or your child. There are plenty of other options for you to try.
Sleep Training Methods
If Cry It Out doesn’t sound like the thing for you or your family, here are some other sleep training methods to try out.
(Note: In all of these methods, putting your child down drowsy is best. A wide-awake baby isn’t ideal for any kind of sleep training method, so feel free to get your snuggles in.)
- The Ferber Method – This method is less intense than CIO, but still involves some crying from your child. With the Ferber Method, you would put your child to bed drowsy, leave the room for 1 minute, and then walk back in to comfort them for 1 minute. Leave the room again, but this time for 2 minutes. Gradually increase the time your child has to wait for reassurance, but do not increase the amount of time you spend comforting them. This will teach them gradually how to self-soothe.
- It’s very important that you not pick your child up during their time of comfort. You can pat them on the back, talk to them, or sing gently. Picking them up reinforces to your child that Mom or Dad will “rescue” them from their crib if they protest loud enough.
- The Check & Console Method – In this method, parents console their baby in the same way as the Ferber Method but do so before the child even starts to cry. Mom or Dad keep leaving the room and checking back in the same way someone following the Ferber Method would, but it takes longer for the baby to get to the point of self-soothing (up to a week). It’s also a lot more demanding on the parents.
- The Fading Method – This sleep training style is also known as the “chair method” or “camping out.” In essence, a parent sets a chair right next to the bed on Night One of training until their child falls asleep. Each night, the parent gradually moves a little farther away but still can be seen by their baby until they can leave the room altogether. This method takes even longer than the others (usually two weeks).
- It’s important that parents not give their child lots of verbal or physical comfort if they decide to try the Fading Method. Their presence is the comfort they provide.
- The “No Tears” Method – This method is the least emotional (hence the name) but takes the longest to achieve self-soothing. Essentially, parents who use the No Tears Method set up a very consistent bedtime routine that the baby eventually comes to recognize as, “This is what I do before I fall asleep.” This requires a lot from the parent and may take a long time to work ultimately.
Sleep Training Tips
No matter what method you decide to try, here are some tips that apply to them all.
- Create a consistent bedtime routine. This is particularly important for the No Tears Method of sleep training, but it’s important for any child to have a good bedtime routine. (Who are we kidding, it’s suitable for adults, too!) Establishing a predictable routine can signal, “It’s time for me to wind down and go to sleep.” It’s hard to be consistent, but putting in the time and effort is definitely worth it.
- Watch for the signs. Babies have “tells” when it comes to being sleepy. If they start to rub their eyes, yawn, turn away from lights or sound, or get suddenly fussy, start getting them ready for bed.
- Put your baby down awake. Like mentioned earlier, put your baby down drowsy regardless of the sleep training method you decide on. Rocking your baby to sleep doesn’t teach them how to self-soothe.
- Don’t respond right away to crying. This is a “Pavlov’s dog” situation: If your baby learns that all they have to do is cry for you to appear instantly, they will keep doing it! Don’t feel like you need to respond to every little cry they make, and don’t feel bad if you make them wait a few minutes before you respond.
- Stick with it. Sleep training takes time and consistency. Stay committed to the approach you’ve chosen, and be patient.
Sleep training is hard. Either your child is crying and making you feel like a terrible person or your sleep derived and wondering if your child will ever learn to sleep on their own. But just remember — they will learn to sleep!
No matter what you choose, none of the sleep training methods listed above have proven to cause long-term emotional damage or harm. No baby is the same, so one method may work great for some but not others. You may find a hybrid approach of different sleep training techniques is what works for you and your child. So pick what’s best for you and stick with it. You’re doing great!