Babies sleep a lot. For their first year of life, babies need approximately 9 to 12 hours of sleep per day, in addition to regular naps. The only problem is they tend to sleep in spurts , a combination of sleeping at night and napping during the day.
It takes babies around three to six months to develop their internal body clock, or circadian rhythm. At this point, they’ll naturally want to sleep more at night and be awake more during the day. For sleepy parents who want to encourage their little ones to spend more of their nighttime sleep consistently asleep, sleep training may be the key.
What Is Sleep Training?
The goal of sleep training is for your baby to be comfortable sleeping for several hours through the night on their own. If they wake up, they’ll learn to self-soothe and fall back asleep. There are several sleep training methods parents can use developed by pediatricians and sleep experts.
Once they’ve been sleep-trained, babies can sleep 9-12 hours at night. With more restful sleep, they’ll feel better during the day, as will their parents — which can improve the overall quality-of-life for the family. Little ones will still need their naps during the day, but tired parents (and especially moms still recovering from pregnancy insomnia) can enjoy more restful sleep.
With some sleep training methods, babies can sleep on their own within a matter of days. For others, particularly gentler methods that minimize crying, the process can take longer. There is no right way to sleep train, but staying consistent — and patient — are key to success.
When To Start Sleep Training
Babies aren’t ready for sleep training until they’re 4-6 months old. Before then, they haven’t developed the circadian rhythms that will help them sleep through the night . At this age, they’re able to pick up skills like sleeping independently, and they haven’t gotten too used to you rocking them to sleep.
Six months is generally agreed to be a good time to start sleep training, although you can begin as early as four months or as late as nine months. Nine months can be better for some babies since they no longer need to eat during the night at this age.
It can be difficult to know when your baby is ready for sleep training. However, if your baby starts to fall asleep on their own at night (even if they wake up throughout the night), they’re most likely ready.
Just as there’s no exact right age to begin sleep training, you also don’t have to sleep train. Babies will eventually learn to sleep on their own. However, sleep training is effective and offers significant benefits to both babies and parents, with no evidence of negative long-term effects.
When infants can’t sleep well, it’s distressing to both the baby and the parents. Children may develop pediatric insomnia , and parents are at greater risk of depression, stress, and poor health. On the other hand, when babies get more sleep, parents feel better, and so do their babies. Babies who get more restful sleep have fewer developmental and behavioral issues , and have a happier temperament overall.
7 Tips To Keep in Mind as You Sleep Train Your Infant or Toddler
Whatever sleep training method you choose, these tips can help you stay calm and consistent throughout the process.
- Allow your baby to learn to self-soothe. By putting your baby down when they’re getting drowsy, they’ll get in the habit of falling asleep on their own. Then, when they wake up at night, they’re more equipped to put themselves back to sleep without your help because they’ve practiced.
- Separate yourself from your baby. Your baby does not have to have their own bedroom to sleep train, but it’s important that you find a way to separate yourself from them so they can learn to self-soothe.
- Stick to a consistent bedtime. Consistency is essential in sleep training. You’re creating a whole new schedule for your child. Create consistency by picking a bedtime and sticking to it every night.
- The “right” way to sleep train is the right way for you and your baby. There are several different approaches to sleep training, as we’ll get into below. Some are more suitable for some families, while some work better for others. There is no best way to sleep train; it’s just finding what works for your child.
- Know that there will be some rough nights. Sleep training can be a bumpy road. There may be times when one parent is out of town, or your baby is feeling under the weather. Take a deep breath, try to be patient, and accept it as part of the process.
- You will ultimately be successful. Most babies sleep through the night by four to nine months old, so don’t get discouraged! Keep a sleep training diary to track your progress (and the bumpy spots along the way) so you can stay positive and consistent.
- Sleep training is a tool you can use as your child’s routine changes. As children grow and develop, start attending school, or experience other life changes, they may need adjustments to their sleep schedule. When that happens, you can sleep train them again.
What Are the Different Methods of Sleep Training?
Parents use various methods of sleep training parents, and all of them can be effective . The best method for your family will depend on what you and your baby are most comfortable with.
The Cry It Out Method
The Cry It Out sleep training method is also known as extinction, full extinction, or CIO for short. With this method, parents take their baby through a bedtime routine, cuddle with them and give them a kiss goodnight, and then leave the room. If the baby cries, the parent does not respond. Eventually, the baby tires themselves out from crying or self-soothes back to sleep.
This method is well-known, and proponents say that it works, and quickly. However, many parents feel uncomfortable letting their baby cry out and not comforting them. They worry it will elevate the baby’s stress levels , cause trauma, and lead the child to think they can’t rely on their parents to be there for them. It’s also very difficult for many parents to hear their baby cry and not be able to help them.
The Ferber Method
The Ferber Method is similar to Cry It Out, but more gradual, hence its nicknames of “graduated extinction,” progressive waiting, and the interval method.
With this method, parents follow the same routine of taking their baby through a bedtime ritual, cuddling them and kissing them goodnight, and then leaving the room and shutting the door. For the first few nights, the parents immediately return whenever the baby cries, patting them and ensuring they’re calm before leaving the room again. After the first few nights, parents gradually increase the amount of time they let the baby cry before reentering the room, eventually reaching a point where the baby self-soothes.
This method appeals to parents who are uncomfortable with the black-and-white nature of the CIO method, but some still feel it can be traumatizing for the baby. However, studies of the Ferber method have found no evidence of long-term negative effects on a child’s emotions, stress, behavior, or attachment to their parent. If you choose this method, be aware that your baby will cry at some point, and you won’t be able to respond.
The Check and Console Method
A variation of the Ferber method, the Check and Console method encourages parents to check on their baby and console them before they even start to cry.
For example, on the first few nights, parents may leave the room and enter a minute or two later to tell them they love them or to give them a soft pat. Parents keep leaving the room and checking back in, gradually increasing the intervals to about 15 minutes until they fall asleep.
This method can take longer — up to a week — and requires more involvement from the parents. Be attentive to how your baby responds to the Check and Console method. Checking in may excite them and make them more upset when you leave, in which case another method may be a better option.
The Fading Method
The Fading method, also known as “camping out,” encourages parents to stay in their child’s room until they fall asleep. Parents can do this by standing, or by sitting in a chair in their child’s room, a variation known as the Chair method.
With this method, parents take their child through a bedtime routine and put them in bed while the child is still drowsy. Then, the parents stay by their side until they fall asleep. Each night, the parent gradually moves further away from their child while still remaining in their sight. A major tenet of the Fading or Chair method is providing minimal comfort to the child, verbal or physical, while maintaining their physical distance.
It’s common for babies to cry during the Fading method, which can be difficult for parents to experience, particularly because they can see them crying (as opposed to only hearing them, as with the Cry It Out method). Fading also typically takes longer than the CIO or Ferber methods — up to two weeks — but gives some parents more peace of mind since they don’t feel like they’re abandoning their child.
Both the Ferber and Fading methods have been found to significantly improve infant sleep, parent sleep, and parental mental health within three months, with sustained improvement two months later. At a two-year follow-up, both approaches still indicated no long-term negative mental health impact on the babies, and the mothers were less likely to report symptoms of depression. At a five-year follow-up, when the children were six, there was still no evidence that sleep training had any sort of negative effect on the children.
The “No Tears” Method
This method, also known as the Gentle Sleep Training method, focuses on helping your baby learn to sleep on their own without any crying. To accomplish this, the method leans heavily on a consistent bedtime routine. This routine should follow the same set of activities, done in the same order, so the baby comes to recognize these activities as a transition from day to night, and consequently bedtime.
Parents can use a variety of tactics in the Gentle Sleep Training method. Some parents may use a variation of the Ferber method and leave the room entirely, but they will reenter any time the baby cries.
Other parents use the Fading method as a basis, with a gradual increase in physical distance between themselves and their baby at night. But, when the baby cries, they reassure them by shushing and patting them — instead of simply using verbal cues as with the Fading method. The trick is to lay them back down before they fall asleep, so they learn to feel confident and comfortable falling asleep on their own instead of in your arms.
Gentle Sleep Training methods are less emotionally stressful since they involve no crying, but they take longer to be successful. As a result, the parent may suffer more sleep deprivation with this sleep training method and a potential regression.
“The key is to stay consistent even when it gets hard. Especially when parents are using the more gentle approaches, sometimes hiring a sleep coach can be beneficial to help keep parents accountable and supported.”
Dr. Nilong Vyas, Pediatrician
How Do Bedtime Routines Fit Into Sleep Training?
Bedtime routines represent a key element in each of the sleep training methods above. They create a sense of consistency for babies, which reassures them and helps them feel safe to sleep. Babies also have no sense of day and night in their infancy, and bedtime routines can help them distinguish between the two.
By following the same set of activities each night, bedtime routines help your brain recognize that it’s time for bed, especially if the activities are calming and quiet. For children, bedtime routines may include activities like taking a bath, brushing their teeth, reading a bedtime story with you (or making one up together), singing a quiet song, saying goodnight to their favorite toys, and, of course, a kiss goodnight!
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