You’re in desperate need sleep, but the thought of letting your sweet baby cry for hours is unbearable.
If you’re an exhausted, sleep deprived mom, you’ve probably thought about sleep training at least once this past week, if not all last night.
It’s confusing and scary. I get it. I’ve been there. I am there right now.
Meanwhile, everyone around you is quick to offer their opinion, insistent that their favored approach (or lack of approach) is best for your baby, and anything else will traumatize them.
Let me fill you in on a little secret.
What works for one child will not necessarily work for the next, and the same goes for parents.
And while the You need to sleep train! camp and the Sleep training traumatizes babies! camp are constantly trying to intimidate each other with research, it’s really difficult to study the long-term effects of infant sleep training.
The number of variables is overwhelming!
What do we know about sleep training?
When you look up sleep training and all of the different approaches, the important thing to keep in mind is that there is no right answer.
We know that:
1. We all go through multiple sleep cycles every night. This is often the cause of arousal in young children.
2. Sleep is crucial for optimal health and proper brain development.
3. Sleep training does not cause long term problems in children with a normal parent-child attachment.
4. Sleep training does not harm the parent-child bond.
How you and your family manage to get sleep is a very personal decision, and one that may even vary from child to child.
Nobody can tell you what the best approach will be for you. Only you can determine that.
What are the different approaches to sleep training?
It’s important to realize that sleep training does not always mean Cry It Out.
On the contrary, there are several very gentle approaches to sleep training. Cry it out, or CIO is by far the most rigorous of the approaches.
There are five major approaches to sleep training. Each one has its own benefits and drawbacks. None of them are easy, however the approaches that are most gentle for babies tend to require more hours of ‘work’ on the parent’s part.
We suggest beginning with a more gentle approach, and if it doesn’t work, move toward a more rigorous one.
Fade it Out (FIO) or Fading Method
This is also known as a “no-cry” approach.
With the Fading Method, you continue to help your baby fall asleep using the current sleep crutches that they already rely on. Examples of sleep crutches might be feeding, rocking, bouncing, or shush-ing.
Over time you gradually shorten the amount of time spent doing these activities, with the goal being that your baby learns to put himself to sleep.
The Fading Method is a good approach for young babies and parents who are afraid to let their child cry, however it is exhausting.
What age can you begin this method? Any age.
Pick-up-put-down method (PUPD)
The PUPD method is exactly as it is described.
You put baby down drowsy but awake. When they cry you pick them up and comfort them. After they have settled you put them down again. When they cry, you pick them up and comfort them and repeat as necessary.
This is another approach to sleep training that is gentle for the baby but exhausting for the parents.
The PUPD method is less effective for temperamental or colicky babies. It tends to just make them angry. It can be good for children with a mild temperament though.
Again, if you are afraid to let your baby cry for an extended period of time, this could be a good approach for you.
What age can you begin this method? Any age.
The goal of the chair method is to allow your baby to fall asleep on his own with the assurance that you are still there.
You begin by setting a chair next to the crib or bassinette. When your baby cries, you do not engage with them. Over the next weeks or months, you slowly begin to move the chair further and further away from your baby’s bed until they are falling asleep on their own.
This approach is less gentle the those mentioned above, and is by far the most taxing for the parent.
Children may be confused about the parent’s presence but lack of interaction or comfort, and parents are exposed to extended periods of crying, possibly multiple times a night, for weeks or months.
If this is an approach that you would like to try, I recommend noise cancelling headphones.
What age can you begin this method? 3 months.
Ferber Method/Graduated Extinction
Similar to the Chair Method, the goal of the Ferber Method is to teach your baby to self soothe while reassuring them of your presence.
The difference is that with the Ferber Method, you enter and exit the room at gradually increasing, predetermined intervals of time. This is a popular approach when the more gentle methods are not effective, yet parents are too nervous or unable to implement the cry-it-out method.
One of the appeals of the Ferber Method is that it can easily be tailored to your and your baby’s emotional capacity. There are no strict guidelines about how long the intervals must be or at what rate they need to increase.
Here is a sample schedule of the Ferber Method:
Night 1: (1st interval) 3 min, (2nd interval) 5 min, (3rd interval) 10 min. Continue checking in every 10 min until baby is asleep.
Night 2: 5 min, 10 min, 15 min. Continue intervals of 15 min.
Night 3: 7 min, 15 min, 20 min. Continue intervals of 20 min.
Night 4: 10 min, 17 min, 25 min. Continue intervals of 25 min.
What age can this approach be implemented? Can begin at 4 months, but 6 months is optimal.
Cry it out (CIO)/Extinction
This is the most rigorous form of sleep training, as it often involves a significant amount of crying for the first few nights.
The method is pretty straight forward. After all of your baby’s needs have been met and you have gone through their bedtime routine, you put them in bed drowsy but awake, and leave the room. If they cry, you do not go to them.
The reasoning is that when they “cry it out,” they learn to soothe themselves so that eventually they can put themselves back to sleep between sleep cycles.
The only time that you go to them is if they need to eat, and those times should be determined before you begin sleep training.
Critics of CIO argue that it causes emotional trauma, however there are no long-term studies to back this up.
Advocates of the CIO method argue that there is less crying overall because babies learn to put themselves back to sleep more quickly, however the total hours of crying can vary greatly from child to child.
For parents, cry it out is often emotionally brutal for a few days. However, most children begin sleeping for long stretches of time within 3-5 days, so parents who use this approach often state that they found the increase in sleep to be worth a few days of struggling.
Regardless of if you agree with this approach or not, it has been very helpful for many people, but is not recommended for everyone.
What age can this be used? Not before 6 months. If implementing at 6 months, do not expect them to sleep through the night without eating. Make sure that you schedule age appropriate feedings. Look back at past feeding records to determine when they ate larger quantities and plan to give them a “dream feed” shortly before those times.
Questions to consider before sleep training
Before you jump into sleep training, there are several things that you should consider to determine if sleep training is right for you and your baby, and if so, which approach you should take.
How old is your baby?
Certain methods of sleep training are not recommended for children under the age of six months. If your baby was born prematurely, you must count their age from their due date.
What is your emotional state? How much exposure to crying are you able to tolerate?
Parents are a critical part of sleep training, so it’s important to factor in your own limitations.
Dr Weissbluth from Healthy Sleep Habits Happy Child recommends that fathers sleep train their babies because most often, mothers are already bearing the brunt of the sleep deprivation.
But again, only you and your partner will be able to make that decision.
How would you describe your baby’s temperament and attachment?
The combination of your baby’s temperament and attachment will play a role in the approach that you take to sleep training.
Some babies respond well to gentle forms of sleep training, whereas some do not. And likewise, some babies do well with strict approaches, while others will cry for up to 5 hours.
Does your baby have a history of neglect?
If you have an adopted or foster child with a history of neglect, you should not use methods such as cry it out.
preparation for sleep training
The process of sleep training does not begin on the first night that you decide to implement your plan.
If you want to succeed at sleep training, it is important that you spend about a week preparing.
Make a detailed record of your baby’s current routine for a while, even if its sporadic.
If you are trying to put him to bed but he is not ready, does he cry when you walk into the bedroom or you try to feed him in a certain chair? If so, those may be sleep associations for him.
This is helpful information when establishing a bedtime routine so that you can work with your baby.
Develop bedtime and nap time routines
Use your notes about sleep associations that your baby has already developed, and build a routine from there.
You could give your baby a bath, massage them with a special lotion, sing a song, and nurse them in a certain recliner.
The logistics don’t really matter. The important thing is that you do the same thing every night before you attempt to put them to sleep.
Determine the age-appropriate length of time that you baby can go between feedings at night
Because a baby’s stomach is growing rapidly, every month of age can make a significant difference.
Here are conservative estimates for how long babies can go between eating at night.
- 0-3 months: every 2-3 hours on demand
- 3-4 months: every 3-6 hours on demand/2-3 feedings total
- 5-6 months: 1-2 feedings, scheduled
- 7-9 months: 1 scheduled feeding, but possibly 2
- 10-12 months: Able to be night weaned. However you could still do 1 night feeding if you are concerned.
- 12 + months: Night feedings not necessary.
Track current eating patterns
Take note of when your baby has large feeds, and when they snack. If your baby still needs night feedings, this will help you find the best time to feed him.
Get your baby on a feeding schedule to ensure that they are getting enough food during the day
One of the biggest anxieties parents face with sleep training is that their baby is crying from hunger.
The best way to handle this is by keeping track of how much food your baby is consuming during the day.
Block off a time when your family’s schedule will be relatively consistent for at least 1 month
Don’t attempt sleep training before a move, in the month prior to the birth of a new baby, or while on vacation.
Make a plan
The worst way to begin sleep training is by jumping in head-first without hashing out the logistics.
Susie Parker from Sleep Baby Love recommends that you ask yourself these vital questions:
- Are you ready to make a change
- What soothing method are you going to use?
- Are you going to keep a pacifier?
- Where will your baby sleep for nights and naps?
- What changes are you going to make to your baby’s room to create the optimal sleep environment?
- What will your bedtime routine look like?
- How many night feeds will you have?
- What will your soothing method be for nighttime?
- Is the soothing method the same for night wakings, naps and bedtime?
- What time will your day start?
- Will you work on nights and naps at the same time?
- Will your feeds be before or after naps?
- Will naps be based on a set time or flexible times from when your baby is up?
- What will you do if your baby takes a short nap?
- Are you ready to be consistent?
How can I choose the best approach to sleep training?
When choosing a method of sleep training, there is no right or wrong answer. The best approach is one that works for you and your baby.
For first time parents that are scared to let their baby cry, we recommend beginning with more gentle approaches such as the Fading Method or the Pick-up-put-down Method. These are usually the approaches that new or nervous parents are most comfortable with.
If they don’t work, it may be helpful to transition to the Ferber method, and if that is ineffective, move to Cry-it-out.
Seasoned parents are more likely to be comfortable with the Cry-it-out method, however they may need to adjust their approach depending on their child.
Whichever approach you choose, give it a week before determining if it is effective or not, assuming you have the capacity to pursue it for that length of time.
Remember that while consistency is critical, so is your emotional health. If you have tried an approach for a week and things are only getting worse, do not hesitate to throw in the towel and come back to the drawing board.
The most important thing for your baby is a happy mom.
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