Your Sleep Training Questions, Answered
If you’re a parent to a newborn, you likely long for the days when your baby will sleep through the night. It still may be a while before your baby is ready; nevertheless, you might be starting to daydream about how and when to start sleep training.
But what is sleep training exactly, and what should you know before getting started? Here’s what to consider as you plan for setting up healthy sleep habits for your baby.
What Is Sleep Training?
“Sleep training is something you do that alters your routine, allowing your child to sleep in a manner that is better than what they are doing now,” says Edward Kulich, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician in New York City and author of The Best Baby Sleep Book.
Ultimately, it can mean different things for different families, from the cry-it-out method to establishing a different routine around bedtime. The idea is that you’re switching something around, whether it’s your behavior or the environment, in the interest of good sleep.
Families often think sleep training is only about sleeping through the night, says Jennifer Albon, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician and assistant clinical professor in pediatrics at University of California, San Francisco. But that isn’t the only goal. “I define it as being able to influence the time at which babies are going to sleep or waking up, or how easy it is to put them down to sleep,” she says. Basically, it’s working toward the predictability of a baby’s sleep schedule.
The goal depends on the issue at hand, for example, getting a baby to realize they can fall asleep without being rocked or breastfed, or helping a baby who no longer needs a feeding to fall back asleep on their own after waking up in the middle of the night.
When to Start Sleep Training
When you go for your four-month well-baby visit, your pediatrician may talk with you about sleep training. There’s a reason the four-month mark is an optimal time to start, Kulich says. At this age, a baby’s stomach is big enough, and they’re neurologically mature enough to go for longer stretches without food.
“The vast majority of healthy babies [at 4 months of age] should be able to go eight hours without eating,” Kulich says. That matters, because a facet of sleep training can include eliminating a middle-of-the-night feeding. You wouldn’t want to try dropping an overnight feed before your baby is ready and still needs the calories.
The timing matters for another big reason, too. “Babies at that age are starting to develop associations around things,” Albon says. In other words, it’s the age at which both good routines and bad habits can stick. If you’ve started to create an association between feeding and falling asleep, this is a good window to start breaking that association.
Sleep Training Methods and Tips
If you feel that you and your baby are ready for sleep training, get the go-ahead from the pediatrician and discuss what sleep training method might be best. There are a few options to choose from, and parents turn to different methods based on their goals, their style of parenting, and their baby’s personality.
For example, sleep training can involve letting a baby cry, and some parents feel strongly that they wouldn’t want their baby crying for a long stretch of time. Others may be able to handle some crying, but not for more than a few minutes.
“Lots of methods work, but it’s about whether you can withstand it,” Kulich says. “If you’re going to fold before your kid does, you are going to have to try something else.”
There’s no one sleep secret or right way to sleep-train that works for every baby. Here are a few popular options to try.
The Cry-It-Out Method
To do this sleep training method, start with your usual nighttime routine, which can include feeding, a diaper change, reading a book, or cuddling—but do not rock the baby or feed them until they fall asleep. Instead, put your baby down when they are drowsy, but not asleep, and then leave the room. And stay gone, even if they cry (with the caveat that you should confirm they are not crying for other reasons—a dirty diaper, hunger, etc.).
Do the same for a baby who wakes up in the middle of the night crying (after your pediatrician has confirmed your baby doesn’t need an overnight feeding). Check on them to make sure all is well, but let them cry. “This method works the quickest,” Albon says. “But it can be a rough couple of nights.”
This option may sound brutal to many parents, but it’s not harmful to the baby. Plus, as Kulich points out, “There is no data that supports that letting a baby cry at bedtime hurts them.”
The Check-In Method
Still widely called the Ferber method, this concept was popularized by Richard Ferber, M.D., a pediatrician who wrote Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems (originally published in 1985 and updated in 2006).
It means that you go in to check on a crying baby at night, but you wait longer in between check-ins each time, Albon says. “You just go in and be present. Maybe pat them on the back or sit next to them,” she says.
One tip: If your baby is breastfed or chestfed, have the parent who is not breast/chestfeeding check on the baby, Albon suggests. That way, there is no expectation of a feeding.
The Tweaking-the-Routine Method
Parents who want to avoid nighttime crying and try a different solution should think about ways to deliberately manipulate the bedtime routine, Kulich says. To tweak the routine, you do something to promote your baby’s sleep, but it might be more subtle.
For example, you may start rocking them for less time each night or shushing and patting them in the crib when they’re drowsy. It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as letting them cry, but you work toward the goal of getting them into a new sleep routine that depends less on you.
As you prepare for the onset of sleep training, bear in mind that it can take some trial and error to find the right sleep training method that best suits you and your baby, so don’t be afraid to experiment with different strategies. Once you find one you like, consistency is key—it can take your baby a week or more to learn to self-soothe and sleep on their own.
And remember: Sleep training can often be more difficult for the parent than it is for the baby. “The biggest thing, no matter your method,” Albon says, “is to be gracious to yourself.”
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