Parents’ initial ideas about what sleep training is can vary wildly. And many fear this stage of parenting because they dread the thought of being harsh or “cruel” to their babies during the process of helping them sleep without support from an adult.
However, sleep training doesn’t need to be strict at all and when done right, will give your little one the skills and independence to be even happier and content when it comes to bedtime.
In this post, we explain how you can provide sleep training for your baby like a boss — whether you want to choose a slow and gentle approach or something more direct.
What Exactly Is Sleep Training for Babies?
There aren’t any specific exercises or routines that constitute sleep training. It is merely a process of learning for your baby where they eventually achieve the ability to fall asleep by themselves. The parent's role is to give their child the right environment and tools to help them do this.
Essentially, sleep training is allowing your baby to realize that they don’t need you to sleep and can self-settle at night, whether that’s when you first put them into their crib awake or when they wake up in the middle of the night.
It’s true that the parent is vital to this “training” process and will undergo their own learning in the sense that they’ll need to let go of the urge to constantly comfort their child when they cry or seem lonely.
However, it’s largely up to the individual baby to develop the skills they need themselves and stepping back and letting them get on with things (as long as they have everything they need to be healthy and happy) is the most important thing parents will do during this stage.
Sleep Training Methods Explained
Most reports (over 80%) indicate that sleep training in various forms leads to positive outcomes, according to BASIS. However, the different methods can vary considerably. Below are some of the most common techniques used today.
The Chair Method
The chair method involves parents sitting near to their child’s crib during bedtime — giving them a certain amount of reassurance until they fall asleep. You may then move your child further away from your little one incrementally until you are basically at the door.
Finally, you can leave your child alone in the room and by this stage, they may have become more comfortable being by themselves when it comes to sleeping.
Some parents choose to do this in many stages (moving the chair a few steps away from the crib at a time), while others will simply do this in one or two stages.
The Ferber Method focuses on adjusting the time you wait until you offer support to your baby when they start crying or show clear signs that they’re having difficulty sleeping after you’ve put them down to bed. The idea is that delaying the speed at which you comfort your child will teach them to soothe themselves bit by bit, until they no longer need you to help them.
Some disagree with this method as it seems overly cruel to a child, however, the extent to which you delay parenting comfort can vary depending on what you’re comfortable with. For instance, you may simply choose to delay your arrival by 1-2 minutes.
It’s important to remember that this method is different from simply leaving your child to cry themselves to sleep.
The idea with the Ferber method is that delaying the speed at which you comfort your child will teach them to soothe themselves bit by bit, until they no longer need you to help them.
The Wake to Sleep Technique
This approach takes a little bit more planning. Parents are required to wake their children up gently before they’re fully awake. At this stage, your child will then be so sleepy they will put themselves back to sleep. The act of doing this is believed to gradually teach children the ability to soothe themselves, which can be transferred to other situations when a parent puts their baby into a crib to sleep.
Remember that you’re not trying to wake them up fully, but gently bringing them out of a deeper sleep so that they stir, move slightly or sigh. This can be done an hour or so before they would normally wake up.
Pick Up and Shush
For some parents, the extent of “sleep training” is simply picking up their child and giving them some gentle comfort in the form of shushing or another comforting noise their child is used to. This prevents their crying from becoming too overwhelming which might stop them from sleeping at all due to high levels of stress
You may choose not to pick up your baby and just make a comfortable noise from outside of the crib so they know you’re there.
The idea is that children will eventually develop the ability to sleep alone with time and shouldn’t be allowed to get into states of too much distress, which will prevent them from feeling relaxed and comfortable enough to sleep.
The Cry it Out Method
By far the most extreme and controversial method of providing sleep training for your baby is the cry it out method.
There are many supporters of this method who believe it's the fastest and most effective way to help babies achieve sleep independence. However, if it pains you to see your baby unhappy, it’s not going to be an easy one for you to follow!
Essentially, this method involves letting your baby simply cry until they stop and learn to soothe themselves to sleep, whether it takes 10 minutes or 2 hours.
It’s important to keep in mind that some believe this method can negatively affect your child’s emotional state and psychological stress levels due to unnecessary distress. However, the validity of this in various studies that indicate a baby’s development is not adversely affected by letting them during infancy.
If in doubt, seek advice from a medical professional about the cry it out method. You will also want to be 100% sure your child’s crying is not caused by an illness or pain.
How Long Does Sleep Training for Babies Take?
Many doctors and health organizations recommend four months as a minimum age for you to start with sleep training. This is when most infants are typically developed enough to learn how to soothe themselves and after the biggest risk of SIDS is passed. They may also no longer need frequent night feedings so can be left alone at night more often.
Finally, at around four months, your baby’s sleep cycles begin to mature and their circadian rhythm starts to more closely resemble that of an adult’s natural sleep patterns. If you’re unsure if your baby is old enough or ready to sleep train, check with your pediatrician for advice.
Understanding Sleep Cycles
Newborn sleep cycles are shorter (around 50-55 minutes for the average infant) but eventually, they will come to align their sleep sessions with the same pattern of daytime and nighttime. This makes it almost impossible to start sleep training for babies before the age of four months. And some may choose to wait until six months or much later.
Your baby’s sleep cycle is completely different from yours. Adults require around seven to eight hours of sleep each night, while babies can sleep up to 17 hours depending on their age. And rather than sleeping in one go, they will sleep for short windows throughout the day and night.
Below is a general idea about how much babies and children sleep, according to the AAP.
Total Sleep Time
How to Choose the Right Approach to Sleep Training
Pretty much all babies will start to pick up a regular sleep pattern eventually and will sleep for longer stretches of the night until one day they’ll actually be able to sleep uninterrupted for a full night. This will happen regardless of the specific method you choose as long as you are giving them the right basic tools, such as a suitable place to sleep (quiet, dark and with no distractions), comfy clothes, a safe crib, and generally keeping them healthy and happy.
However, it’s largely up to you how you choose to approach sleep training. The method you choose will probably feel the most suitable based on your overall approach to parenting as well as the needs of your child at the time. If your child is sick, it will be harder to implement a specific approach.
Stick to a Routine
The most important thing is simply sticking to a consistent routine at bedtime and creating the right atmosphere for sleep, night after night. You can diverge from your usual set-up if you need, but keeping certain elements consistent will help your child’s ability to sleep, no matter what sleep training method you choose. Bedtime routine activities can include things like
- Having a relaxing bath
- Changing into night clothes
- Changing their diaper
- Turning down the lights a few hours before bedtime
- Singing them a lullaby or playing a soothing lullaby track
- Reading a bedtime story
- Giving them cuddle time
- Put them in their favourite sleep suit or sack
Final Tips On Implementing Sleep Training for Your Baby
Some children seem to develop good sleep independence very early on, while others need a little time and assistance. As we’ve mentioned, you don’t need to stress out too much over the method you choose for sleep training your baby as long as you’re providing them the fundamentals required for healthy and happy sleep, such as a suitable bedroom environment and a consistent routine.
The most important thing to do is make sure you’re adhering to baby sleep best practices and let your child progress at their own pace.
It pays to be mindful about the process of sleep development while it’s taking place and doing your best to support your infant, however, you don’t need to do anything that feels cruel or unnatural, such as shutting your child away and letting them cry themselves to sleep.