When you’re a new parent, getting a good night’s sleep may seem impossible—but it’s not hopeless. Sleep training can help your baby to learn to fall asleep by herself/himself. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed with all of the different types of sleep training methods out there or you’re wondering if it’s even safe, you’re not alone. We asked three experts for their best sleep-training methods and advice.
Meet the Sleep-Training Experts
Dr. Elizabeth Murray is a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Rochester, and serves at the Golisano Children’s Hospital in Rochester, New York.
Kelley Thompson, founder of Serenity Sleepers, is a certified pediatric sleep consultant and mom of three. She’s been voted one of the best sleep consultants in the country.
What is sleep training?
First things first, sleep training is not always synonymous with the “cry-it-out” method.
If you want to sleep train your baby, it doesn’t mean you have to put your baby into his crib, close the door to his room, and not come back until the next day.
The term “sleep training” refers to a wide range of approaches meant to help babies learn to fall asleep on their own and learn to self-soothe when they wake in the middle of the night.
Sleep training also is not the same as night weaning.
“Night weaning is referring to removing the overnight feeds for your baby,” Kelley explains. “You can sleep train all while continuing to keep in place nutritional feedings if your baby’s body still requires it at their age.”
Some babies may need to continue overnight feedings until 9 to 12 months of age.
What are the different types of sleep training methods?
There is no one way to sleep train—different methods will work for different families.
“I encourage parents to read everything they can and decide what type of sleep training feels best for them and then read more about that particular one,” Anjanette says. “I also encourage them to work with their postpartum doula or a sleep consultant who can provide them with evidence-based information.”
Some families may even opt for a mix of methods. Here’s an overview of the five most popular sleep training methods.
1. Cry it out (CIO)
Also called the “extinction” method, “Cry It Out” asks you to put your baby to bed and let her cry until she falls asleep without any soothing from you. As long as you’re sure your baby is safe and has a full belly, you won’t go back into her room until the next morning or until she needs to be fed.
2. Ferber method
The Ferber method, also called “graduated extinction,” asks you to let your baby cry for a certain amount of time before you check on him. You’ll increase these timed intervals as your training progresses until eventually the check-ins are no longer needed.
3. Chair method
With the chair method, you will sit in a chair next to your baby’s crib until she falls asleep, without picking her up. Each night, you’ll move the chair farther away from your baby’s crib until you’re near the door. Eventually, your baby should be able to fall asleep without you there.
4. Bedtime fading method
If your baby cries and cries before falling asleep, you may be able to modify his circadian rhythm with the bedtime fading method.
With this technique, you’ll put your baby to bed at the time he normally dozes off, and then gradually move up to an earlier time.
Use a journal and video monitor to track when your baby naturally falls asleep. A few nights later, move the whole routine 15 minutes earlier. Continue moving the bedtime earlier by 15 minutes each night until your baby has started falling asleep at the desired time.
5. Pick up, put down method
After going through your baby’s normal nighttime routine, put her to bed when she’s drowsy but still awake. If she starts to cry and can’t settle herself down after a few minutes, pick her up and soothe. Once she’s calm, place her back in her crib.
When is the best time to start sleep training my baby?
Our experts agree that parents should start establishing a night-time routine as soon as they take their baby home.
In fact, Dr. Murray believes that doing so could limit the need for sleep training later on.
“Remember, as a parent, you are creating your child’s reality so every part of your routine becomes part of your child’s expectation for what will happen,” Dr. Murray says. “It is much harder to change a routine when a child is 1 or 2 years old versus when they are a young infant.”
This bedtime routine should include a bath and reading to your child.
Here are some questions Kelley says every parent should ask when putting baby to bed:
Are my baby’s basic needs met?
Be sure your baby has been properly fed and burped and has a clean diaper.
“A baby may also need additional burping as trapped gas can cause issues for them trying to settle to sleep,” Kelley says.
Make sure your baby feels loved and secure and has had plenty of tummy time and playtime.
Are my baby’s safety needs met?
Be sure your baby is on her back in her crib or bassinet and swaddled with the proper fit. Her sleep space should be on a flat mattress with a tight-fitting sheet. No items should be in her sleep space except her pacifier.
For toddlers, be sure the bed is low enough to the ground and that your child has a proper pillow and blanket. Don’t have too many items in his bed. Your toddler’s sleep space should be cool and dark. Have safety measures in place at his doorway to keep him from exiting the room at night and to prevent him from climbing on bedroom furniture.
Am I tracking my baby’s sleeping habits?
Click HERE to snag Kelley’s free baby cheat sheet wake window chart. Use this to track your child’s wake window and overall sleep patterns.
“This will give you all the details for your little one, from newborn up until the toddler-hood age on how many naps they should have in place, the total amount of day sleep, when the nap transitions happen, and so much more,” Kelley says.
If sleep training is necessary, both Kelley and Anjanette agree that it’s best to start when your baby is around 4 to 6 months old.
However, Anjanette stresses that parents must do what’s best for their family and their baby. “Every baby is different, and every family situation is different,” she says.
Parents who must return to work, for example, may need to start sleep training earlier. There are many developmental factors to consider, too.
Can sleep training harm my baby?
Sleep training — particularly the Cry It Out method — is controversial, to say the least. Some argue sleep training could even psychologically harm babies. But our experts disagree.
“All the sleep training methods are often harder on the parents then the child,” Dr. Murray says.
She adds that there’s also no evidence that sleep training increases a child’s risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
“Safe sleep precautions should be taken at all times,” Dr. Murray says. “A baby is always safest in their own sleep environment, with a firm mattress, no blankets or loose sheets, no toys, and on their back. “
Anjanette used sleep training with her own child.
“My daughter was a night owl who loved company, so she would cry and call for us at night,” Anjanette explains. “She didn’t need us to pick her up when we came to her room. She would play in her crib and want to see and talk to us until she fell asleep.”
Anjanette and her husband were both back at work and Anjanette was also in grad school.
“We could not function during the day,” she says.
So, they turned to sleep training.
“We let her cry while systematically moving from the chair in her room to the door of her room to our room across the hall while talking and reassuring her,” Anjanette explains. “About a week or so later she would just play by herself until she fell asleep.”
Anjanette and her husband were sure to shower their daughter with affection the next day.
“In the mornings, we would praise her and love on her and cuddle and just be so excited to see her,” she says. “Eventually, she started to not care about the company at night and loving the love fest in the mornings.”
While this worked for Anjanette’s child, she warns that it may not work for yours, especially if your baby has special needs to consider.
“This behavioral motivation is different from a child who is in distress because of anxiety, or a child who may be deaf or blind or have developmental challenges and needs to be physically comforted before they can feel safe enough to fall asleep,” she says. “This especially applies to a baby who experienced abuse, neglect, or trauma.”
How can I choose the best sleep training method for my baby?
“When I work one-on-one with families, there is never a one-size-fits-all method,” Kelley says.
When families are choosing a sleep training method, they must first decide if they want a firmer approach, such as extinction or graduated extinction, or if they want a more parent-guided approach such as the pick up/put down or chair methods.
“Once they understand which way they would like to go with their method then they can specifically research each method and find the right fit for them,” Kelley says.
Anjanette and Kelley both agree that consistency is key.
“It is important that each parent — along with all caregivers — is on the same page when implementing a sleep training method,” Kelley says.
While you may need to make tweaks as you go, try to choose a sleep training plan and stick with it.
“If you let them cry it out this week and then try the Ferber next week, then a ‘no tears’ way for three weeks and then just wing it the next few weeks, you are not teaching your baby what the desired behavior is and they are confused with no other way to express themselves, so they cry for what they need and to be comforted,” Anjanette explains. “We all feel better and less anxious when our environment is predictable.”
How long should I expect it to take to successfully sleep train my baby?
While Anjanette says most parents can expect to successfully sleep train their baby in two weeks to a month, results vary depending on how consistent the parents are and on the child’s needs.
Kelley adds that results also depend on the method used.
“If you are going with gentler methods, they tend to take more time to see full results,” she says. “If over time you are seeing little to no progress, it would be a wise investment to reach out to a certified sleep consultant to help you meet the sleep goals and have better sleep for your baby and your family.”
All of our experts agree that, as with all things related to parenting, you must be patient.
“There will be setbacks and struggles but establishing a routine that works for your family early on will help you in the long run,” Dr. Murray says. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”