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For moms with little ones getting enough sleep can be a challenge. Especially when there’s a new baby! The resulting sleep deprivation can become unbearable over time.

That’s the challenge baby sleep training methods aim to address.

What is Baby Sleep Training?

Baby sleep training tries to teach infants healthy sleep habits by encouraging them to sleep independently through the night. It typically involves having consistent routines and using specific techniques to help them learn to fall asleep and stay asleep on their own. The idea is that they shouldn’t necessarily rely on rocking, feeding, or being held in the middle of the night.

There are several methods and approaches to baby sleep training (or coaching). What works best depends on the baby’s age and their needs. The main goal is to ensure new parents and everyone in the house get a good night’s sleep over that first year.

Sleep Training Methods

Baby sleep training methods have come about over the last hundred years or so. Originally they were designed to make life more convenient for caregivers and discouraged holding the baby too much for fear of “spoiling” them.

It’s evolved some over the years to have more of a focus on baby’s needs too. The main goal is to help baby sleep better at night so parents can too. Newborns have different needs than babies six months and older. That said, here are some established baby sleep training methods.

Cry It Out Method

The “cry it out” (CIO) method (aka extinction method) is one many of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents may have used. It involves allowing the baby to cry for longer and longer times without intervening. The goal is to teach self-soothing by letting them cry until they fall asleep.

One version is to only allow baby to cry for a few minutes at a time. The extreme version is to shut the nursery door at night and no matter what it doesn’t open until morning. This method is highly controversial as it’s thought to put unnecessary stress on the baby.

This method starts with a bedtime routine and parents putting the baby to bed while drowsy. Once the baby is in bed, parents leave the room and don’t return until the baby falls asleep. If the baby wakes and starts to cry, parents don’t intervene. Instead, they allow the baby to cry for a predetermined time before checking on them.

Over several nights, parents gradually increase the length of time they allow the baby to cry before intervening. The goal is to teach the baby to self-soothe and fall asleep independently without relying on parents.

However, this method doesn’t always take into account that babies cry when they have an unmet need. I wouldn’t recommend the cry it out method to help a baby establish good sleep.

The Ferber Method

The Ferber Method is also known as graduated extinction. It was introduced in the 1985-best-selling book, “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems” by pediatrician Richard Ferber. It’s a variation of the cry it out method.

This method involves gradually increasing the time intervals between checking on the baby when they cry during naps or at night. Parents gradually extend the number of minutes they wait before comforting the baby according to a strict time table. Again, the goal is to teach them to self-soothe and fall asleep independently.

The Ferber Method also starts with establishing a consistent bedtime routine. This routine helps signal to the baby that it’s time to sleep and prepares them for nighttime sleep.

Instead of rocking or breastfeeding to help the baby fall asleep, parents put their little one to bed while still awake but getting drowsy. When the baby cries after being put to bed, parents wait for a set amount of time before checking on them. During the check-ins, parents briefly reassure the baby by patting them on the back or speaking soothingly. However, they avoid night feedings and cuddling.

Each night, parents gradually increase the length of time between check-ins. Parents are urged not to give in and immediately pick baby up or feed them. While this may work for some babies, the danger is that they may have a legitimate need that’s not being met. Feeling lonely and needing a cuddle is just as legitimate of a need as having a dirty diaper!

Chair Method

The chair method of sleep training is also known as the chair method of bedtime fading. It’s a gentle approach to helping babies learn to fall asleep independently that gradually reduces a parent’s presence in the room. This method works well for babies who have a hard time falling asleep without parental assistance.

Parents start by establishing a consistent bedtime routine and putting the baby to sleep while still awake but drowsy. Once the baby is in bed, parents sit in a chair next to the crib while the baby falls asleep. This provides the baby with a sense of security and comfort knowing that a parent is nearby.

Over several nights, parents gradually move the chair farther away from the crib while the baby falls asleep. The goal is to gradually reduce a parent’s presence in the room while still providing reassurance and support. Once the chair is positioned at a comfortable distance from the crib, parents can leave the room once the baby is asleep.

If there are night wakings with fussing, parents can briefly comfort the baby without picking them up. They can then return to the chair until the baby falls asleep again. Parents may need to repeat the process over several nights or weeks until the baby learns to fall asleep without parental presence in the room.

Pick-Up/Put-Down Method

The pick-up/put-down method, also known as PU/PD, is a gentle sleep training approach that teaches self-soothing but includes reassurance from a parent. This method is often used for parents who prefer a hands-on approach to sleep training.

Parents pick up the baby when they cry, soothe them until they are calm but drowsy, and then place them back in the crib. The soothing may involve gentle rocking, patting, or soothing sounds like shhhh or singing. The parent repeats the method until the baby falls asleep independently.

Other Tips and Tricks to Enhance Any Method

Establishing a consistent bedtime routine, such as bathing, reading a book, and dimming the lights, can signal to the baby that it’s time to sleep and help them wind down. Swaddling infants who crib sleep can also help them feel like they’re being cuddled.

I’ve recently discovered this weighted sleeper from Dreamland Baby, which is like a weighted blanket for babies. It’s great for babies who like the feeling of being held all the time. Use the code MAMA20 to save 20% site-wide and get free shipping.

You’ve probably heard me talk about the importance of morning sunlight for setting circadian rhythms. Turns out it’s also important for babies. Research shows that babies who get more outside time in the sunlight sleep better at night.

Another tip for supporting infant sleep is to create an environment that promotes better sleep. It may mean adding room-darkening curtains or a white noise machine.

Pairing a good sleep environment with a consistent bedtime routine and sleep schedule can make a significant difference in re-enforcing a good sleep-wake cycle.

When Should You Start Sleep Training?

So, how do parents or caregivers know when to start sleep training babies? A general guideline is to wait on newborn sleep training until they’re at least 6 months old. Baby’s sleep cycles are just starting to develop around 3-4 months. They haven’t fully developed until they’re about 6 months old.

The circadian rhythm which regulates our sleep-wake cycles as an adult takes time to mature. In those first few months of life, a baby’s cues to fall asleep and wake up depend not only on darkness but also on social cues like eating times and a bedtime routine. So, consider waiting until the baby is at least 6 months, maybe even 8 months of age.

Sleep Regression

Many families also notice sleep regression around the 4-month mark. Baby can become really restless and even good sleepers wake up fussy through the night. Some experts believe this is a normal part of childhood development, but some moms aren’t so sure.

There are plenty of anecdotal reports from moms who say they noticed a big difference in their baby’s sleep patterns immediately after the 2,4, and/or 6-month vaccinations. They noticed increased restlessness, fussiness, waking in the night and sometimes prolonged screaming or crying.

One study found that babies were much more likely to be very sleepy in the 24 hours after vaccines. However, they didn’t look at how sleep patterns were affected in the days and weeks to come. What we do know is that vaccines can play a role in a baby’s sleep quality.

What Does the Science Have to Say on Sleep Training?

While there have been a handful of studies done on infant sleep training, the quality is mixed. Overall they show different sleep training methods can help some babies sleep some of the time. Many of these sleep gains disappear by the time babies reach toddlerhood.

It’s also unclear what the long-term consequences are on emotional, psychological, and ultimately physical health. One of the main arguments in favor of cry-it-out sleep training methods is that they train babies to self-soothe and become independent. However, research has shown the opposite may be true.

When caregivers respond to babies’ needs right away they’re more likely to become independent children. Animal studies also give some interesting insight into the parent and baby relationship. According to a 2001 study:

“In studies of rats with high or low nurturing mothers, there is a critical period for turning on genes that control anxiety for the rest of life
If in the first 10 days of life you have a low nurturing rat mother, the gene never gets turned on and the rat is anxious towards new situations for the rest of its life, unless drugs are administered to alleviate the anxiety. These researchers say that there are hundreds of genes affected by nurturance.
Similar mechanisms are found in human brains—caregiver behavior matters for turning genes on and off.”

If there’s prolonged stress early on in life it also harms how the vagus nerve forms. This dysfunction is linked with autoimmune disorders and digestive problems later in life. The Body Keeps the Score is one of my favorite books on the subject!

Is Sleep Training Harmful?

All that being said does this mean that if your baby ever cries they’ll be scarred for life? While it’s important to meet our baby’s needs, we can’t prevent them from ever having stress. It’s all about finding the balance that works best for your baby’s individual needs.

One big downside to strict sleep training methods is they don’t take into account your baby. Extinction methods encourage parents to ignore their gut instincts and instead follow a timetable.

Sometimes baby is crying because they’re hungry, or have reflux, or another underlying medical issue. The more we can connect with our baby’s natural patterns and emotions the easier it is to discern what’s keeping them up at night.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to baby sleep. The main things to consider are committing to a consistent bedtime routine and doing your best to meet the baby’s needs. Parents should consider their baby’s age and temperament, as well as their parenting philosophy and comfort level when considering sleep training techniques.

What I Did

When I had a new baby, I co-slept/bed-shared with my babies when they were very young. Co-sleeping refers to sharing a sleeping space with the infant. But that can either mean in the same bed or within close proximity. Co-sleeping not only enhances emotional connection and reduces stress, it can even help synchronize sleep patterns.

Of course, it’s crucial to practice safe sleep practices to minimize the risk of accidents. Dr. James McKenna is widely considered one of the top experts on safe infant cosleeping. He recommends bedsharing only with breastfed infants and room sharing or using a side sleeper instead with bottle-fed babies.

The reason is that breastfeeding moms and babies intuitively respond to each other and become synchronized. Babies who are bottle-fed don’t develop the same sleeping patterns which can make bedsharing dangerous. Co-sleeping may not be suitable for everyone, so do what works best for your family.

I love the idea of baby-led sleep where parents adapt to the baby’s needs. I read The Sleep Lady’s books when I had my first baby. It taught me how newborns don’t have developed sleep-wake cycles and that parents have to provide that for them for the first six months or so.

That’s why co-sleeping made sense to me in those early months. Sleep training is likely more effective after those initial six months. The main thing is to help mom, baby, and the rest of the family get more restful sleep.

What have you done to train your baby to sleep through the night? What worked best? Share with us below!

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