The most widely used baby sleep-training techniques

Greyson, Laura Welk’s baby, was a dream sleeper throughout the first few months of his life. He took regular naps during the day, and all he needed in the evenings was a relaxing bottle to fall asleep. He’d just wake up once a night for a feed, and that would be plenty to keep him going until morning.

The routine came apart when he was about three-and-a-half months old. Welk says, “I would feed him, but he wouldn’t be asleep at the conclusion of the feed.”

“I would rock him till he went asleep, then lay him down, and he would wake up 30 minutes later, and I would repeat the process.”

Welk pulled Greyson into bed with her in the hopes of getting some sleep, but she ended herself lying still all night, clutching a pacifier in his mouth. Welk says, “I didn’t know anything about sleep.” “I didn’t realise you couldn’t just put them down after rocking them to sleep.”

When Greyson was four months old, the first-time parents sought the advice of a sleep specialist, who pointed out a few issues that were interfering with Greyson’s ability to sleep soundly:

All of the rocking and pacifying had become sleep associations for him, crutches he needed to fall and remain asleep. They decided to put him on a sleep schedule.

According to Alanna McGinn, a trained sleep consultant and the founder of Good Night Sleep Site, sleep training is a loaded term that is often used interchangeably with allowing your baby to self-soothe or “cry it out.” But that’s not the whole picture.

“It’s more about being able to teach your infant that they can fall asleep on their own,” she explains. You want your baby to be able to fall asleep on their own, preferably without nursing, rocking, or using a pacifier because whatever tools they use to fall asleep at bedtime are the same tools they’ll be looking for when they wake up in the middle of the night. Yes, this might come across as uncaring and even cruel.

Experts on both sides of the debate can be found: Even the sleep coaches contacted for this story disagreed on how much wailing and distress is appropriate. Breastfeeding supporters believe it’s natural for babies of all ages to wake up many times to nurse.

Recent research has found that sleep training with controlled crying and bedtime fading (both detailed below) enhanced babies’ sleep and did not result in elevated cortisol levels in babies older than six months.

This gives you some peace of mind knowing a little crying, if it leads to better sleep, won’t hurt your kid.

The president of the Canadian Paediatric Society, pediatrician Michael Dickinson, recommends parents trust their intuition. “I don’t think there’s any proof that letting your infant cry is psychologically harmful,” he says, “but I think people need to be fair.”

“Letting your kid cry for five to ten minutes is five to ten minutes for most of us.” If what you’re doing now is working for your family, there’s no need to establish a regulated cry-it-out approach. However, excellent sleeping habits are always beneficial, and the ability to fall asleep on one’s own is a crucial life skill.

If you sleep-train your infant at a developmentally appropriate time and with the basic ingredients of healthy sleep in place, he or she will sleep better.

What’s the right age for sleep training?

Most sleep coaches agree that the best time to start sleep training (or promoting independent sleep, not necessarily utilizing the cry-it-out method) is between four and six months when your baby hasn’t had much time to get used to nursing or being rocked to sleep.

According to Jennifer Garden, an occupational therapist who operates Sleepdreams in Vancouver, most newborns are also developmentally able to learn the ability to fall asleep on their own at this age.

Some babies have a sleep regression at the age of four months when their sleep cycles shift and there are longer periods of lighter sleep per cycle.

“This is an excellent time to focus on autonomous sleeping skills,” McGinn says. Other newborns’ slumber is disrupted at this time because they are learning new skills, such as rolling and moving around.

Some parents prefer to wait until things calm down before starting a sleep-training program, but this isn’t necessary, according to McGinn.

Don’t panic if your infant is older than six months. “It’s never too late to acquire good sleeping habits,” McGinn says. According to Dickinson, nine months is a “golden spot” for parents in terms of getting their newborns to sleep through the night. He continues, “They are at a good age for learning routines and don’t need to eat at night.”

However, the age of your child may influence the type of sleep-training strategy you use. With a five-month-old, a gentle shush-pat technique might work, but you’ll probably have to leave a one-year-old in the crib as they reject (cry or scream) the new bedtime routine.

Before four months, wait until your kid can go longer between meals and their circadian rhythm begins to emerge before using a structured sleep-training strategy. (Many babies this age still eat at night—sleep training isn’t synonymous with night weaning, contrary to common belief.)

Many four-month-old babies can go through the night without a feed, according to Dickinson, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respond and feed them if other means of relaxing them aren’t working. Because every circumstance is unique, we recommend consulting your doctor before discontinuing your baby’s nighttime feedings.

Before getting started

Before you even consider “teaching” your baby to fall asleep on their own, make sure you’re sticking to a routine and putting them to bed at the same time every night (hint: early is usually better, typically around 7 or 8 p.m.).

Starting around two months old, try to put them down tired but awake as much as possible, merely to get them (and you) used to it, even if they fuss.

Establish a calming and consistent bedtime routine, such as a feed, bath or massage, pajamas, and stories or songs, after they’ve been awake for an appropriate amount of time before bed (an over-or under-tired baby will have trouble falling asleep), and make sure they’ve been awake for an appropriate amount of time before bed (an over-or under-tired baby will have trouble falling asleep).

1. Check and console (also known as the Ferber method, graduated extinction, progressive waiting or the interval method)

To avoid the baby associating feeding with falling asleep, some experts propose feeding at the start of the routine. Ideally, your infant should not have fallen asleep throughout your bedtime routine.

Pamela Mitelman, a Montreal-based psychologist who specializes in newborn and child sleep, says, “You really want to make sure your baby is ready for sleep.” Garden advises people to be aware of how much activity and stimulation they get during their daytime waking periods.

“When kids are awake, they need to be moving in all kinds of ways, not just sitting in a bouncy chair,” she explains. When you’ve gathered all of the components for a good night’s sleep and are ready to let your baby out,

The check-and-console approach has several modifications, but the basic ideas remain the same: You should keep checking on your baby at regular intervals, but never feed or rock them to sleep, as this will indicate that they aren’t falling asleep on their own.

Put your kid in their crib, leave the room, and wait a certain period of time once you’ve completed your bedtime routine (say, a minute).

Then go into your baby’s room and reassure him or her with words like “Mommy loves you” or a gentle touch like a rub or pat. It’s best not to pick up the baby, according to McGinn.

Garden, on the other hand, only uses this procedure with babies that are at least seven months old. (In her opinion, younger babies require parental presence to ensure that they are not abandoned, especially if they have worked themselves up into a rage.)

Continue to leave and then check on them, gradually increasing the duration between visits until you reach 10 or 15 minutes, and then just keep going until they fall asleep. You start the check-and-console intervals all over again when they wake up.

This method may take up to a week to work, but after a few nights, you should see some results. To reassure yourself, several experts advocate keeping a sleep-training log.

Some parents find that going into the room aggravates the baby even more and might consider a more direct method, like full extinction.

2. Extinction, or cry it out (CIO)

The objective behind extinction (sometimes known as full extinction to distinguish it from gradual extinction) is to put an end to a behavior (weeping) by refusing to respond to it.

Go through your bedtime ritual, place them in their crib awake, say good night, and walk away, just as you did with the check-and-console technique.

This is by far the most divisive sleep-training strategy, with even specialists disagreeing on what to do next—it all depends on your baby’s developmental stage and what works best for the parents.

McGinn, for example, recommends waiting until the morning to feed your kid unless you’ve determined that they’ll need a feed during the night.

“That first night might be difficult,” McGinn admits. “They may be sobbing every hour.”

Parents, on the other hand, should wait for at least one or two wake-ups before returning to the room, according to Mitelman.

If the infant wakes up after midnight, she believes it is OK to return, console your baby for a few minutes, and then go. If your infant still needs night feeding, she recommends scheduling them in.

Parents are generally hesitant to take this approach because they are concerned about the amount of sobbing that will occur. While McGinn acknowledges that it can be challenging at first, she finds that parents are frequently astonished by how quickly it works.

“Yes, there is a lot of crying,” she admits, “but it is just temporary.” “You may experience a lot of sobbing for two to three nights, but then it gets less and less every night.”

She claims that by night three or four, you should notice a considerable improvement with this strategy, but she cautions that you should give it a week before concluding that it isn’t working.

3. Chair method

This is a highly slow sleep-training strategy (McGinn provides her clients a two-week implementation schedule) that involves a great deal of parental control.

You prepare your kid for bed once more, but this time you sit on a chair next to the crib instead of leaving the room.

Leave the room when they fall asleep, but when they wake up, sit back down on the chair until they fall asleep again. Move the chair more and further away from you till you’re out of the room every few nights.

“The advantage of this strategy is that mom or dad is present,” McGinn explains. “However, the disadvantage is that there will almost certainly be some sobbing, and now your baby is seeing you watch them cry.” Consistency with this strategy can be quite difficult.”

Mitelman advises her clients against employing this strategy since having a parent in the room but not responding to the infant is confusing and maybe overly stimulating, depending on the baby’s age and developmental stage. “They can become so enraged that they can’t control themselves,” she explains.

4. Pick up, put down and shush-pat

Garden recommends staying in the room with babies under the age of seven months and not assisting them in falling asleep. To relax and reassure them, you could stand over their crib and shush them, touch their abdomen, or apply pressure.

Another alternative is to let them whine for a while, but when they start to get out of hand, pick them up and calm them before they fall asleep. Garden explains, “Our duty is to help soothe the child, and their task is to fall asleep.”
While these tactics work well for younger babies, after six or seven months, your presence may cause your baby to become more unhappy, and picking them up and putting them down will be more difficult.

5. Bedtime-routine fading

Continue to use whatever method you were using to assist your baby go asleep (such as rocking or nursing), but reduce the amount of time you spend doing it until you don’t have to use it at all with the fading technique.

This is an excellent method for reducing crying, but many parents find it difficult to maintain. “There needs to be a conclusion,” Mitelman says. “For instance, we’ll meet this desire for five to seven days and then take a step back.”

But Mitelman believes it’s worth a shot if you’re prepared to adhere to the plan and bring your baby to the point where he or she can go to bed without your help. “Whatever method the child can use to fall asleep on his or her own.”

6. Bedtime-hour fading

Bedtime-hour fading, not to be confused with bedtime-routine fading, is putting your baby in the crib at the time they usually fall asleep, making that their new bedtime for a number of nights, and then gradually changing it to an earlier time.

For example, suppose you always put your kid to bed at 7:30 p.m., but they fuss or cry in the crib for 20 minutes or more before finally falling asleep at 8 p.m.

Even if you’d prefer it to be earlier, their “normal bedtime” is between 7:50 and 8 p.m. Keep a notebook for a few evenings to track when your baby finally falls asleep to figure out when they fall asleep naturally.

(Using a visual monitor to help with this is a good idea.) Move the entire routine 15 minutes earlier a few nights later. Continue to move the bedtime earlier by 15 minutes each night (if necessary) until your kid has adjusted their old habits and is now falling asleep at the targeted time rather than the later one.

While McGinn does not employ this strategy with her clients, she does believe that the key to any training regimen is to be consistent and to commit to waking up earlier. “It’s easy to lose track of things or give up, and then the child has a very late bedtime,” McGinn adds.

The greater good

Welk and her husband decided to take Greyson’s pacifier away, move his bottle too before his bath (so he wouldn’t associate feeding with going to sleep), and start with a very mild manner after consulting with a sleep consultant (because he was only four months old at the time).

Greyson’s father put him in the crib and stood next to him for a week, patting him until he fell asleep. That went well, and then they started leaving him in the crib without patting him to sleep completely.

“Every night for approximately a month, he would weep or complain for 10 to 15 minutes before falling asleep,” Welk recalls.

Hearing her baby cry was difficult, but she is certain that it was for the best because they were both well-rested and content during the day. Greyson is now 11 months old and a great sleeper, having weaned himself off night feeds at the age of seven months.

If you’re on the fence regarding sleep training, consider the following scenario: What if my baby’s current developmental requirement? “They don’t need to eat during the night at 11 months,” Garden explains, “but they do require constant sleep.” Yes, those tear-filled nights are heartbreaking.

However, if you’re thinking about sleep training, it’s probably because what you’re doing now isn’t working.

If you’re on the fence regarding sleep training, consider the following scenario: What if my baby’s current developmental requirement? “They don’t need to eat during the night at 11 months,” Garden explains, “but they do require constant sleep.” Yes, those tear-filled nights are heartbreaking.

However, if you’re thinking about sleep training, it’s probably because what you’re doing now isn’t working.

As your child grows and their sleep demands change, make sure you alter their wake hours, naps, and bedtimes properly to help them fall and stay asleep effortlessly. Some parents consider sleep training to be a “one-and-done” task:

You put up with a lot of weeping for a few days in exchange for a perfect sleeper as a prize. But it’s more of a lifestyle change—once your child has mastered the art of falling asleep, they’ll still want routines, stability, and assistance in adapting to life’s unexpected twists and turns, such as starting daycare, welcoming a new sibling, or going on a trip (where they may have to sleep in a different space or crib).

Colds and illnesses, as well as time changes, can wreak havoc on your well-planned schedule. It’s important to get back on track as quickly as possible.

It will take longer to get back into a regular schedule if you start permitting or enabling old, negative habits and sleep associations.

McGinn compares it to riding a bike: “When you get the bike out after the winter, the kids are a little unsteady,” he says, “but they’re riding like experts again quickly.” She claims, “You never have to re-teach the technique of falling asleep.”

Do your homework, chat to your doctor, and if you’re feeling overwhelmed, hire a sleep expert or attend a workshop. Your baby’s sleep may appear to be a mystery to you, but there are people who can help you grasp the complexity.

While not everyone agrees with every strategy, no one can deny the importance of a good night’s sleep for both babies and tired parents.

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