When coffee just won’t cut it, and you’re pouring syrup on the cereal and milk on the pancakes, you may be experiencing the age-old tradition of new parent sleeplessness. Take heart because help is on the way. There are a plethora of sleep training techniques in books and blogs, but we’ve narrowed down the field for all bleary-eyed wannabe sleepers.
What is Sleep Training?
Sleep training is the process by which parents help their babies learn to soothe themselves into extended periods of sleep (8-12 hours) without requiring sleep props such as a bottle, breastfeeding, pacifier, or the parent’s constant presence. It is also the process by which parents are greatly conflicted by their overwhelming desire to comfort their child and their need to NOT be a sleep-deprived zombie. There is much debate about whether this process should be gradual, to minimize tears (or make it a no tears sleep training), or more systematic and consistent, which may mean more tears but quicker results. And like most struggles in child rearing, each baby sleep training method is as much about modifying the parent’s behavior as it is the child’s. Each of these sleep training techniques requires diaper pail loads of consistency to be effective.
When is the Best Time to Sleep Train a Baby?
Experts agree that the optimal time to begin sleep training is between the ages of four and six months. A newborn’s sleep/wake cycle is still being established and feedings are still short and more frequent. After four months, most babies are capable of longer periods of sleep. This is also the time to establish healthy sleep habits before other milestones, like separation anxiety, enter the picture.
What are the Most Common Sleep Training Methods?
There are several common sleep training methods that have gained notoriety over the years. The following is an overview of the Weissbluth or Cry Out method; Ferber method; Pick-Up/Put Down method; Chair method; Wake-and-Sleep technique; and Babywise sleep training. Understanding the pros and cons of each will help you decide which will work best for your family.
Weissbluth or Cry it Out Method
Your grandma may have advised you to just “let them cry it out”. She may not be a pediatric sleep scientist, but she may have a Master’s degree in common sense. This is the most well-known sleep training method and the most controversial.
In Dr. Marc Weissbluth’s book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, he describes the Weissbluth method as the process of extinction. Gradually the infant is taught how to self-soothe and get rid of any negative sleep associations (like only being able to fall asleep in mom’s arms). The truth is, as difficult as it is for parents to listen to their baby cry it out, for some children this can be the most efficient way to help them learn to soothe themselves to sleep. Some babies will get more upset by momma coming and going repeatedly from their presence. In this instance, putting baby down drowsy, but awake, can help them learn to self-soothe when it’s time to sleep. It does not mean put them down, close the door, and ignore the child. Any extinction sleep training method requires a quality daytime routine with restorative naps; early bedtimes with a consistent bedtime routine; and to pre-select your child’s night feed time, if they still require one. But the Weissbluth method does discourage parents from re-entering the room unless it is time for a feeding.
Parents will still need to be attentive to the differences between a baby’s fussy cry and a baby’s distressed cry. Letting baby cry it out at 3 months or earlier is not recommended.
Known as “Ferberizing”, the Ferber Method is also an extinction method of sleep training developed by Dr. Richard A. Ferber, an expert in pediatric sleep, and author of “Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems”. His advice, similar to the Weissbluth/Cry Out method, includes putting the child down in her crib while drowsy, but awake, after your consistent bedtime routine. If your baby cries, wait for 1 to 5 minutes before checking on her. Re-enter the child’s room to console her, but do not pick her up, and only stay for 2 to 3 minutes. If the crying continues, extend your wait time by a few minutes and then 10 minutes each time after that. The next night you would wait 5 minutes the first time, 10 minutes the second time and 12 minutes each time after that.
The Ferber sleep training will likely be difficult the first few nights, but you should see improvement in your baby’s sleep pattern by day 3 or 4. A stopwatch might be a good investment.
Pick Up/Put Down Method
In her book “Secrets of the Baby Whisperer: How to Calm, Connect and Communicate with Your Baby”, Tracy Hogg recommends the Pick-Up/Put Down method of sleep training. Begin with your perfect bedtime routine and lay your child down while they are drowsy but awake. Are we noticing a pattern here? You then follow a “stop, wait, and listen” approach. If your child gets worked up, you return to the room; pick up the child for only a minute or two to settle them, and then put them down still awake. Repeat as necessary until the child stays asleep. If you are more comfortable comforting your child, this may be a gentler way to sleep train. This can last for several hours in the beginning. For some children, this may become a game, and unless you like playing games with your child at 2:00 am, this may not be the sleep technique for your family.
The Chair method is a gradual approach that requires tremendous consistency. It allows the parent to stay in the room until the baby falls asleep. Again, put the child in their crib while awake, but drowsy. We’re serious about that pattern. Sit in a chair next to the crib until they fall asleep. It is recommended that you say nothing and do not make eye contact. After three days, move the chair halfway to the door. Day 7 to 9 move the chair to just inside the doorway. Day 10 to 12 move the chair outside the room, but still within the child’s view. On days 13 and 14, stay in the hallway and listen for the sweet, sweet sound of “nothing” that indicates you have a sleep-trained baby. The Chair method is most successful with babies who are comforted by the mere presence of their parent. This may be difficult to do consistently with other children in the home, especially at nap time.
If baby wakes, sit back down and wait until she falls asleep again and repeat as necessary. If the child is seriously distressed, you may need to pick them up to comfort them, but then go back to step one and begin the process again. Be sure and use a comfortable chair.
Dr. Harvey Karp, pediatrician and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block, is a proponent of waking your baby in order to help them learn the art of falling asleep independently. Dr. Karp says, “When you have a little baby, it’s OK to rock them to sleep and nurse them to sleep… However, they will get dependent on that. You [need to] feed your baby, swaddle your baby, turn on the white noise, and rock your baby to sleep. Then you slide them into the crib or bassinet and you wake them up — you tickle their feet or something and you wake them a little bit. They’re drowsy, they’re kind of drunk from the milk a little bit. They’re swaddled, they have the white noise, so they tend to fall back asleep in five to 10 seconds. Or, at most, you jiggle the crib a little bit to get them back to sleep. In those 10 seconds, they’re learning how to put themselves back to sleep in the middle of the night, without your help.”
Babywise Sleep Training
For over 25 years, On Becoming Babywise has been the go-to newborn parenting manual for naturally synchronizing baby feeding time, waketime, and nighttime sleep cycles, so the whole family can sleep through the night. The foundation of this method is a sleep scheduling technique that begins with the “parent-directed feeding” of the newborn. Regular 2-3 hour feedings during the day encourage longer spans of sleep at night. Swaddling and cozy baby sleep bags are highly recommended to keep babies secure and comfortable during their sleep time and minimize unnecessary waking.
To establish a Babywise sleep schedule, set a morning wake time; create a basic routine for your day that includes feeding time, playtime, and nap time; create a 5-minute pre-nap routine and a 30-minute nighttime routine; don’t let naps go too long; use Woolino swaddle blankets; create a good sleep environment that includes a sleep bag that regulates a baby's body temperature to prevent unnecessary waking; encourage full feedings; dream feed (feeding baby at night before you go to bed without fully waking them); and lastly, but repeated again and again, put the baby down awake, but drowsy.