As a new parent, you may not realize that sleeping is a skill you'll actually need to teach your baby to do. And it can all be very confusing because, on the one hand, you read that babies sleep up to 18 hours per day, yet everyone is telling you that you won't be getting hardly any sleep during the newborn stage. And it's all true! So that's where the sleep training comes in. Though your baby already sleeps a lot, the goal is to help your little one to sleep independently and for longer stretches of time. The following sleep training guide we've put together will put you on the path to helping your little one sleep independently in a way that you are comfortable with.
Here we’ll cover:
If the phrase "sleep training" puts you off a little bit, we get it! But don't worry, sleep training doesn't have to equal leaving your baby to cry endlessly until he and you both finally pass out from exhaustion. Think of it as a process to help teach your baby to settle themselves on their own so they can become an independent sleeper. Which is healthy and exactly what your family needs to be happy and thriving during the waking hours.
Here we'll answer your burning questions about sleep training along with guidelines backed by our sleep expert, Rachel Mitchell, of mysweetsleeper.com. As a mom of six, a former night nanny, and a pediatric sleep consultant, she is definitely someone who knows what's up when it comes to getting little ones to dream sleeper status.
What is sleep training?
In a perfect world, your little one would just sleep peacefully in your arms while you relax and you would sleep whenever they do. But in our busy world, that's just not realistic much of the time. Of course, those first few weeks you are enamored and your baby isn't ready to be taught to sleep, so you just do what you need to do to help everyone get as much sleep as possible (while loving on that newborn endlessly). But sooner or later, the exhaustion will catch up to you, and you'll likely want to implement some form of sleep training in order to get everyone sleeping their best again. Here we break down what sleep training is and what it is not.
What sleep training is NOT: You say sleep training and your friend sucks in her breath with disapproval. She likely associates sleep training with "cry-it-out" (sometimes referred to as the Ferber method.) This is only one way to sleep train and much of the time that's NOT what it is about.
What sleep training is: Here our sleep expert, Rachel Mitchell, breaks it down for us:
"Sleep training simply put is the process of teaching your child healthy sleep habits. The goal of sleep training is typically to help your child sleep independently, without the need for someone or something to help them fall asleep and stay asleep.
There are many different approaches you can take when sleep training and contrary to popular belief, there is not one way that works for each child."
Gentler sleep training approaches do, in fact, work and are recommended. We encourage you to read on to find out about different methods to find one that works best for your family. But in case you’re still not convinced “sleep training” is the right way to go, let’s talk about why it gets such a bad rap.
Why Sleep Training Gets a Bad Rap
Everyone has an opinion these days. Well, people have had opinions since the beginning of time, but only recently have the opinions of everyone around the world been able to make it into our homes on a second-by-second basis. And we know how amazing moms are, but we also know how “mama bear” they can be, too. Every mom wants to feel like they are doing what is right by their baby, and sometimes it can feel threatening when someone does something a bit differently.
Because sleep training is often associated with the “Cry It Out” (CIO) method, disapproval by a few won’t be far behind. But there are even naysayers for any type of sleep training you might do – even the gentler methods we’ll discuss shortly. Why, you might ask, do other moms worry so much about you how care for your baby?
We have no idea.
If what you are doing comes from a place of love and raising your little one to be a good human being, then we are all for it. And when it comes to how you teach your little one to sleep (or if you choose to forego any type of sleep training because that works for you) then we are here for it. Moms unite – aren’t we are all just trying to master this mom thing one day at a time? (Pro tip, though, we’ll never master it all or have all the answers. And that’s ok. That’s why we have to start being supportive of each other and skip the mom-shaming.)
With that, we want you to do what you are comfortable with. In talking with our sleep expert, however, we realize how sleep training can be a beneficial part of both a baby’s and parents’ life. So, if sleep training is something you’d like to do, it’s important to know how to get started.
When to Start Sleep Training and the Baby Sleep Training Timeline
We recently wrote a detailed explanation of a new baby's sleep patterns and recommended schedules for his first year.
In that article, we discussed the transitional phase age of 4 - 6 months in which your baby will go through the 4-month sleep regression as well as get to a point where they are likely capable of sleeping "through the night." (Remember that "through the night can even mean 7-8 hour stretches of time.) This can be the perfect time to begin your focused sleep training efforts, though this timeframe isn't set in stone. Some parents will feel comfortable starting a little earlier whereas some parents won't be ready for a bit longer.
It's important that a baby has the developmental skills to be taught how to sleep and do so independently, but you also need to be prepared to commit to the time it takes to sleep train appropriately as well.
With our sleep training guideline, we recommend utilizing this timeline we've put together to create a successful path of sleep for your little one:
0 - 8 Weeks (The Fourth Trimester Part 1): A brand new baby sleeps the majority of their day, sometimes as much as 18 hours or more. They have erratic sleep patterns and are unable to happily stay awake much longer than 30 - 45 minutes. Though training and scheduling are not recommended, you can still help your baby start understanding the difference between days (more active and bright) and nights (calm, dark, and quiet). Using the Dreamland Weighted Swaddle right away will also help the transition when it becomes time.
2 - 3 Months (The Fourth Trimester Part 2): Though your baby is still a little young for formal sleep training at this age, this is the perfect time to start setting up a nap and bedtime sleep routine that you'll continue through the rest of your child's babyhood. We'll get into the specifics of what that routine can look like.
4 - 6 Months (Transitional Phase): Implementing sleep training is best done during this age timeframe. The 4-month sleep regression (which we discuss in-depth here) can be a trying time, but it's also your baby's way of showing that they are ready for more mature sleep...and sleep training!
But let's say you're already past that 6-month mark...you might be thinking, "Oh no! Is it too late to sleep train?"
Here's the answer to that from our sleep consultant, Rachel Mitchell:
"It is never too late to teach your child the importance of healthy sleep and to introduce healthy sleep hygiene. You can commit to sleep training at any point after four months of age as long as your child doesn’t have any medical concerns.
However, it is important to keep in mind that the later you wait to focus on the importance of sleep, the longer it takes to change existing habits and beliefs around sleep."
So, you can sleep train anytime but after 4 months, sooner is usually better. But if you’re not ready, it’s not going to go well anyway. So having a baby who is developmentally ready while also knowing you are is the best combination. Once everyone’s ready, how do you prepare for that important step?
Preparing to Sleep Train
No doubt you are wondering what you can do to help the sleep training phase go as smoothly as possible. This foundation comes from setting your baby up for success before they're even ready for sleep training. Our baby sleep expert, Rachel, says:
"It is key to set healthy foundations of sleep before taking a method-based approach to sleep training. The five core areas to consider first are schedules and awake times, nutrition, routines, sleep environment, and existing sleep habits.
Once you have addressed these core areas for a minimum of 2-3 weeks you can consider introducing methods of sleep training. However, I often see that when focusing on the core foundations of sleep, further sleep training isn’t needed because the root of the sleep challenge is addressed."
Wow! So it sounds like if you give your baby a solid foundation with routines in place, sleep training is almost a non-issue for some families. Here are our recommendations for setting up that foundation even before the age of 4 months:
- Eliminate sleep props - These include anything a baby requires to fall asleep (and will get upset if they don't have it to fall asleep) such as being breastfed, rocked to sleep, using a pacifier, etc.
- Establish a sleep routine - Decide how you want every night to look (and naps, too!) and then stick with it. You'll be amazed at how quickly your baby catches on and realizes that this routine means "sleep":
- calming bath
- infant massage
- swaddling with the Dreamland Weighted Swaddle or Dreamland Weighted Wearable Blanket if your baby can already roll over
- Dim the lights and turn on calming music
- Rock and Sing
- Lay baby down drowsy, but slightly awake
The weighted swaddle we recommend, as well as laying your baby down awake, but drowsy, are two big steps in getting your baby ready for easy sleep training. This swaddle for example, is unlike typical swaddles since it is weighted and helps induce sleep for your baby by increasing both serotonin and melatonin. When you combine this with laying a baby down awake, but sleepy, they are much more likely to be able to put themselves to sleep on their own.
Here's one mom's success story with using a Dreamland Baby wearable blanket:
"This product truly saved us. It gave us back our nights, and helped our little guy sleep 6-7 hours every night. I can't thank Dreamland Baby enough for making such an incredible product. I would suggest it for any new moms out there.”
- Alex S.
Once you have all of these great routines in place, and you're ready to formally sleep train to get your baby sleeping through the night, you'll want to prepare by doing a little research.
This research will consist of going over the various sleep training methods and choosing the one that works best for your family and what you're comfortable with. Luckily, we've compiled a lot of that research for you right here!
Sleep Training Methods and Implementation
Though CIO (or cry it out) certainly is a sleep training method that some parents use, it is widely debated on whether or not this causes negative effects for your baby in the long run. Here we'll discuss several other methods that can work just as well but with a softer approach. Which means a lot less stress and tears for you, too. Because that's the last thing you need as a new parent!
Rachel Mitchell likes to refer to sleep training instead as "sleep teaching" because she explains, "you are teaching your child the importance of healthy sleep by creating opportunities for better sleep and prioritizing sleep through healthy habits."
Each of these methods begins with a fed and sleepy baby who is wrapped up and cozy in their weighted swaddle or wearable blanket. We’d love to tell you that there is one magic formula that works for every baby, but it just doesn’t work that way. Even though we as adults know that everyone’s personality is different, for some reason it’s more difficult to have this complete realization with babies. But they are just tiny little people with their very own temperaments. Use the approach that works best for your baby and you!
Here are three effective training methods:
Camping Out - With this technique, you will essentially "camp out" next to your baby's crib. You can position yourself close enough to reach out and touch them or just close that they can still see you. You'll have to assess what starting point your baby is comfortable with. Try to avoid giving them any extra attention - the hope is that they will be comforted by your presence. You can sit in that same spot until they fall asleep. Each night you will move farther and farther away from the crib, until eventually you are at the door and then out of their room altogether.
Wake & Sleep Technique - Harvey Karp, author of The Happiest Baby on the Block, recommends a wake-and-sleep technique. It may sound like a bad idea to wake your baby up, but this is actually a very soft approach that will still help your baby to learn to fall asleep on their own. It looks like this: you'll rock or nurse them to sleep and then lay them down. Then you'll gently wake them up just a little bit by stroking their face or tickling their feet. At this point, they'll already be very tired, so it's likely that after this quick little wake up they'll put themselves back to sleep. This will transition to any middle of the night waking that might occur as well. Voila!
Fading Method - This falls right in line with our recommendation to feed and/or rock your baby to drowsiness, and then lay them down sleepy, but awake. With the fading method, you'll rock them right up to the point where they look like they'll fall asleep and lay them down. You can do this with feeding, also, just be sure they're still getting in a full feed before bedtime. Each night you can shorten the amount of time you rock them - hopefully getting to the point where they don't need any rocking at all to go to sleep on their own.
It's not unlikely that your baby will experience some fussiness or crying with the above three methods. The difference, however, from CIO is that you are there to support your child if and when you feel it’s necessary. It's important to know that your baby is just fine if they cry a bit in order to help them learn to sleep better in the long run. There isn’t a certain number of minutes that is considered the “perfect” amount of time, so expect a bit of trial and error.
If you just can't bear to see your baby cry at all, you can implement each of these methods in a "no tears" way. Just know that it will likely take a little longer for your baby to readjust to their new expectations.
Whatever method you decide on, be sure you're prepared to go all in and see the process through. Giving up is not going to get your baby's sleep patterns moving in a positive direction, so be ready to commit for however long that it takes. This also includes keeping your child in a consistent sleeping environment for naps and bedtime.
How Long Sleep Training Takes and If You Should Hire a Sleep Coach
The length of time that sleep training takes will depend on a couple of factors. For some, sleep training at all might be a complete non-issue. Meaning if you already had good routines in place, your baby may just transition naturally into putting themselves to sleep independently and sleeping through the night as they are ready. For other babies, it may take a week or over a month, depending on how ready your baby is and how good of a routine you've put in place for them.
If you still find yourself pulling your hair out over your baby's lack of sleep, even as they grow, it might be a good time to consider hiring a sleep coach.
Here are three reasons why hiring a sleep coach might be in your and your baby's best interest:
- Your baby is using feeding as a sleep prop.
- You are trying to get your baby to sleep in a crib on their own after they've always co-slept.
- You have been unsuccessful at any sleep training attempts on your own.
Here's what sleep coach, Rachel Mitchell has to say:
"Many parents find success in implementing healthy sleep habits with the right tools and resources. However, every baby is unique and because babies are not robots, we cannot expect them to respond in the same way or length of time.
For babies that have a lot of sleep challenges (such as always needing to be fed to sleep or are transitioning from co-sleeping), I recommend working with a sleep coach to ensure you are making the right adjustments in an appropriate amount of time.
The feedback I have received from most parents is that having a sleep coach helps you feel confident you are on the right path and can help you pivot at any point during the process based on the specific needs of your child."
Definitely check out Rachel Mitchell's sleep coach services at mysweetsleeper.com if you have questions or struggles with your baby's sleep training.
Parting Words on Sleep Training and Our Sleep Experts Top Tips
We want to leave you with some parting words as you use this guide to embark on your sleep training journey.
You'll hear it time and again, but every baby is different. You just can't expect the challenges to be the same as your friends' babies or even their other siblings. Ultimately, each of us parents differently as well. We recommend that you stay firm and consistent in your expectations while also giving yourself some grace. And just know that the opinions of others will come no matter what you choose to do – there’s not a lot of way around it. But you know what’s best for your family and there should be no room for guilt or comparison.
You will have plenty of successes to celebrate when it comes to your baby's sleep, as well as setbacks that take you by surprise. Just because your baby consistently sleeps well doesn’t mean she’ll be perfect all the time going forward. She’s human, after all! But by continuously coming back to that routine you set up from the very beginning you can ensure that your baby will be back on the path to great sleep in no time.
Our sleep expert sums it all up with her top tips for successful sleep training:
"Consistency, consistency, consistency! It is so important to remember that any existing habits didn’t form overnight and they are not going to change overnight either. It takes commitment to sleep schedules, sleep environment, healthy nutrition, consistent routines, etc. for AT LEAST 2-3 weeks before you can expect to see any significant progress and even longer for older children.
Lastly, while you don’t have to be home-bound during the sleep training process, it is important to make sure your child is sleeping in a consistent sleep environment at least 80/85% of the time."
The love and consistency you give your baby will pay dividends in the world of sleep - and that means for you, too.