If your little one isn’t sleeping well and you’re wondering if sleep training is the right choice for your family, you're in the right place. I’m Katie Roeder, Certified Sleep Consultant and Owner and Founder of Happily Ever After Sleep Consulting. I am a wife and mom to 2 girls who inspired me to help other mamas get the rest they need. In this blog post I’m going to share all about what sleep training is, the best time to start and even an overview of the most popular methods.
What Is Sleep Training For Babies?
Sleep training for babies is the process of teaching your baby how to fall asleep independently at bedtime and naptime. Falling asleep independently means without feeding, rocking, bouncing or cuddling to sleep. Sleep training methods are not one size fits all, but it’s important that your baby is laid down awake, not drowsy or asleep.
Why? In order for your baby to learn how to connect their sleep cycles, they must fall asleep on their own initially. Any drowsiness that happens during the bedtime routine or feedings is Stage 1 sleep. Sleep onset should happen in the crib without any assistance so they’re able to get back to sleep in the night (connecting sleep cycles).
Sleep Training For Babies - What To Know
Sleep Training is often a controversial topic among families because of the crying that happens when teaching your baby independent sleep skills. There has been much debate about the long term effects of sleep training and if it harms baby’s attachment with parents.
Studies conducted measuring baby’s cortisol (stress hormone) have proved that when babies cried during sleep training, their stress levels decreased as they learn to fall asleep independently. Your baby reduces the amount of time crying each night because they are figuring out how to fall asleep, not because they’ve learned to stop calling out (as some anti-sleep trainers would say).
Your family needs to decide what makes the most sense for your child and for your family. This may mean using a method like extinction or something more gentle like staying in the room or not sleep training at all. If your little one isn’t sleeping well and you aren’t either, consider the benefits of sleep training. The end result is that your baby will have the ability to fall asleep independently, overall reducing the child’s (mom’s too) stress and cortisol levels. Mom and baby will be even more connected when they are happy and well rested.
What does baby sleep training involve?
Sleep training involves removing any sleep associations that your child uses to currently fall asleep that they cannot repeat on their own. These sleep associations are often called sleep props, which include: rocking, bouncing, swaying, feeding or nursing to sleep, cosleeping and sometimes even pacifiers. Pacifiers can fragment sleep even if your child is able to replace it on their own. They are still coming fully to the surface to find it and put it back in their mouth.
Sleep training should be implemented at bedtime first and then naps the next day. Doing sleep training for some sleep, but not for all is confusing and will take much longer for your child to master their independent sleep skills. If your child is currently nursed or bottle fed to sleep I recommend making that the first step of the bedtime routine so they stay awake for the feeding. The goal is to lay them down awake in their crib after the routine is complete. Any drowsiness that happens during the bedtime routine will cause more crying and take them longer to fall asleep.
What age should I start sleep training my child?
Sleep training can be implemented by 3 months of age. Many families start sleep training after their baby hits the 4 month sleep regression, which can show up between 3 and 5 months of age. The 4 month sleep regression is when your baby’s sleep cycles change from newborn (2 sleep stages) to infant sleep (4 sleep stages).
When this change starts to happen your baby’s sleep gets lighter and in turn causes more wakings. So your baby may have been nursed or rocked to sleep and gave you an 8-10 hour stretch of sleep or even went all night. Now, you’re seeing wakings every 2 hours and naps may have decreased in length as well.
The best time to start sleep training is when everyone is ready to make changes. Sleep training takes time and consistency, so if you’re not ready it’s best to wait. If your sleep situation is working well for your family, then no need to make any changes. Some families wait longer, 6 months or even until age 3! Sleep regressions can pop up down the road when previously the child was a great sleeper. It’s never too late to make changes to sleep.
How long is sleep training?
Depending on the methods used, families can see drastic changes in just a few days. Usually in the first week, the baby has quickly learned to self settle and is falling asleep much faster at bedtime without a parent's involvement. Naps tend to take longer to regulate as awake windows and sleep pressure drive naptime with the lack of melatonin during the day.
It’s best to commit to at least 2 weeks of consistency with no vacations or late nights planned during this period of sleep training. The more naps you can practice at home in the crib, the faster your little one will start taking longer naps. Following appropriate bedtimes, meaning not putting them to bed too late, is crucial to preventing overtiredness.
What are the most effective sleep training methods?
Cry It Out (Extinction)
This method is referred to as the “extinction method”. It involves laying your baby down awake in their crib and leaving the room. Once laid down you stay out of the room and let them fall asleep. You do not go back in until the next morning.
Oftentimes families will tell me they’ve tried letting their baby “cry-it-out” when in fact they weren’t truly following extinction. During any type of sleep training there will be some crying. You cannot stop your baby from crying, but with some of the other methods you can choose to respond and offer comfort instead of staying out.
The extinction method, when done with an appropriate schedule works very quickly, usually in a few days. This method can be too aggressive for some families that are worried about crying. This is not one of the methods I teach and coach families through. However, for some families this method works the best for them.
Check and Console
With check and console you lay your child down awake and leave the room. You go back into the room after a set amount of time to check in and repeat this until your little one is asleep. When in the room parents can use their voice, touch or pick ups to soothe the baby. This is one of the main methods that I use with families, but I refer to it as Leave and Check.
You may be thinking this method sounds like the Ferber Method, which is true. There are different variations of this method. The Ferber Method involves increasing the amount of time out of the room each time increasing throughout the week. The Leave and Check method I follow starts with a consistent time out of the room, such as 5 or 10 minutes. I find that staying out at consistent times and watching baby’s cues is more effective than sticking to the provided times from the Ferber Method.
The check in method is best for families that aren’t looking to follow a cry it out approach, but can handle leaving the room for periods of time to give their baby space to settle. Families see drastic improvements at bedtime in the first few nights if implemented accurately and with age appropriate schedules during the day.
The Chair Method
The Chair Method is when you lay your baby down awake in their crib and stay in their room sitting in a chair until they fall asleep. Like the check in method you can offer comfort with your voice and touch or even do pick ups if necessary. After a few nights you move further away from their crib until you’re by the door, then out of the room.
I use this method very often with families as well, but I refer to it as Stay in the Room. This method is best for families that absolutely cannot leave their little one alone to cry for any period of time. While this method doesn’t stop the crying it allows the parent to comfort the child and be within arms reach.
Many families that have coslept with their child or are very anxious about the process do well with this method. I also recommend a version of this method for toddlers that have moved from a crib to bed and now want mom or dad to lay with them at bedtime. This gets them out of the bed, but keeps them close by as they learn to fall asleep without them in bed.
Pick Up Put Down
Pick Up Put Down is the most gentle method of all of these methods and is best used during the Newborn stage. You lay your baby down awake and stay close by giving them some time to settle. As soon as the cries escalate from fussing to crying, the baby is picked up and walked around until calm. This is repeated until the baby is asleep.
While this method is gentle and very much low cry, it can take a while and is less effective after 8-10 weeks of age. After 3 months any pickups during the bedtime routine can be more stimulating (when working on independent sleep). Your baby may calm instantly in your arms, but the second you put them down they escalate again.
This method is best for parents looking to work on independent sleep early on, but of course not letting the baby cry at all. With consistency this method can be very effective at bedtime and naptime.
Can babies learn to fall asleep on their own without sleep training?
Some babies are angel babies and sleep well early on and continue to sleep well into toddlerhood. Their parents are the lucky ones and are far and few between. Most babies don’t magically fall asleep on their own without some parental intervention.
If you’re looking for a customized sleep solution or some support making changes with your little one’s sleep, book a free call with me today!
Katie Roeder is a Certified Pediatric Sleep Consultant and Owner and Founder of Happily Ever After Sleep. She is a wife and mom to two girls who weren't always the best sleepers. After leaving her longtime career and focusing on her family Katie found a sleep solution that changed her family's lives. Katie is passionate about sleep and loves supporting exhausted mamas through sleep coaching. She believes that everyone deserves a full night of rest and it's never too late to make a change. Katie coaches families 1:1 from the Newborn stage through school aged children. You can find more information at www.happilyeveraftersleep.com.