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What is sleep training and when should I start?

Sleep plays a crucial role in your baby’s healthy development. As a parent, you want to do everything you can to help your baby get the best sleep possible. This includes providing a safe sleeping environment, establishing consistent bedtime routines, and helping your baby develop good sleep habits.

What is sleep training?

If you Google “Sleep Training’ you will find allot of methods and how to guides.  Some really sound quite cruel like: 

“The process of training young children to fall asleep on their own, typically by means of techniques in which the child is left to cry without being comforted, either for gradually increasing periods of time or until they fall asleep.”

Definitions like this have given the general term “sleep training” a bit of a bad reputation. There are certain methods of sleep training, such as “Cry-It-Out” or the Ferber method. These might make some parents wearisome of sleep training as a whole. “You put your baby into their crib or their room, you close the door and you don’t come back till the next day”.  But that’s not the reality of what we recommend or what parents typically do.

Cry-it-out is an old way of thinking. There are many different sleep training methods and practices behind sleep training, including gentle sleep training. The most important part of sleep training is finding the method that works best for you and your baby.

Sleep training looks different for every family based on their needs and what they are comfortable with.

  • Sleep training is NOT “Cry It Out” if you don’t want it to be
  • Sleep training is NOT neglecting your baby
  • Sleep training is NOT denying your baby food when they are hungry at night
  • Sleep training is NOT about getting your baby on the schedule that’s best for you

Alternatively, look at the term sleep training like this: sleep training is giving my baby the tools and skills they need to help them sleep better on their own in a way that me and my family are comfortable with.

You (and your doctor) know best

Every parent has an approach they feel works best. Some parents are big proponents of the cry it out method, while others don’t believe in sleep training at all. No matter how you feel about sleep training, remember that you know your baby best. Even two siblings may have different sleep needs. Take your cues from your baby, and ask your child’s pediatrician before attempting sleep training.  Never hesitate to check in with your baby’s doctor for guidance on when and how to begin sleep training.

When to start sleep training

The age to start sleep training varies. Usually when your little one is around 4 to 6 months old. You’ll start to see your baby’s sleep patterns emerge. He’ll slowly begin to learn to soothe himself to sleep when you put him to bed or if he wakes up in the night and doesn’t need to eat or have his diaper changed. This stage might be a good time to start sleep training.

In the early weeks and months of your baby’s life, it’s important for you to recognize and cater to your baby’s sleep patterns rather than expect your baby to sleep according to your schedule.

“Infant sleep starts to consolidate to longer stretches at about 4 to 6 months of age, which is considered a good age to start,” says Dr. Katharina Graw-Panzer, MD, a pediatric pulmonologist and sleep specialist at New York-Presbyterian Komansky Children’s Hospital and Weill Cornell Medicine. 

Another sign that may indicate your baby is ready for sleep training is a change in their usual sleep patterns. If your baby suddenly goes from a good sleeper to a bad one who needs attention multiple times at night, you can consider sleep training.  Sometimes sleep problems arise after the baby was a good sleeper, for example after an illness, travel, or change in the environment.

Keep in mind you don’t need to sleep train your child. If your family is happy with how your baby is sleeping, there’s no need to change anything. When you choose to sleep train your child, it could be as little as a few days to see results, while other babies might take weeks or even months for consistent results. Follow your child’s cues and discuss any problems or concerns with your doctor.

How Much Sleep Is Enough?

The amount of sleep needed can differ from baby to baby and from age to age. Although your baby’s sleep requirements are unique, typically, the amount of sleep your baby needs will slowly decrease as she gets older.

  • Newborns. At least 16 hours in a 24-hour period. A newborn doesn’t know the difference between day and night and will probably sleep for shorter intervals — about 2 to 3 hours at a time — for the first few weeks, because she’ll need to be fed and changed.
  • 4-month-old babies. From about 4 months on most babies need 2 to 3 naps a day, as well as longer stretches of sleep at night. The total amount might be slightly less than 16 hours in a 24-hour period. The first two naps of the day are usually around mid-morning and then at midday, with many babies needing another in the late afternoon. In the first 6 months, most babies don’t sleep for longer than 5 to 6 hours as their longest sleep of the night. These night sleep times will gradually increase with time.
  • 6-month-old babies. Just over 14 hours per day. When your little one reaches about 9 months old, try to cut out the late afternoon nap, if she’s been taking one. This way, she’ll be ready for bedtime a little earlier than she was before. By the time she’s around 8 months old, her nigh time sleep might last about 10 to 12 hours without her waking up for a feeding.
  • 12-month-old babies. Just under 14 hours per day. Around this time, your baby may taper off from taking a morning nap. If this happens, you can consider moving her bedtime about 20 or 30 minutes earlier. Once your baby is about 15 months old, there’s about a 50 percent chance that she will only need 1 nap a day.

Introduce good sleep habits

Newborn babies sleep whenever they get the chance. As your baby gets older you may be in the habit of letting them sleep however and whenever they want. One of the first things you can do to promote healthy sleep in your baby is introduce good sleep habits. Try these healthy habits:

  • Develop a bedtime routine. Read a book together. Take a bath. Enjoy cuddles. You can start a bedtime routine as early as you like.
  • Follow a schedule and pick a bedtime. Newborn sleep is unpredictable, but it’s critical to choose a time when your baby will officially “got to bed”. This will help your baby start establishing a good internal clock. Try to keep daytime activities on a predictable routine too.

Sleep training methods

There’s no one way to sleep train, but many parents find that one or a mix of the following sleep training methods works for their families:

Cry it out (CIO)

The cry it out method of sleep training, also called the “extinction” method, involves putting your baby to bed and letting her cry until she falls asleep without any comfort or help from you.

That means as long as you’ve ensured you’ve put your baby to bed with a full tummy and in a safe sleep environment, you won’t go back into her room until it’s time for her to get up the next morning or until she needs to eat next. 

While it may seem harsh, CIO is harder on you than on your little one. With consistency (that’s the key!), your baby should begin falling asleep on her own within three to four nights, give or take.

Ferber method

Not a fan of letting baby cry without some degree of attention and comfort? Try the Ferber method, a type of “graduated extinction” or “check-and-console,” which involves allowing your baby to cry for a set period of time before you check on her. 

These timed intervals of crying get longer by a few minutes with each interval until she falls asleep. 

Over several nights, you’ll gradually increase the length of these intervals, reducing your presence in baby’s room to let your baby do more of the work of settling down. Pretty soon, there’s no need for these comfort check-ins because your baby has learned to self-soothe.

Chair method

This method may work better for older babies and might feel more comfortable to you (and your baby) than cry it out or Ferber. Sit in a chair next to your baby’s crib until she falls asleep, without picking her up. Move the chair farther away each night until you’re near the door.

At that point, your baby should be able to fall asleep without you there. This method won’t work for babies who can’t put you out of mind until you’re out of sight, however.

And while this technique may be the right fit for some families, know that it may lead to more tears for some babies. When your baby falls asleep with you in the room, she may be startled and possibly upset when she awakes and you’re no longer there.

Bedtime fading method

Does your little one wail for extended periods of time before falling asleep? Her body might not be ready for sleep at your desired bedtime. The bedtime fading method can modify her circadian rhythm to get bedtime to where you want it to be. Here’s how.

  • Pay attention to baby’s sleep cues (eye rubbing, yawning, turning away from lights or sound, fussiness).
  • Once your baby seems tired, put her to bed.
  • Hopefully she’ll fall asleep fast, but if she cries a lot, take her out of the crib for a set amount of time (say, half an hour) and then try again.
  • After a few nights of putting her down at that time, move bedtime 15 minutes earlier and repeat the process with this new bedtime.
  • Gradually move bedtime earlier in 15-minute increments until you reach your desired bedtime.

Bedtime fading also sometimes describes any sleep training strategy that involves gradually decreasing a parent’s presence in baby’s room when putting her down to sleep.

Pick up, put down method

This sleep training technique involves you going through your baby’s normal bedtime routine, then putting her down to bed drowsy but awake. When and if she cries, wait a few minutes to see if she settles down herself. If not, go in to pick her up and soothe her. When she’s calm again, put her back down in the crib or bassinet.

Repeat the process until your baby falls asleep.

How long does sleep training take?

After three to four nights of methods like Ferber or cry it out, many babies are sleep trained (save a few minutes of fussing or wails before drifting off).

Other training methods — in particular bedtime fading, the chair method and pick up, put down — will likely take longer, and some methods won’t work at all for some babies.

Be consistent with the sleep training method you’ve chosen for two full weeks to give it a chance to work.

Sleep training tips

No matter what method you’re trying, the following sleep training tips can help ensure a smoother transition to dreamland:

  • Establish a bedtime routine. Follow a consistent 30- to 45-minute baby sleep routine to help transition your little one from awake time to sleepy time. If she’s been falling asleep at the breast or bottle, schedule that feed before the bath or books, so you’re able to put her to bed while she’s still awake.
  • Time it right. It’s not the time to tinker with baby’s sleep when there’s been a recent disruption in her life (a move, new nanny, ear infection, travel.). Wait until things have settled down before attempting sleep training.
  • Know when baby’s tired. Watch for sleep cues like yawning, eye rubbing or crankiness, which may happen around the same time every night. It’s important to put your baby to bed when she’s sleepy but not overtired, since overtired babies have a harder time settling down for sleep and are more likely to sleep fitfully or wake early.
  • Put baby down awake. Sleep training is based on teaching your baby to fall asleep on her own — a lesson she won’t get if you rock her to sleep in your arms before transferring her to the crib.
  • Delay your response time. Don’t rush into baby’s room at the first whimper. Babies make lots of noises at night, including crying, and then fall back asleep on their own. Responding to every little noise or cry may wake a nodding-off baby or derail her efforts to self-soothe.
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