Sleep training is a tricky subject among moms! When we break down what sleep training is, it is simply conditioning your child to fall asleep in a specific way. In that sense, everyone has been “trained/conditioned” to fall asleep with a specific set up!
We all have our preferences!
When you’re exhausted and googling what is sleep training at 3am, you may find, “In today's scientific literature, the term "sleep training" is an umbrella term that refers to a spectrum of approaches to help babies learn to fall asleep by themselves.”
They are right that sleep training is lumped into a bunch of different things. And then tired parents have a hard time with the information overload, unsolicited advice, outside pressure, and deciphering the natural instincts that they just end up doing nothing!
It may seem like sleep should be a very natural/intuitive thing because sleep is a biological necessity for all of us! However, many new parents would probably say it feels like the exact opposite.
Breastfeeding is a natural thing and yet many moms and babies struggle with that! Sleep is pretty similar.
Although your baby may sleep a lot (or not), they may need to learn when to sleep (day and night) and how to fall asleep since the womb provided constant nourishment, movement, and sound! It is definitely an adjustment to the outside world.
Until they do, they need your assistance, which is why you (as you should) help soothe them to sleep at bedtime and comfort them when they wake in the middle of the night. Sleep training is used to teach your baby how to sleep without the assistance and props - just like you’re able to fall asleep without anyone there to help you do it.
My goal is to make infant sleep more approachable. I always add a disclaimer that if what you are doing is working for everyone involved in the family unit, then there is absolutely nothing you need to change.
I encourage you to dive into what is working for your family, what you may want to tweak/change and focusing on that! Try not to look at everything involved in infant sleep in an effort to make it picture-perfect.
I’m a certified sleep consultant and I do not follow every single “rule” for baby sleep! That is because I know what works for my little ones. If I did have an issue, I would troubleshoot it.
I am passionate about helping parents on their sleep journey so please use this guide as just that, a way to help you improve your little ones sleep if needed!
In this blog we will cover FAQ’s like:
- What is Sleep Training
- Preparing for Sleep Training
- Sleep Training Methods
- How to Make Baby Sleep at Night
- Newborn Sleeping Patterns
- How to Transition Baby Out of Swaddle
- Sleep Regression Ages
- Should you hire a sleep consultant to help you with sleep training?
What is Sleep Training
Sleep training is not synonymous with cry it out or night weaning. That does not mean it is tear-free though if you choose a different path. I cannot guarantee your little one will not cry while being rocked/bounced to sleep, just like I cannot guarantee that they will not cry if you put them down in their sleep space.
Some more things sleep training is not:
- Being neglectful
- Damaging to your attachment
- Withholding food from a hungry child
- Ignoring their cues
- Putting them on a schedule
If crying is a big trigger for you and you constantly feel like you have to stop the tears, then I encourage families to dive into what the root cause of that trigger is! Otherwise, we can be curious about what their tears are communicating to us and how we can support them through those emotions!
It does not mean (and I do not advocate for) leaving your child to cry it out for endless amounts of time. You do not even have to do timed intervals (aka Ferber/controlled crying) if you prefer not to.
There are a lot of middle of the road options, or even more that are very hands-on so you do not have to feel like your choices are to “cry it out” or suffer/be a martyr until they decide to figure out the sleep thing.
Again with the disclaimer that if you are feeling pressure to stop your current setup, see where that is coming from. Be curious if it is social media, mom groups, your own family. Know that you owe no one an explanation! This is a judgment-free zone and supportive of all mamas on all sleep journeys.
I encourage you to dig deep into what your motivation is for your current situation. If it is because you truly enjoy it, then stick with it, mama! If it is because you do not know what other options you have and are against “sleep training” because it feels like that means hours on end of crying, then we can set the record straight that sleep training does not have to be that way!
Preparing for Sleep Training
Instead of asking if your child is ready for sleep training, we may need to ask if YOU are ready for sleep training! Because really, the most important factor with sleep training is the consistency, commitment, and follow through. You can do very gentle, hands on methods from day 1 (I didn’t even “formally” sleep train my two youngest because of the habits we had in place very early on).
So something to consider: 0-6 weeks, you are in survival mode. Get everyone the sleep you can while practicing safe sleep habits.
From 2-4 months, you can start really focusing on establishing a healthy sleep foundation.
From 4 months on, you can begin “formal” sleep training if desired.
If you are planning to do CIO or ferber, then you would typically wait until 4-6 months before beginning those methods; other hands on methods can begin much much earlier.
Don’t worry if your child is older though! It is never too late.
Other things to consider when making a plan for sleep training:
- Am I really ready to make changes? What is the motivation behind changing? Peer pressure or for improved sleep for my family?
- Is my schedule clear or are there trips coming up very soon?
- Is my partner on board?
- Have I researched the methods I'm comfortable with and how to implement them?
- Do I have a written plan in place so that I’m not winging it?
Once you’ve decided that you are ready to do this, clear it with your pediatrician so they can advise you on an appropriate amount of night feeds for your little one.
Don’t forget that bedtime and naptime routines can be implemented from day 1 and the research supports that!
How do you know if sleep training is the right choice for your family? Consider your child and how they are currently acting. If your baby is constantly cranky and overtired, it's probably time to look into helping them become a better sleeper. If you are suffering from the poor sleep, whether that is physically, mentally, or emotionally, then it could be time as well.
You can always wait and see if poor sleep habits are something your child will grow out of, though research suggests that usually is not the case.
Chronic sleep deprivation is linked to obesity, behavioral problems, learning issues, and more later on in life. Sleep deprivation in adults can lead to similar issues, and has even been shown to play a role in Postpartum Anxiety and even depression in parents.
I know that it can feel difficult figuring out the right choice for our family, but know that we all want the best for our children and no one goes into sleep training without their child’s best interests at heart.
Things you can do before formal sleep training:
- Optimal sleep environment (cool, dark, using white noise)
- Positive sleep associations (Kyte BABY sleep bag or lovey)
- Bedtime routine for baby
- Adjusting baby sleep schedule
Sleep Training Methods
First and foremost, do your research! There is a lot of information about there about sleep training, and much of it is controversial or contradicting. However, just like making any important decision, your choice to sleep train (or not sleep train) should be informed by your own reading, research, and inferences.
No matter what option you choose, there is no evidence of harm with any sleep training method.
Remember that sleep training takes time, commitment, and consistency (just like building the habits they have now, it takes the same amount of effort to form new ones).
Make sure your partner is on board plus on the same page regarding sleep training and is an active participant in the process if possible. Having two people involved can greatly help you get through!
When you choose a method, only know what your child’s personality is like. You’d be surprised to find out that really sensitive children need less intervention or a very very very slow approach where as a more flexible one would do well with any method you choose.
I will list some methods here in the article, but do not feel like you are stuck with one specific method. Modify them however you see fit! I always say start with more help rather than less because you never know what will happen.
Baby sleep training no tears methods
These methods aren’t really “tear-free”, they are just very hands on and referred to as “gentle.” I prefer to call them “gradual” methods because you are just making very small or gradual changes.
Here is a cliff notes version of the “No Cry Sleep Solution” by Elizabeth Pantley for a “what is a no tears method.”
- Set a consistent bedtime and waking time and stick to them. This is important for conditioning your child to sleep
- Set times for regular, daily naps.
- Develop a regular bedtime routine that is peaceful and will help the child wind-down from the day. The routine can include a bath, story time and dimming of the lights.
- Begin to use the “Gentle Removal System” or the “Pantley Pull Out” to teach the child to fall asleep on his/her own without needing a bottle, the breast or a pacifier. (This includes waiting until the child’s sucking has slowed and he/she is relaxed and sleepy – but not asleep. Then remove the bottle, breast or pacifier. If the child begins to cry, replace the nipple and repeat the process until the child falls asleep after removing the nipple.)
- Place the child in the crib after he/she has fallen asleep.
- When the child cries, he/she is picked up and comforted until the crying stops and then put back into the crib. (Use the “Gentle Removal System” if using a bottle, breast or pacifier to soothe the child.)
- Steps are repeated whenever the child cries.
Some other options may include pick up put down and shush pat. If you aren’t sure what is pick up put down method, you can read more about it!
Another option would be the sleep lady shuffle. This is also referred to as camping out. This is a great toddler sleep training method. Here is how you implement that:
The camping out method involves putting a chair or camp bed next to your child's bed and gradually removing the chair as your child begins to fall asleep alone.
- on the first 1 to 2 nights, the parent sits in the chair/camp bed until the child falls asleep
- on the next 2 nights, the parent moves their chair or camp bed a metre away from the child's bed and the same process is repeated
- continue this process until your child is able to fall asleep with the chair/bed and parent outside of the bedroom
Remember, this is sleep time not play time! If your child tries to play with you, calmly tell them it is sleep time and say you will only stay in their room if they lie down and go to sleep. If they continue to try to play, leave the room for a short time (say 1-2 minutes). When you return after this short time, tell them again you will only stay if they lie down and go to sleep.
Overnight, if your child wakes up, you need to return to your chair/camp bed and stay there until they fall back to sleep again.
Camping out can take between 7-21 nights to work.
Another popular option is the Ferber method. If you are wondering how do you do the ferber method, then it is pretty simple and straightforward!
Ferber is also called graduated extinction because you work up to longer and longer periods of waiting before you respond to your child. There are a ton of different intervals available on the internet.
To execute this method, you would set your time for the designated amount of time for that interval, go into your child's room, and say their sleep phrase then leave.
Simple! You continue doing that until they have gone to sleep.
You can modify it by staying in the room, picking up to soothe, etc. You can make any of these methods your own.
How to Make Baby Sleep at Night
First, you might want to read up on “when should babies sleep through the night” to make sure you have realistic expectations for your little one!
Second, the key to sleeping through the night lies in: caloric intake, age appropriate schedule, and the ability to fall asleep unassisted at the beginning of the night.
For caloric intake, you will want to make sure they are capable of getting in all of their ounces in the day instead of needing calories at night. If they are short on day calories, they will make them up at night.
For an age appropriate schedule, you will want to make sure they are not sleeping in too late, staying up too late, have the appropriate amount of naps in the day, without awake times that are too long for their age causing them to be really over tired.
The ability to fall asleep unassisted at the beginning of the night starts with implementing a sleep training method like above. Falling asleep on their own means they have the ability to connect sleep cycles subsequently during the night.
Sleep training does not take the wakings away, they just eliminate the need for you to help them as they have the skills to do it! If they have a need that is preventing them from doing so, they will most definitely let you know.
Newborn Sleeping Patterns
Newborns have very erratic sleep behaviors because they do not have an established circadian rhythm yet. They spent 9 months in the total darkness with constant motion!
They need us and the environment to cue them when they are supposed to sleep.
A nap for a newborn can be anywhere from 20 mins to 2 hours. That can continue throughout the entire night sometimes.
If you want to read more about how much a newborn should sleep, check out that link!
How to Transition Baby Out of Swaddle
If you are not sure when to stop swaddling your baby, you can check out that blog for more information. It also lists a step by step for dropping the swaddle!
Some parents choose to sleep train when dropping the swaddle as it is a sleep association and they have to learn to sleep without it. Most of the time, it is a 3-7 day process for baby to adjust, so do not be surprised if their sleep is thrown off for a few nights as they figure things out.
That is totally normal!
Sleep Regression Ages
Common sleep regression ages include:
- 6 weeks
- 3-6 months
- 8-10 months
- 12 months
- 18 months
- 24 months
Most families want to know if sleep training will “stick” or if it is something they will constantly have to do over and over again.
On the contrary, I find that sleep training itself is a lifestyle change in how we respond to our child. We would not have them fall asleep independently and then all of a sudden put them to sleep again without seeing the effects of that.
So while it is not a “one and done” type thing, it can create habits that last so long as you maintain those boundaries around sleep. The boundaries that say “I can help you and support you without doing all of the work for you.”
Of course, this does not mean you can never help them especially with extenuating circumstances like an illness!
It just means that habits form lightning fast (which is both a good thing and a bad thing sometimes) and if new habits are formed that you do not want to sustain, then it can take a few nights to break those.
For sleep regressions, we don’t want to assume they need more help than they actually do. It can be tricky when they are learning new skills, but the most important thing is that we can continue supporting them when they ask without overhelping!
To read more about sleep regression in babies, check out that blog that breaks down each one by age!
Should you hire a sleep consultant to help you with sleep training?
This is totally a personal family decision. There is so much advice available on the internet that it can be hard for an overwhelmed, sleep-deprived parent to sort through it. Sometimes families need the accountability of a sleep coach in order to follow through and keep them on the right track!
The reason sleep training can fail from one baby to another is because they’re not dealing with the same baby. Some babies are heavily reliant on sleep props. Others can’t sleep in a room that’s too warm. Some may not be getting enough daytime sleep, and others might be getting too much/under tired.
Of course, it could be any combination of all of the above or the many other sleep challenges that babies might experience.
Adding to the challenge is the fact that most solutions don’t work overnight, so parents might try a solution that could potentially help baby start sleeping through the night, but abandon it before it takes effect due to some heavy protesting on baby’s part.
In short, sleep can be a complicated issue and it can take an outside perspective to peel back all of the layers.
Or maybe you just want to make sure that you are truly setting your child up to be successful at this without putting any undue stress on either one of you!
No matter what you choose, you can be successful.
Ashley Olson is a certified pediatric sleep consultant, owner of Heaven Sent Sleep, and passionate about helping new parents, experienced parents, desperate and sleep-deprived parents form healthy sleep habits for their children.
She has over 3 years of experience in working with families and has completed over 150 hours of coursework plus continuing education related to infant and toddler sleep. The focus of her work is on fostering a routine that grows your bond with your child while improving their sleep habits. She specializes in custom sleep plans and one on one support in changing sleep practices!