Just uttering the words “sleep training” can bring out some not so nice feelings around moms.
Unfortunately, there are some strong feelings regarding sleep training and various sleep training methods. Through this blog, we will discuss what sleep training is, what are the different sleep training methods, research that is available about sleep training and much more!
We will also cover what the most successful sleep training method is, toddler sleep training methods, what the steps are to sleep training methods (each method I discuss will include steps to execute them), and why some parents may choose not to use sleep training.
What is sleep training?
Very simply, this is allowing your child to fall asleep with certain conditions (or without certain conditions). It is often referred to synonymously with either “cry it out” or night weaning (or both).
It can actually be neither of those things or both of those things. That is where it gets confusing!
There is so much information out there about sleep training that it can be hard for very tired parents to muddle through it and figure out how exactly to implement any one thing for their little one.
From the moment your baby is born, they are being conditioned to fall asleep. It can be viewed as sleep “shaping” for lack of a better description.
While sleep is something that comes naturally for adults who are motivated sleepers, it can feel a little different for our babies. Their entire life in the womb, they were lulled to sleep with movement and loud sounds.
However, they did not have any exposure to light and when they are born, they have an under-developed pineal gland which means they do not produce sleep hormones yet.
This is why sleep is so hard for our little ones sometimes from the get-go! They have no circadian rhythm!
They need to learn not only how to sleep, but when as well. Cue sleep training.
Until they figure out those pieces of the puzzle, they will need your help in soothing them (or helping them regulate their emotions/feelings plus meeting their very obvious needs).
So, every baby from every family is being sleep trained from when they are born. This is something they may learn to do while being nursed, rocked, bounced, with a swaddle, a pacifier, white noise, routines, all of it!
If I were to google “what is sleep training?” or poll parents on our Instagram story, I’m willing to bet that the majority of answers would say something like “leaving your baby to cry it out” or some variation of that.
That is just a limited view of what sleep training is. The above is something that I feel like parents will do when they’re at the end of their rope and have no other idea of what else to do to help their little one sleep.
As a sleep consultant, I do not believe that cry it out is always necessary. Sleep training should be an intentional process on our parts as parents. A process that sets our children up to be successful at mastering a skill, whenever that is appropriate in both their life and their parent’s life.
Disclaimer: leaving your child to cry when you need a break is a much better alternative than doing something that may harm either one of you so do not feel guilty if you need to walk away, go outside for fresh air, or put in earplugs while your child is in a safe place.
So it is words like “extinction”, “cry it out”, and “Ferber” that generally cause an uproar in moms groups. However, it is important to note that while they are valid methods and there are valid ways to execute them, there are other options in between “cry it out” and “live with it.”
The most important aspect in any sleep training method is that you find one that fits what you and your baby need, but also one that you can consistently follow through with as that is when you will see success in sleep training!
Let’s move on to the different sleep training methods you have to choose from. I’m going to discuss the most popular methods to start, and as always, you can set up a free consultation to have a custom plan created for you if you’re not sure which one to choose!
Baby Sleep Training - No Tears Methods
This can be confusing to parents, because if no crying was ever involved in sleep training, then everyone would probably do it!
No tears methods for sleep training does not mean they don’t actually cry. It just means you respond much more frequently and with higher levels of intervention.
So what is a no tears method for sleep training? It is a gradual approach to making changes around your little one's sleep.
You may even find that they’re called “fewer tears” methods and that is also misleading. Because parents may intend to do a Ferber or extinction method and their child doesn’t cry at all.
Therefore, I think it is best to not look at how your child expresses their emotion to the changes but rather how you respond to those emotions. Try to open your mind up to what sleep training could look like for your family and don’t shy away because they may cry. They may not!
Here are some practical tips for finding a “no tears” method for your family:
- As always, establish pre-sleep rituals. This means before nap and bedtime, you do the same routine each night so that your child begins to associate the routine with sleep. This will help them accept that sleep is coming. Think of it as a cool down from a workout!
- Pay very close attention to sleep cues and awake times to ensure your child is not overtired. Overtired children have a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep. Keeping them awake in hopes that they will get really tired and fall asleep usually backfires with more crying, not less.
- Make very gradual and slow changes. For instance, you may tackle one thing at a time like your child’s late bedtime. If they’re accustomed to falling asleep at 9 pm, but would probably benefit from a 7 pm bedtime, then you would simply inch their bedtime earlier by 15 minutes every few nights.
- Develop some keywords that you tell your child each time they go to sleep.
- Create an optimal sleep environment for your little one. Ideally, their sleep environment is cool (this helps with sleep hormones), dark (boring, no distractions from sleep), and with white noise (your womb was loud, they like the background noise).
- Learn to listen to what your child is saying. Are they rousing you from sleep with a simple whimper/mild fuss that doesn’t need your intervention? Try to practice that pause and intervene when they are truly signaling a need.
Elizabeth Pantley, the author of the No-Cry Sleep Solution writes that when it comes to sleep training, parents have a choice between time and tears:
"The irrefutable truth is that we cannot change a comfortable, loving-to-sleep (but waking-up-all-night) history to a go-to-sleep-and-stay-asleep-on-your-own routine without one of two things: crying or time. Personally, I choose the time."
With this option, you can replace nursing to sleep with rocking to sleep and then gradually reduce the amount of time that you spend rocking until you’re able to place your child down awake in their sleep space and they drift off to sleep without assistance.
If you’re choosing a “no tears” method, then accept that it will take a considerable amount of time to go from something like being nursed to sleep, to not being nursed to sleep; from being nursed or rocked back to sleep for every waking to being soothed in their sleep space until they’re calm enough to do this on their own without your intervention during each waking or for sleep onset.
What is the pick up put down method?
This method was made famous by Tracy Hogg, the Baby Whisperer. It was created to be a middle ground option that was not cry it out.
Here are the steps to execute the pick up put down method:
- Bedtime routine: think of a handful of things you can do in your bedtime routine, in the same order each night. Something like bath, pyjamas, book, sleep sack, turn on white noise, bed.
- They should be relaxed and ready for bed, but not too sleepy or already asleep at the end of the routine so that they are awake when you put them in their sleep space.
- If your baby is calm, you can choose to stay in the room or leave the room.
- If your baby cries, Hogg suggests “stop, wait, and listen.” This is to ensure they are truly signaling a need instead of just fussing as they fall asleep.
- If they’re not settling, then you go to them and pick them up until they’re calm.
- Once they’ve settled, but are still awake, then you put them down.
- You will do this over and over until they’ve fall asleep.
This method can be exhausting at first as you are constantly picking and putting down sometimes. That means this will require lots of patience!
It is also important to note that this method is best suited for younger babies, and most effective between 4-8 months old; if you have an older child but one that is very easy going, then this method may suit them as well!
This is probably not going to be suited for a toddler sleep training method, but sleep training method 6 months old could be a perfect fit!
Toddler Sleep Training Methods
These are also suited for younger ages, sleep training methods 6 months old to 2 years old - whether they’re in a crib or bed.
The first method we will discuss is known as the “Sleep Lady Shuffle” or the “camping out method.”
- As always, develop a bedtime routine!
- This method will start with you choosing a prop that is associated with sleep training, like a chair or stool.
- You will begin by placing your little one down awake in their crib and sitting right beside them for 2-3 nights.
- During the first few nights, you are able to comfort with whatever technique you’d like for tears, including picking up (but holding over the crib, not removing them from that area).
- You will gradually move your prop (chair or stool) away from the crib. Every second or third night, you move just a little closer to the door.
- As your child gets more comfortable with the distance, you will use words to comfort more than anything else.
- Once you’re outside the door then you can pop in as needed until your child is comfortable going to sleep without your presence.
This toddler sleep training method is best suited for toddlers who are used to you being present while they fall asleep and you’d like to fade that out as well as children or babies who are experiencing separation anxiety.
The next sleep training method appropriate for a wide range of ages is the Ferber method and is probably the most popular and most successful sleep training method. This is also referred to as “graduated extinction.”
- Bedtime routine-- yes, you always need this in place!
- Place baby down in the crib while she is awake.
- You’ll leave the room and come in to comfort with words or comforting touch only, no picking up.
- The first night you may wait only 3 minutes or so before going in. The next night you may wait 5 minutes, and then 7 minutes until you are waiting anywhere from 10-20 minutes to respond.
- An alternative is to wait 3 minutes then go in to check on them. Then you wait 5 minutes to go check on them and build from there until you are checking every 15-20 minutes.
This is referred to as progressively waiting. You can set your own time limits as well! The most important aspect of this method is that you do not do anything that puts your child to sleep so that they get used to falling asleep without assistance.
FAQs About Sleep Training
Should I pick baby up when sleep training?
This is totally dependent on the sleep training method that you are utilizing. As a sleep consultant, I always encourage you to do what is most comfortable for you. You can always modify a method to fit your baby’s needs.
If you like the way progressively waiting for sounds, like with Ferber, but you want to pick up baby for a cuddle instead of just rubbing their back, then do it and see how it goes!
How do you sleep train an infant?
An infant could be defined as birth to 1 year old so this is tricky. If you’re sleep training a newborn, then you will be establishing healthy habits, feeding on demand, and creating sleep routines.
If you’re sleep training an infant older than 4 months, then you can use any of the methods listed here!
Can you sleep train a 1-month-old?
If your idea of sleep training is responding to your baby, watching for sleep cues, establishing routines (not rigid schedules), soothing with tools like pacifiers, swaddles, white noise, and movement then yes! You can absolutely sleep train your one-month-old.
If your idea of sleep training is cry it out and night weaning, then no.
How long do you let a baby cry it out?
I think that every parent has a different threshold for crying if they’re choosing an extinction method, so while I try not to encourage a time limit with sleep training, you will need to do what is comfortable and feels right for you.
What are the most successful sleep training methods?
Another tricky question! I believe any method of sleep training can be successful because it really comes down to the consistency and follow-through in the method that you choose.
However, most families see success with the Ferber method because it is the easiest method to execute and parents tend to see quicker results so they tend to stick with it.
Why don’t some parents use sleep training methods?
I cannot speak for every parent that doesn’t use sleep training methods, but I will say that there is often confusion about what sleep training actually is. If a parent is against cry it out or anything that may involve crying while learning a new skill, then parents will be adamantly against sleep training and will choose to assist to sleep, no matter what.
Some parents are happy with their sleep situation so it isn’t needed!
I also find that “strict” rules around sleep training will turn parents off regarding most methods.
Sometimes it is also said that sleep training trains your child to sleep too deep or to not signal a need for parents. This is not true; sleep training cannot change biological sleep cycles. We all wake up at night, whether we are sleep trained or not!
With sleep training, a child can simply return to sleep IF their need is just that- to return to sleep. If they need something else like hunger, or they have a dirty diaper that is bothering them, they will let you know.
You cannot train away wake-ups or break a bond with your child where they suddenly don’t rely on you, especially when you respond to them. You can respond to any signal from your child without always assisting to sleep; I think that is where the difference lies in sleep coaching. Learning how to respond to your child without doing all of the work for them!
When will my child sleep through the night?
Each child will drop night feedings at their own pace or with a little help from you. Check out this blog for more information!Is there any research available about sleep training?
According to this article from the AAP, “Behavioral sleep techniques have no marked long-lasting effects (positive or negative). Parents and health professionals can confidently use these techniques to reduce the short- to the medium-term burden of infant sleep problems and maternal depression.”
Why is a bedtime routine so important?
If you didn’t notice, each method starts with establishing those pre-sleep rituals. This primes and conditions our bodies for sleep, which means better sleep for everyone!
Establishing a consistent bedtime routine (this one used massage based bedtime routine) found that there were improvements in child and mother night wakings, maternal perceptions of child sleep and mood (ie, sleep problem, bedtime ease, and morning mood), and improvements in maternal sleep quality.
A consistent bedtime routine was associated with better sleep outcomes, including earlier bedtimes, shorter sleep onset latency, reduced night wakings, and increased sleep duration. Decreased parent-perceived sleep problems and daytime behavior problems were also related to the institution of a regular bedtime routine.
A bedtime routine can contribute to an array of positive developmental outcomes beyond improved sleep, inclusive of language development, literacy, child emotional and behavioral regulation, parent-child attachment, and family functioning, among other outcomes.
These results indicate that sleep disturbances in infants and toddlers can be quickly ameliorated within just a few nights after implementation of a consistent bedtime routine, including a bath, massage, and quiet activities. Future research should consider the potential mechanisms behind these relatively fast improvements in sleep, such as reduced household chaos or physiological changes (e.g. core body temperature, cortisol).
So what do you do now?
Hopefully, this blog gave you some ideas of different sleep coaching methods you can use that are not “cry it out/extinction” type sleep training. Remember that it is important when choosing a baby sleep training method that you choose one you can follow through with.
It is also important to align sleep with their biological clock, which according to Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child is between 6-8 pm. Timing is a very important aspect in reducing tears! You will also want to make sure they are napping adequately during the day and that you don’t keep them up too long before bed.
And lastly, develop those pre-sleep routines to cue your child that sleep is coming. If you are unsure how to piece all of the puzzles together in order to improve sleep for your family, then you can choose to work one on one with a sleep consultant that aligns with your sleep philosophy! You can set up a free 15 minute chat with me to see if I’m a good fit for your family.
AUTHOR: Ashley Olson is a certified paediatric 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!