Sleep training is the process of helping a baby learn to get to sleep and stay asleep through the night.
Some babies seem to develop a regular sleep routine quickly and easily. But many others have trouble settling down to sleep — or getting back to sleep when they’ve been wakened — and they need help and guidance along the way.
When can I start and what are the stages of sleep training?
The first three months
Don’t try to impose a sleep schedule or training program on a newborn. Your new baby will need to feed every few hours, around the clock, so it’s normal and healthy for him to sleep for just a few hours at a time. Respond promptly to his cries, feed and comfort him, and try to sleep when he does to minimize your own sleep deprivation.
Beginning at about 6 weeks, you can reinforce your child’s biological rhythms by establishing a regular bedtime routine. At about the same time every night, for instance, give him a warm bath, read him a book, and then feed him before putting him to bed. (For more ideas, see our article on bedtime routines.) Try to get your baby up at around the same time every morning and put him down for naps at the same point in the day.
At this stage, consider your routine and your baby’s sleep schedule as a work in progress: During the first three months of life, your baby will gradually sleep more at night and less during the day. You’ll need to keep adjusting the schedule as your baby matures and develops.
4 to 6 months and beyond
Typically, by age 3 months or so, babies have started to develop more of a regular sleep/wake pattern and have dropped most of their night feedings And somewhere between 4 and 6 months, experts say, most babies are ready for sleep training and are capable of sleeping through the night for a stretch of 8 to 12 hours.
Of course, every baby is different: Some may be ready earlier, others later. And some will sleep seven hours or longer at an early age while others won’t do so until they’re much older.
Before starting sleep training, make sure your baby doesn’t have any medical conditions that affect his sleep. Then be flexible about how you apply your chosen program and carefully observe how your baby reacts. If he’s very resistant or you see a change for the worse in his overall mood and behaviour, stop and wait a few weeks before trying again.
If you’re not sure whether your baby’s ready for sleep training, ask your doctor.
What are my sleep training options?
There are many different ways to teach healthy sleep habits to your child. Which technique should you try? That depends on what you feel comfortable with and which sleep strategy you think your child will respond well to.
While researchers continue to debate the merits of various sleep training options, consistency appears to be more important than method. A review of 52 sleep studies using various methods, published in the journal Sleep, found almost all the techniques effective if applied consistently. Choose a sleep training method you can live with and follow through on it and chances are, it’ll work for you.
Most sleep training methods follow one of these basic approaches:
The “cry-it out” approach
These sleep training methods say it’s okay to leave your child to cry, if necessary, although they don’t advocate letting a baby cry endlessly. Typically these methods suggest putting your baby to bed when he’s still awake and allowing short periods of crying punctuated by comforting (but not picking up) your child.
The most well known “cry it out” technique is the one developed by paediatrician Richard Ferber, director of the Centre for Paediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital Boston. Ferber says that in order to fall asleep on their own and sleep through the night, babies have to learn to soothe themselves. Ferber believes that teaching a baby to soothe himself may involve leaving him alone to cry for prescribed periods of time.
The “no tears” approach
Sleep training methods in this category encourage a more gradual approach, with the parent offering comfort right away when their child cries. Paediatrician William Sears, author of The Baby Sleep Book, is probably the most well known proponent. Parent educator Elizabeth Pantley outlines a step-by-step no-tears approach in her book The No-Cry Sleep Solution.
Some experts fall somewhere between these two methods in their recommendations. Perhaps the most well known of these is paediatrician Harvey Karp, author of The Happiest Baby on the Block. His method suggests a very specific routine involving “the five S’s”: swaddling, the side or stomach position (for calming your baby, not for sleeping), shushing, swinging, and sucking.
What the experts say
Richard Ferber, paediatrician and author of Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems
“By the time your baby is 3 months old and has developed a fairly predictable 24-hour pattern, it becomes more important for you to provide increasingly consistent structure. If you do your best to establish a reasonable and consistent daily routine and keep to it as much as possible, then it is likely that your child will continue to develop good patterns. If instead you allow the times of your child’s feedings, playtimes, baths, and other activities to change constantly, chances are his sleep will become irregular as well.”
Marc Weissbluth, paediatrician and author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child
“For infants under 3 or 4 months of age, you should try to flow with the child’s need for sleep. Don’t expect predictable sleep schedules, and don’t try to enforce them rigidly…After about 4 months, I think parents can influence sleep durations.”
William Sears, paediatrician and author of The Baby Sleep Book
“Be prepared for one style of nighttimes parenting too work at one stage of an infant’s life yet need a change as he enters another stage. Be open to trying different approaches. Follow your heart rather than some stranger’s sleep training advice, and you and your baby will eventually work out the right nighttimes parenting style for your family.”
Cathryn Tobin, paediatrician and author of The Lull-A-Baby Sleep Plan
“After completing my residency at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada, one of the world’s busiest paediatric medical centres, it struck me that our culture goes about infant sleep training completely backward. First we allow bad sleep habits to form, and then we go to extremes trying to break them. Once I recognized this crucial mistake, the solution to the dreadful problem of sleep deprivation became crystal clear: Encourage young babies to develop good habits right from the start and you won’t need to break bad ones down the road.”
Jodi Mindell, psychologist and author of Sleeping Through the Night
“The more practice your baby gets putting himself to sleep, the quicker the process works. He will fall asleep on his own, and you will get the sleep you need…Don’t wait too long, though. The earlier, the better. Remember, once your baby gets older — that is, at least 5 or 6 months — the process of getting your child on a sleep schedule and to sleep through the night gets more difficult.”
Tracy Hogg, nurse and author of Secrets of the Baby Whisperer
“What a good many people don’t realize is that babies need parents’ direction to establish proper sleep habits. In fact, the reason so-called sleep problems are common is because so many parents don’t realize that they, not their babies, must control bedtime.”
Do I have to use a sleep training method for my child?
No. Parents often decide to try a particular method because they’re exhausted or frustrated by their child’s sleep habits and nothing they’ve tried on their own seems to work. If you’re happy with the way things are going, count your blessings and continue what you’re doing.
Families have different expectations and tolerances. A 9-month-old who wakes up twice a night might have one set of parents tearing their hair out while another family wouldn’t have it any other way. If sleep isn’t going well for your family, you’ll know it — and you might want to read up on methods devised by experts and other parents for help.
Here are a few things to consider:
“My first daughter was sleeping through the night (10 p.m. to 9 a.m.) by 6 months. We had a complete bedtime routine: a bath, a book, a bottle, then to bed, a little music in the crib, and asleep in ten minutes. It was wonderful, but that scenario didn’t work for my second daughter and hasn’t worked for my son, so I’ve tried different things for each of them. Sometimes a plan doesn’t work. Listen to your baby — he or she will tell you what you need to know.”
“My 3-month-old doesn’t sleep through the night, and it’s fine with me. I keep her in her crib or a bassinet until her 3 a.m. feeding, and then she joins my husband and me until we get up for work. She won’t go in her crib unless she’s already asleep, usually from nursing and rocking, but she’ll fall asleep in her bassinet beside our bed. She’s happy and we’re happy, and even if it goes against the wisdom of the experts, it’s working for us.”
“My first cried it out and all was well. My second cried it out but it took much longer until all was well. My third, if allowed to cry too long, literally freaked out. He threw himself around his crib and would rarely calm down and fall asleep. On the rare occasion that he fell asleep, he’d wake up within minutes screaming bloody murder. Letting him cry it out was clearly not working so I looked for other options. Find your child’s groove. You’ll be glad you did.”
— L.B.’s Mama
“My 4-and-a-half-month-old will only sleep through the night if we do everything the experts say not to do. She must be nursed or slept with unless we want to see her turn purple and cry for 45 minutes or more. She’s like a wind-up doll when she starts and never settles until she’s comforted, and she’s been that way from the beginning. It really became a matter of, do we want to sleep or do we want to do what the books say? If she’s comforted and put down sleeping, she sleeps eight to ten hours. To all you parents out there who have a baby like mine, do not despair — just do what works for you.”