Sleep training is all about guiding your baby toward a fulfilling night’s sleep. Lay the groundwork by setting your baby’s internal clock and encouraging her to soothe herself. Then, when she’s ready for training, pick the approach that best fits your parenting philosophy, and you’ll soon be packing your bags for an extended stay in the land of nod.
Distinguish night from day
In the womb, baby was lulled to sleep by your movements during the day. At night, she would often come awake just as you were settling down to sleep (you may have experienced some prenatal insomnia because of this). After birth, baby will continue on the same flip-flopped schedule until you teach her the habits of the household.
Start by establishing a day pattern that is consistent. When baby wakes, she’ll want to eat. Feed her, then keep her awake for a while (in the first days, it might be only a few minutes; later on, she’ll go longer). During this time, engage baby with one-sided conversation, songs, eye contact, stretches or tummy time. Then help her settle down and take a nap.
At night, your pattern should not include any playtime. Baby wakes up, she eats, she gets a diaper change if necessary, and then she goes back to bed. She’ll soon come to see that nighttime equals no-nonsense.
Before baby is old enough for official sleep training, you can help her learn to soothe herself to sleep. Although baby may like to drift off to dreamland while feeding or being rocked in your arms, these habits could thwart her nighttime independence. By teaching self-soothing, you’ll be giving baby the ability to get back to sleep when she awakes during the night (without dragging mom or pop out of bed!).
The approach is simple: Put baby down to bed before she dozes off. When you see that she’s getting tired, swaddle her, offer her a pacifier, and put her down. Help her get to sleep in a hands-off fashion with lullabies, white noise or instrumental music. An overhead mobile can also promote remote soothing. Just don’t pick her up. As baby learns to fall asleep independently, she’ll grow to need less and less assistance, so that, in time, she’ll be able to fall peacefully back to sleep when there’s a break in her nocturnal sleep cycle, rather than scream for you to come back and calm her.
Extend nighttime sleep
Because sleeping through the night means missing feedings, most experts will tell you to hold off on sleep training until baby is at least 4 months old. Of course, some babies will sleep unassisted through the night at 2 months of age, but many newborns simply aren’t capable of sleeping eight hours at a stretch. Frequent feedings (even through the night if baby calls for them) are crucial to growth and shouldn’t be skipped in the first months of baby’s life.
Once baby is of age, you’re free to implement a sleep training program when you find one that fits your family’s style. The sleep training spectrum travels from “extinction” —cold turkey nighttime abandonment (not recommended)—to the gentle and long-suffering no-cry approach. Let’s break it down to the basics:
- Cry it out. Any sleep training method wherein baby is left to cry for a period of time is generally referred to as “cry it out.” The most widely recognized advocate for this school of thought is Dr. Richard Ferber. Since his book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, first printed in the 1980s, many sleepless parents have found success using his calculated method.The Ferber approach takes the guesswork out of sleep training. Baby is allowed to cry it out on her own, with a minimum, intermediate and maximum cry time assigned to each night (such as 3, 5 and 10 minutes). Throughout the night, parents let baby cry for progressively longer periods of time before going in to reassure her with pats and calm words, never picking her up but instead enabling her to get to sleep on her own. Cry times are extended as days go by, so parents are attending baby less often each night.So-called “Ferberization” has transformed countless babies into solid sleepers, but it doesn’t appeal to everyone. There are plenty of parents who believe letting their baby cry is cruel; some think it will result in psychological damage or negative sleep associations. For these parents, there’s the “no-cry” method.
- No-cry. The no-cry approach takes various forms and is generally more child-directed. Some no-cry specialists say there’s nothing wrong with nursing or rocking a baby to sleep every time she cries. Others suggest abandoning these “props” and calming baby with pats and songs instead. But all no-cry proponents agree that immediate-response soothing is preferable to letting baby cry it out.If you practice other tenets of attachment parenting—such as babywearing, feeding on demand or co-sleeping—then “no-cry” will likely appeal to you. Decide how you will respond to baby’s nocturnal cries—will you pick her up? Feed her? Rock and sing to her? How long will you offer comfort before putting her down again? Decide on a plan and implement it with consistency.
Picking baby up with each and every nighttime cry will most likely delay her ability to sleep through the night unassisted, but it’s the right way to go if you’re OK with losing some sleep in the name of hands-on, round-the-clock nurturing.
The long and short of it
Before you start any particular sleep program, talk it over with your partner—and any other caregivers in your baby’s life—to make sure there’s a system everyone can agree upon. (A baby who cries it out with mom but welcomes frequent nighttime visits from dad is going to be mighty confused!)
Once you start sleep training, don’t stop … unless your chosen approach really isn’t getting you anywhere. It is important to remember that babies have different temperaments, and families have varied needs; what works for one baby isn’t necessarily going to work for everyone. Good night, and good luck!