Round-the-clock feedings, middle-of-the-night diaper changes and constantly waking to wailing are all par for the course for new parents. But after several months of fatigued days and nights spent in a total haze, you might be wondering, Will I ever sleep again?
Good news: After four to five months (or at 14 pounds), your little one is physically ready to sleep through the night, says Whitney Roban, PhD, pediatric sleep specialist at Sleep-Eez Kidz in Roslyn Heights, New York, and it’s safe to begin sleep training.
The theories on how to sleep train vary greatly, however, and everyone from your mother-in-law to your next-door neighbor will have an opinion on how to get your baby to sleep. But hang in there! As frustrating as sleep training might be, it’s important to trust those motherly instincts and be as persistent—and consistent—as possible with the method you choose.
Here’s an overview of the most common sleep training methods and some expert advice on choosing the right one for your family.
Cry it out
Just as it sounds, the “cry it out” method involves allowing your child to cry for an allocated amount of time before offering him comfort. This method teaches self-soothing and encourages baby’s ability to fall asleep on his own. Crying it out is also referred to as the Ferber method, or Ferberizing, as Richard Ferber, pediatrician and director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders, wrote about it in Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems in 1985.
The idea behind crying it out is to teach baby to soothe himself to sleep by first offering a warm, loving and established bedtime routine, then putting him to bed in his own crib while he is still awake. Parents usually start the training by leaving the room for a predetermined amount of time (say three to five minutes), and then returning to offer comfort with verbal cues and light touch. However, picking up baby is not advised. This cycle is repeated on subsequent nights for increasing periods of time until, ideally, baby learns to soothe himself to sleep.
As you might imagine, Ferber-izing is highly controversial, and many experts argue that it seems cruel and even psychologically damaging for children to be left alone to cry. But Tracy Braunstein, certified pediatric sleep consultant at Sleep Tight Solutions in Montreal, Canada, assures worried parents that there is a method to the madness. “Allowing our children to go through some protest crying at bedtime to instill healthy sleep habits is in no way harmful,” she says. “Sleep is a learned skill. If we don’t step back and allow the learning to occur, then, to be honest, it doesn’t, and our children continue to rely on whatever sleep crutch or association that they have been accustomed to.”
Parents interested in taking a “cry it out” approach should remember to start slowly and be patient, allowing baby to cry for only a few minutes at a time for the first few nights and making sure his immediate needs (i.e., a clean, dry diaper) are met at bedtime.
Parents who are wary of letting baby cry it out, or who have tried other methods that have not worked, may want to consider a gentler and more gradual program like no tears, which is sometimes referred to as the “no-cry” method. Advocates of no-cry sleep training include Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night.
Pantley’s method encourages a systematic approach to bedtime, where parents log baby’s habits, including naps and nighttime feedings, looking for signs of sleepiness and sleep deprivation. The logging helps parents read their baby’s sleep patterns, so they can naturally pick a bedtime that immediately follows when baby starts to show signs of tiredness.
Slowly, in this method, the burden of falling asleep is passed from parent to child, with hopefully as few tears as possible. As with “cry it out,” parents are encouraged to establish a loving bedtime routine, which Amy Lage, child sleep expert and founder of Well Rested Baby in Beverly Hills, Massachusetts, says is essential to get your child into a calm state, so he knows it’s time to sleep. After the nightly routine is finished, moms and dads taking the no-cry approach are encouraged to rock and feed baby until he is asleep or drowsy. To establish a positive association with sleep, baby is immediately offered comfort throughout the night when he starts to cry.
Eventually, the idea is for parents to set baby’s biological clock, so he’s falling asleep consistently each night, while still comforting him if he wakes up throughout the evening.
Although crying it out and no tears are the most common sleep training methods, there are other variations that parents might come across.
An adaptation of the no-tears method, camping out involves a parent staying or sleeping in baby’s room with him as he sleeps, or at least until he falls asleep.
Perhaps the most self-directed of all, extinction involves putting baby down after the bedtime routine and not returning until morning. (This particularly harsh method is considered outdated.)
This method involves gradually offering verbal comfort to baby from farther away each night until you are removed from the room.
Whatever method you do choose, consistency is the most important factor of all, says Roban. “Any and all sleep training methods will eventually work if parents are 100 percent consistent; however, none will work if parents are not.” Make sure everyone who is involved in your child’s care is on the same page. Roban recommends sticking with one method, at least at the beginning, and giving the process some time to show results. Only change methods if your choice isn’t working after some time. She notes: “It’s OK to switch, just make sure you are 100 percent consistent with that new method as well.”