Contrary to what many believe, there are actually a few methods of sleep training, not just the notorious CIO or Ferber. All the methods mentioned here are known and researched, safe, and effective. Each have their pros and cons and the method you choose to sleep train your child really comes down to what you are comfortable with and ready to implement. Each family is entitled to choose the method (including no method!) that best works for their family with absolutely no judgement from anyone.
In today’s post, I am to define sleep training for you (and what it is not), I’ll walk you through the methods, and give you my two cents on the things you can do to make sleep training as easy and successful as possible for your child and family.
What is Sleep Training?
At its core, sleep training is the process of teaching your child how to fall asleep on their own. Sleep is a skill and can be taught, just like reading or potty training.
But it takes work to get there. Sleep training usually involves separating from a sleep association/prop/crutch. These are all things that baby relies on to get to sleep. The most common sleep prop is feeding to sleep (falling asleep on the breast or with a bottle in the mouth), followed by being rocked or held to sleep, and of course the pacifier. There are many more props – for older kids it is usually the parents that are the prop (if you are a parent of an older child who MANDATES that you stay in their room until they fall asleep, DING, you are the sleep crutch). Sleep training works by letting your child find ways to self soothe to sleep aka falling asleep independently.
Do all children need to be sleep trained?
No! Some children are naturally good sleepers while others need a little help (enter sleep training).
And, I’ll also add here, that if what you are doing is working for you and your family then there is no reason to change it.
Why would someone choose to sleep train their child?
Two main reasons why parents may choose this path: 1) thebaby/child is clearly sleep deprived and not getting the sleep they need to thrive and sustain appropriate development.
And/or, 2) because the lack of sleep is causing some real hardships for the parent and/or family.
Sleep deprivation in parents is no laughing matter. Society tends to make light of the whole, “exhausted new parent” persona, but the more we learn about the health effects of sleep deprivation, the less of a joke it becomes. If you’re sleep-deprived or feel like you’re on the verge, it doesn’t have to that way and now’s the time to sleep train. In most cases, your sleep situation can be changed in about 2 weeks.
There are a few different methods to choose from ranging from least to most gentle. We will start with the most gentle and work our way up.
Pick Up/Put Down
When people talk about sleep training their 6 week old, this is what they mean. It is not formal sleep training as that doesn’t formally start until much later for babies.
PU/PD is a way to create healthy sleep habits for babies under 12 weeks.
This is great for babies who are very young and don’t have strong sleep associations yet. You can start this on day 1 for newborns. For babies who are older than 12 weeks, it is just too stimulating and can make crying and fussing worse and I don't typically recommend this after 12 weeks.
Is it easy? No. Newborn parents are often very tired and this is extra work. But if you start it early enough it can be really helpful to create independent sleep skills from an early age. How to do it: Put your baby in their crib/bassinet,
let them fuss for a few minutes, if they
are crying go ahead and pick up to soothe, then put them back in the crib/bassinet
before they are asleep. Repeat until they eventually fall asleep on their own.
This method puts you in your child’s room, starting next to their crib or bed, and offering comfort measures every so often and reducing scaffolding overtime.
This is my favorite method for babies 12 weeks - 12 months and toddlers/kids 18 months+.
It is possibly the most gentle method of formal sleep training but, like all methods, it is not easy nor is it no cry. But it is the most supportive method and takes about 2 weeks. How to do it: Nights 1-3: sit next to your child’s crib,
offer comfort measures every 5 minutes
until your baby is asleep. Nights 4-6: move the chair further away
and increase intervals to 10 minutes until
your child falls asleep. Night 7: put your baby in their crib/bed,
leave the room. Come back for comfort
measures every 10 minutes as
Leave and Check
Ferber is a leave and check method and this method has some flexibility and can be modified (but don’t get carried away). This is a great method for babies 12-18 months old who react strongly to the parent’s presence. This method can take between 1-2 weeks. In Ferber, you increase the number of minutes between each check on the same night. I don’t like this because it lacks consistency and babies rely on consistency even if they can’t tell time.
How to do it: Put your child in their crib at bedtime,
leave the room, return after X number
of minutes to offer a comfort
reassurance. Repeat as necessary until
Baby is asleep.
I prefer to use the same number of
minutes between each comfort
measure to be consistent (this is where my preference differs from Ferber). For example,
nights 1-3 check every 5 minutes. Nights 4-6, increase to 10 minutes, and night 7 and
beyond use 15 minutes.
Cry It Out (CIO)/Extinction
Possibly the most known method, and often synonymous with sleep training, CIO is where you do not offer any comfort or go to your child; they cry until they fall asleep. This is not for the faint of heart. No one likes to hear their baby cry. And this method often fails because parents aren’t able to get through it and commit properly through it. But, if you are able to do it faithfully, it is the quickest of all methods getting results in about 3 nights. My recommendation: get ear plugs.
People have their big feelings about CIO (and frankly all sleep training methods), but CIO is a safe and effective sleep training method. Studies have shown that sleep training, regardless of method and including CIO do not interfere with parental attachment (I have a blog post on this ).
What about "No Cry" sleep training?
Again, no one wants to hear their baby cry but real sleep training has short term discomfort for long term gain. A few nights of intense crying perhaps. And your problems can be solved in a few short weeks with using a standard method.
I have heard of no cry sleep training methods but, to be honest, they don't make sense to me and are confusing. In "wake to sleep," you to nurse or rock. baby to sleep and then wake them up gently before putting them in the crib, let them cry for a minute to put themself to sleep, and emphasize varying how you put your baby to sleep in this way (one night nurse to sleep one night rock to sleep). I mean, I am confused - aren't you? And, there IS crying involved...so it really isn't no cry.
I have also heard of people just slowing down one of the methods and doing one step at a time and taking weeks per step to limit crying (but again, not "no cry").
These "no cry" methods take months to work. I honestly have no idea if this really works or not. But my guess is if you are tired and wanting...needing...to make a change, you probably don't want to take 3-6 months to see progress, especially when you can get the problem solved in a short two weeks. If someone has tried a "no cry" method and was successful, I would truly love to talk with you!!
Now that you know the methods, I will quickly share some of the most common sleep training errors that people make so that you can avoid them once you get started.
1. Sleep training is removing ALL sleep props, including the pacifier. If your baby takes a pacifier, you can’t really sleep train AND keep it. Keeping the pacifier in these situations is just reinforcing the sleep association and your baby won’t be able to sleep well with it in the long run AND you are not truly teaching your child to be an independent sleeper (which is the point of sleep training). If your baby takes a pacifier and you want to sleep train, remove the pacifier completely as not to cause confusion. You can read more here.
2. Have a plan, be prepared, and know what to expect. Don't go into this with a "let's see what happens" attitude.
3. Don’t give in too fast. Yes, there will be hard nights and moments. The worst thing you can do is to give in and throw it all away. This is confusing for your baby and all you have done is teach your baby to cry vs soothe. If you are committing to sleep train, commit to it 100%.
There is no wrong way to sleep train your child. Each family has the right to choose what works best for you.
My biggest tip in the process is to make sure you are ready. This is work, important and incredibly valuable work, but it is work and it is often hard.
Remember that you are giving your child the gift of sleep which will last them a lifetime. Your baby can do it. YOU can do it!
There is a lot of information out there and it can be really confusing. If you are not sure what method would be best for your family or are a bit overwhelmed and want a step by step guide with support, let’s get on the phone for a free evaluation call to talk it through and we can have your child’s sleep challenges solved in just about 2 or so weeks!