If you’re anything like me, when you had your first child, you had never heard of sleep training and you resigned yourself to the fact that you were never going to sleep through the night – ever again, for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, for me, I had my first child after my first semester in medical school – long before any pediatric experience. Another misfortune for me was that we missed the sleep training window for my first child, and 15 years later, she still wakes up during the night for one thing or the next (if she falls asleep at a decent time to begin with).
My second child was born one month after I got done with medical school and by that time I had some basic knowledge about sleep training – what it was, why it was important, and ways to go about doing it. Life was great (except for when my oldest would wake me up at 2 a.m. to ask for chocolate milk). When I had my third child, during pediatric residency, I learned that sleep training looks different for each child, and my oldest could warm up her own mac and cheese at two in the morning.
I have good news for new parents: you don’t have to go to medical school (or have three kids) to master the art of sleep training. Keep reading to find out what it is, why it’s important, and what you can do to ensure success (i.e. make sure everyone in your house gets a good night’s rest).
Simply put, sleep training is the process of helping your infant learn how to fall asleep and stay asleep. It is teaching your baby to fall asleep without help from you. Sleep training also teaches the baby how to fall back to sleep when he or she inevitably wakes up overnight. While some parents worry that some methods may harm a baby’s health or create attachment-related issues down the line, research shows that sleep training doesn’t increase the risk of behavioral or emotional problems later in childhood. Many experts say sleep training is not only safe, it’s healthy and important for babies’ development.
Parents should look to begin sleep training when babies are four to six months old. This age range is the sweet spot, since babies are old enough to physically make it for six to eight hours overnight without needing to eat, but aren’t quite at the point where the comforting you provide has become a sleep association.
There’s no one way to sleep train, but many parents find that one, or a mix of the following sleep training methods, works for their families:
Cry it out method: The cry it out method of sleep training involves putting your baby to bed and letting him or her cry until he or she falls asleep without any comfort or help from you.
That means as long as you’ve ensured you’ve put your baby to bed with a full tummy and in a safe sleep environment, you won’t go back into his/her room until it’s time for him/her to get up the next morning or until he/she needs to eat next.
While it may seem harsh, this method is harder on you than on your little one. Consistency is key! If your nerves can take it, your baby should begin falling asleep on her own within three to four nights.
Ferber method: If you’re like me, your nerves can’t take it and you’re not a fan of letting the baby cry without some degree of attention and comfort. The Ferber or “check-and-console” method, involves allowing your baby to cry for a set period of time before you check on him. Allow the timed intervals of crying to get longer by a few minutes with each interval until he or she falls asleep.
Over several nights, you’ll gradually increase the length of these intervals, reducing your presence in your baby’s room to let your baby do more of the work of settling down. Pretty soon, there’s no need for these comfort check-ins because your baby has learned to self-soothe.
At that point, your baby should be able to fall asleep without you there. Bear in mind that when your baby falls asleep with you in the room, he or she may be startled and possibly upset when he/she awakes and you’re no longer there.
Bedtime fading method: Does your little one wail for extended periods of time before falling asleep? His/her body may not be ready for sleep at your desired bedtime. The bedtime fading method can modify his/her circadian rhythm to get bedtime to where you want it to be. Here’s how.
• Pay attention to baby’s sleep cues (eye rubbing, yawning, turning away from lights or sound, fussiness).
• Once your baby seems tired, put him or her to bed.
• Hopefully he or she will fall asleep fast, but if he/she cries a lot, take him/her out of the crib for a set amount of time (say, half an hour), then try again.
• After a few nights of putting him/her down at that time, move bedtime 15 minutes earlier and repeat the process with this new bedtime.
• Gradually move bedtime earlier in 15-minute increments until you reach your desired bedtime.
Bedtime fading also sometimes describes any sleep training strategy that involves gradually decreasing a parent’s presence in the baby’s room when putting him/her down to sleep.
Pick-up, Put-down method: This sleep training technique involves you going through your baby’s normal bedtime routine, then putting him or her down to bed drowsy but awake. When and if he or she cries, wait a few minutes to see if he or she settles down himself/herself. If not, go in to pick him/her up and soothe him/her. When he/she is calm again, put him/her back down in the crib or bassinet.
Repeat the process until your baby falls asleep. Just be aware that this sleep training method can take a long time, and requires a good deal of patience.
After three to four nights of methods like Ferber or cry it out, many babies are sleep trained (save a few minutes of fussing or wails before drifting off). Other training methods — in particular bedtime fading, the chair method and pick up, put down — will likely take longer, and some methods won’t work at all for some babies.
Whatever sleep training method you choose, be consistent for two full weeks to give it a chance to work. Sleep training often involves tears for both you and your baby. But with lots consistency and a little bit of luck, you’ll soon be sleeping peacefully, and your little one will have learned the valuable life skill of how to fall and stay asleep all on her own. Never hesitate to check in with your pediatrician if you want guidance on when and how to begin sleep training. Remember, we are here to help you raise happy and healthy kids!
• Dr. Tamarra Moss is a pediatrician committed to helping you raise happy and healthy kids. You can find her at Dr. Carlos Thomas & Pediatric Associates in Nassau, Lucayan Medical Center in Grand Bahama, or on Instagram @mykidsdoc242.