There are few things more stressful in the first months of a child’s life than dealing with a baby’s sleep schedule. Or lack thereof. Sleep can be hard to come by in the beginning. Thinking about it from the baby’s perspective, she just spent nine months inside the mom’s body protected from the cold and bright lights able to sleep whenever she wanted — in fact sleeping a good chunk of the time. Now that she is out in the world, she has to worry about food and discomfort. And the big people around her really, really need eight hours of sleep.
When you hear “sleep training,” you may want to ignore it because you associate it with “cry it out.” Sleep training is so much more than that. It’s a name for a number of different methods, perhaps the most harsh of which is “cry it out,” but there are many much more gentle ways and many other ideas to help your child sleep on his own.
First of all, it is recommended that parents don’t try sleep training until around 6 months. New parents sometimes expect babies to sleep through the night earlier than that and feel like they have messed up if the baby doesn’t sleep on her own before 6 months. Babies just don’t work like that.
Granted, it’s hard to give any blanket statements for all babies. Every child is different, every parent is different, and every living situation is different, so no solution will work for everyone. Unrealistic expectations will only make a difficult phase of life worse.
When you ask for advice about sleeping, the first tip is always to build a routine. Good parts of the routine would be eating, getting a bath, and then being read to, but your routine could look different. The food and the bath part have been shown to help with sleep because a full belly and a warm bath helps the body calm down.
There are 6 common sleep training programs that you can choose from or make your own based on what works for your family. All of these ideas can be used in any combination. The important thing is to be flexible and do what works for your family. Yes, that’s hard to do when it comes to something as fundamental as sleep. You are not alone, and you do have options.
- “Cry-it-out” (aka extinction): This infamous method involves putting the baby to bed when he looks like he’s about to crash, and if he starts crying, ignore it. It does not have to be that brutal, though. Experts recommend going in, comforting him for a little bit, and then after he is calm and sleepy, try again. It may take several tries to get your baby to sleep. Also, if he still needs night feedings, be sure to schedule those in. It is recommended that if you try this method to give it a week before throwing in the towel. The crying will become less and less each night as the baby gets used to the new routine. Also, the latest in brain science has shown that a little bit of crying it out might not be as bad as we previously thought.
- Check and console (aka the Ferber method, graduated extinction, progressive waiting, or the interval method): Like the extinction method, you would put your baby to bed when she looks like she’s ready. Unlike the extinction method, you would go check on her and let her know you’re there every few minutes, adding some time each time you leave. You would work your way from checking every 1 minute to every 15 minutes. When she wakes up, you start the process of checking on her again. Like the extinction method, it can take a while to work. Experts recommend that you keep a journal of how each night goes and how often you have to check in on your baby so you can visually see the progress.
- Chair method: This method is similar to check and console, but rather than touching or talking to the child when you check in on him, you just sit in a chair in the room so that you will reassure the child with your presence. Each time you go in, you put the chair farther and farther away. Some parents swear by this; other experts are uncomfortable with the message this may be sending the upset child.
- Pick up, put down, and shush-pat: This method is recommended for younger babies and is one of the most hands-on. In this method, the idea is that you stay in the room as the baby falls asleep and provide minimal (but not no) assistance. So, when the baby looks like she’s about to fall asleep, you would lay the baby down in the bed and just rub her and talk to her until she goes to sleep. If she gets a little fussy, just gently “shush” her and help her calm down. If she starts getting really upset, pick her up and hold her until she calms down, and then you can start the process again. You can leave the room once the baby is asleep.
- Bedtime-routine fading: This method involves the routine before bed. Each night, make the routine a little bit shorter, until it is bare minimum. It will make your life a little easier and it helps the child learn how to get to sleep on his own.
- Bedtime-hour fading: In this method, you are moving bedtime earlier each night to a time that works best for your family. Keep a sleep diary to see what is the child’s natural bedtime. For example, you put the baby in bed at 7:30 every night, but she is fussy until 8:00. So her natural bedtime is actually 8:00. You will start doing the routine to have her in bed by 8:00. After a few nights, you move the routine up 15 minutes. If that isn’t a good time for you, you can after a few nights bump it up another 15 minutes. And so on, until you get to the bedtime you want.
Sleep training doesn’t have to be scary, and it certainly doesn’t have to be “cry-it-out.” The important thing is to find a system that works for you and your family, regardless of whatever is popular or whatever your friends are doing. Everyone’s sleep routine is going to look different, and that’s OK. These are just some ideas that might help.
By Bethanie Ryan