Baby Sleep Training Methods — Ultimate Guide
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As any new parent will attest, baby sleep training is no easy feat. And what makes it even trickier is the fact that no two babies are exactly the same: there is no one-size-fits-all method.
Note: The articles presented on the Sleepopolis blog are for informational purposes only. This content is not meant to be medical in nature, nor should it take the place of qualified medical advice for you or your child. Please consult with your child’s healthcare professional before undertaking any new sleep training methods or any new sleep hygiene practices for your child.
The Cry It Out Method
Many people misunderstand this method as simply leaving a baby to cry until it falls asleep. But actually, the cry it out method refers to allowing a specified amount of time (usually fairly short) for the baby to cry before offering some form of comfort. It stems from the idea that at least some crying is an inevitable part of sleep training, and that trying to fight it will not actually help sleep train a baby.
The cry it out method aims to allow you to allow your baby to master falling asleep on their own. If a baby becomes used to being rocked and cuddled to sleep, if they wake in the night they will require that same level of comfort and intimacy in order to fall asleep again. Their crying is seen not as an indicator that something is wrong, but as a call to the parent to help them fall asleep again. The problem is, the natural sleep cycle means that everyone wakes up naturally a few times during the night, so the crying will be frequent too.
Although the cry it out method can be traumatic for parents, the theory is that a short period of pain will pay dividends in the long run. The baby should be able to fall back to sleep alone, and the parents should get a restful night’s sleep.
The cry it out method can be traced back to the book The Care and Feeding of Children written by Dr. Emmett Holt in 1895, but was widely popularized by Dr. Richard Ferber – so much so that the method is sometimes called Ferberization. The method as it’s known today was introduced in his book Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, first published in 1985.
How To Implement
It’s important to only begin the cry it out method when your baby is physically and emotionally ready to be left alone safely. There is no set time for this, as all babies are different, but it’s usually between four and six months.
Put the baby into to crib while they’re tired but still awake. Leave the room for around three minutes, allowing the baby to cry. After three minutes, you can go back in to talk soothingly to and pat the baby – but don’t pick them up.
The next interval should be a little longer – around five minutes – and every interval after these first two around ten. It’s important to only pat the baby, rather than picking them up, and to leave the room while the baby is still awake each time. Otherwise they could substitute the need to be rocked to sleep with the need to be patted to sleep, and nothing will have really been achieved.
If your child wakes again later, follow this three, five, ten routine. Gradually reduce your night time visits to the baby. In most cases the baby will be falling asleep on their own within the first week. If the baby is very resistant, it’s possible that it’s too early to implement the cry it out method. In this case, you’re advised to wait a couple of weeks and try again.
Tips For The Cry It Out Method
While the cry it out method can be difficult and even traumatic, there are ways to make the process easier, both on the parent and the child. Sticking to a sleep routine and schedule, emotionally supporting your partner and not giving up are key things to ensure the cry it out method’s success.
Again, it’s always best to talk to your child’s healthcare professional before undertaking any of these methods and if any questions arrive during.
- Develop A Routine: Try to do a similar thing each night to indicate to the child that bedtime is approaching, such as a short story, a bath or a lullaby.
- Emotionally Prepare: Leaving your baby to cry, even for a very short time, can be extremely challenging. You may even feel like you’re fighting your instincts. However, try to remember that unless you stick to the plan, you’re only hurting the child’s chances of sleeping through. If you’re really struggling during the waiting periods, try to distract yourself by going to a different part of your home, reading or listening to music, rather than just standing outside your baby’s bedroom door.
- Form A Solid Unit: If you’re part of a two parent household, it’s really important to discuss your plan and agree the strategy with each other. The first few nights may be emotionally wrought, so supporting each other is essential. On a practical note, it’s a good idea to implement this plan when both are around and no guests are expected to allow maximum focus.
- Stick With It: It’s absolutely essential to be consistent when implementing the cry it out method. If your baby is crying in the middle of the night, it’ll be difficult to avoid the urge to pick them up for a cuddle. But if you do, all your hard work will be undone and you’ll have to start from scratch again.
- Get Napping Under Control: Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule can help your child know when it’s time to sleep. Allow naps at the same time each day in order to establish a routine.
Controversy Of The Cry It Out Method
Some believe that when a baby is left to cry by parents, they will lose trust in them. A baby may feel less safe and less comforted in the world. Some parents find it excruciating to leave their child distressed. However, advocates of the method say that if a child feels adequate love and support by day, the night time ritual will not affect their relationship with and perception of their parents.
The No Tears Method
The no tears method was established in response to the cry it out method, for families for whom the cry it out method hadn’t worked. It asserts that night time bonding between a parent and child is essential, particularly in terms of quickly responding to a baby’s need for comfort.
Some believe that the cry it out method can attach negative and traumatic implications to bed time, and these connections can last into adulthood.
Tips For The No Tears Method
Although it may seem like an easier choice, it’s important to do the no tears method properly, in order to help you baby sleep well now and in their future. Knowing what counts as crying, being consistent with the soothing you provide, and keeping a routine can really help.
- Establish A Nap And Sleep Schedule: Keeping naps and bedtime at the same time of day helps establish a routine for the baby. Try to have a few steps that signal bedtime to your baby, such as a bath, a story or a song.
- Learn Your Baby’s Needs: Try to tailor the bedroom atmosphere to what your baby responds best to. Some prefer darkness, some soft light. By taking away the more “actual” reasons for restlessness, you’ll be better able to soothe them to sleep.
- Aim For An Earlier Bedtime: Don’t assume that if you keep your baby up longer, they’ll be more tired and thus find it easier to fall asleep. The opposite may actually be true, as overtired babies can be extremely fussy and grumpy.
- Distinguish Crying: Try to only go in when the baby is actually crying, rather than any small nighttime noise. Some parents wait outside the room for up to a minute to establish whether the baby is crying enough to warrant entry.
- Choose Your Words: Try to have a consistent phrase you say to your child when you go in to soothe them. They will begin to associate this phrase with falling asleep, and begin to drop off easier.
Controversy Of The No Tears Method
Most criticism of the no tears method focuses on doing away with the idea that a baby being left alone to cry for short period and with regular check ins is traumatic or damaging for a baby. Some say that the cry it out method will actually lead to a better rested and thus happier baby. The no tears method can also cause a baby to become overly dependent on their parents and struggle with falling asleep in the future.
The Fading Method
This method is a gentler, more gradual version of the cry it out method. It is seen as a middle road between the cry it out and no tears methods. In this method, parents gradually diminish (or “fade”) their role in soothing their baby to sleep. The idea is to slowly coach the baby into falling asleep on their own. Advocates say it promotes attachment without reliance.
How To Implement
There are two different methods to the fading method – camping out, and timed check ins. Camping out means the parents stays in the room with the baby, but only pats and speaks to them rather than picking them up. Every few nights, the parent moves further away until they can leave the room. For timed check ins, a parent may return to the room every five or so minutes, but it’s recommended they only offer verbal (rather than physical) reassurance. It differs from the cry it out method in that it doesn’t recommend leaving longer intervals between checks.
Tips For The Fading Method
Properly implementing the fading method can be a tricky balancing act. It can be difficult to know when to intervene and when to allow you baby to have an opportunity to self-soothe. A good sleep and nap schedule, lots of patience and sticking with it are all key to the fading method’s success.
- Pick An Early Bedtime: As previously stated, overtired babies can find it much harder to fall asleep, and be much more difficult on parents.
- Have A Routine: Signaling to a baby that bedtimes is coming can help them get into the right mindset.
- Avoid Mollycoddling: Allow your baby some time to settle rather than fussing over them. Pause and think before rushing in to help.
- Offer A Soothing Alternative: If your baby is older than one year (because of the risk of SIDS), you can give them a small blanket or stuffed animal as a comfort object.
- Expect Some Resistance: If a baby is used to constant attention, the transition can be tricky for them. They’ll probably cry for the first few nights – but over tie this will reduce as they learn to self-soothe.
- Be Consistent: If you do end up picking up and rocking your crying baby, you’ll be back to square one and have to start all over again. Try to stick with it for at least a week, and you should see improvement.
There is no one-size-fits-all method when it comes to baby sleep training, and no one method is necessarily easier than the other. Choosing what works for you can take time, and lots of trial and error. There are benefits and drawbacks to each method, particularly because each family and each baby is so different. But by finding the right method and sticking to it, you’ll ensure a better night’s sleep – both now, and in the future. And doing so is, again, best done with the advice of your child’s medical professional.