You’ve likely experienced the bone-deep exhaustion that accompanies parenthood. After all, babies and toddlers aren’t known for their great sleeping habits.
And if you’re in the thick of it right now, you’re probably desperate to get your little one to sleep for more than a few hours (or minutes!) at a time.
Enter sleep training: the art of teaching your child to fall asleep on his or her own.
But how do you know what method will work for you? And will you have to let your little one cry for hours on end? When should you start?
What is Sleep Training?
Well, you might be surprised to learn that it doesn’t have to involve tons of crying.
“Sleep is a puzzle,” Sarah said. “I think when parents think about sleep training, what comes to mind is essentially letting your baby cry so hard they eventually get tired and fall asleep, but that is definitely not what it is.”
Sarah said she works with parents to get all of the pieces of the sleep puzzle in place, including their environments, routines, and wake windows (the amount of time a baby is awake between sleep periods).
“Sleep training is setting your baby up for success and giving them time and space to learn self-soothing techniques,” Sarah said.
When Should You Start Sleep Training?
Sarah recommends parents refrain from sleep training until their babies are at least 16 weeks old (adjusted age).
Why? Because at 16 weeks …
- A baby’s sleep cycles are more rhythmic
- Baby’s are more aware of their surroundings, which means they are more open to routines.
- Babies can go for longer periods of time between feedings
Is Sleep Training Safe?
Dr. Elizabeth Patrenos, an Alabama-based board-certified pediatrician, said babies are capable of learning how to put themselves to sleep.
“I think sleep training, like most behavioral ‘training,’ works best if you follow your baby’s developmental abilities,” she said. “That said, don’t miss the cues that your baby is capable of learning this skill!”
She recommended parents discuss sleep training with their child’s pediatrician to determine if it’s right for you and your child.
“I would bring it up at the two-week to one-month visit,” Dr. Patrenos said. “Ask, ‘at what ages should my baby be sleeping through the night, and how can I help him or her achieve that milestone?’”
She added that well checks are the best time for these discussions because that’s when a baby’s development is being evaluated and discussed.
Sleep Training and Crying
While sleep training doesn’t have to mean hours upon hours of crying, Sarah said parents should expect a few tears.
“Regardless of the method you choose, there are bound to be some tears,” she said. “A baby who relies on a crutch to fall asleep needs time to learn how to soothe herself. So, if your baby relies on a bottle for sleep and you take it away, there will be tears because no one likes change.”
The Methods of Sleep Training
There are several Sleep Training methods to choose from that range from more direct to more gradual.
“I am careful not to use the term more ‘gentle,’ because the more gradual methods have the potential to be more confusing and cause extra tears,” Sarah said.
Sarah primarily uses four sleep training techniques:
- The Chair Method
- Pick up, Put Down,
- Timed Intervals
Keep reading to learn about each method and if it's right for you and your little one.
The Extinction Method
This method often yields the quickest results.
“Parents choose this method because it is the least confusing to their babies and works the fastest,” Sarah said.
She noted that when parents put the sleep puzzles pieces together, their babies usually sleep through the night in as little as three nights.
How does it work?
“You essentially do your bedtime routine, put the baby in her sleep space, and leave the room until morning,” Sarah said.
She noted, however, that parents should return to the room for age-appropriate night feedings.
“You can watch from your monitor to ensure your baby is safe,” Sarah said. “I always tell my clients that safety is number one. If at any point you feel your little one is in distress, I would never suggest you leave her.”
Unlike the Extinction Method, Timed Intervals allows you to soothe your child at set periods of time.
However, Sarah said this method is a little more confusing to little ones, and it usually takes 1-2 weeks to see results.
On the first night, after your child’s bedtime routine, place her in the crib and leave the room. After 5 minutes, return to the room and soothe your child with words and minimal touch until she is calm and leave the room.
Repeat at intervals of 7 and finally 10 minutes until your child falls asleep.
On night two, repeat the steps above with intervals of 7, 10, and 12 minutes until your child falls asleep.
Sarah said this method sounds great but can come with some pitfalls.
She said it often confuses babies who are used to being soothed to sleep by, for example, a bottle, nursing session, or being rocked to sleep. So, “when you leave the room, brace yourself for a meltdown,” she said.
With this method, consistency is key, so ask yourself: “Can I stick to the intervals in the middle of the night when I’m more likely to give in to exhaustion and do anything to get my baby to sleep?”
Pick Up Put Down
Pick Up Put Down is a more gradual approach to sleep training.
Sarah said to implement this method, use the Timed Intervals method mentioned above, but instead of only soothing your child with words and minimal touch, pick up your child until she stops crying and repeat the process until she falls asleep.
This method can also be very confusing and can take between 2-4 weeks to see results if consistent.
The Chair Method
Of the four methods, The Chair method is the most gradual.
Here’s how it works: Sit in a chair next to your child’s sleep space and remain there until she falls asleep. If she wakes up in the middle of the night, return to the chair.
Every three nights, move your chair farther toward the door until you are outside of the room.
Sarah said this method works great for older toddlers since they are likely to better understand the process.
Is Sleep Training Worth It?
Sarah said that even though sleep training can be a little stressful, it’s worth it.
“I know it doesn’t seem possible, but it is! I promise,” she said. “I am a mama to three children and I’m a kindergarten teacher as well. I can tell you first hand the negative impact that a lack of sleep has on behavior, social skills, and learning.”
She said having all of the pieces to the sleep puzzle in place is crucial. “Without even one piece, you cannot create a full picture,” she said.
To Sum It Up
- Sleep training is the process used to teach babies and toddlers how to fall asleep independently.
- Sleep training is much easier when all pieces of sleep puzzles are put in place.
- Regardless of the method you choose, there are bound to be some tears.
- Sarah generally uses four sleep training methods: Extinction; Timed Intervals; Pick Up, Put Down; and the Chair Method.
You can find more sleep tips on Sarah’s Instagram page.
Tell us: have you ever sleep trained your kids? If so, what tips do you have for someone just getting started? Let us know in the comments!