Sleep training is the process of teaching a baby or toddler to settle down to sleep, to stay asleep for longer periods and to settle himself back to sleep when he wakes at night.
There are different methods of achieving these aims and they vary in how gentle or firm they are. The crucial question is whether you’re prepared to leave a baby to cry, and for how long.
In the past, it wasn’t unusual for a parent to close the door on a weeping infant and let him cry himself to sleep. While sleep training often involves a bit of crying, these days no expert will suggest leaving a hysterical baby to cry himself to sleep –and very few modern parents would do it.
Sleep training can be broadly categorised into two types of programmes:
The ‘no-cry’ approach
Dr William Sears was a forerunner of advocating a nurturing approach in line with attachment parenting.
Elizabeth Pantley’s book, The No-Cry Sleep Solution, presents a gradual approach to sleep training, where parents respond immediately to comfort the crying baby.
Working with your baby’s own rhythms and gently teaching him to fall asleep without the breast or bottle, can lead to good sleeping habits.
The ‘controlled-crying approach’
This approach – also known as ‘cry-it-out’ – allows for short periods of crying, giving the baby the opportunity to settle himself to sleep without being rocked or falling asleep on the breast or bottle.
William Ferber, paediatrician and author of Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, is the best-known proponent of this method. He recommends a relaxing bedtime routine, after which the child is put to bed sleepy but awake. Parents are advised to leave the baby in his cot, even if he cries. This allows him to learn self-soothing andput himself to sleep.
Different experts have different methods. Often, the method involves gradually increasing the amount of time the baby’s left to cry. So you might come back to check on your baby after two minutes the first time, then after five minutes and then after 10 minutes.
Others encourage you to comfort the child in his cot, stroking or talking soothingly to him, without taking him out.
No matter which method is used, the idea is for the parent to impose clear boundaries.
When can I start?
Consider your baby’s age and understand what’s an age-appropriate approach. “It’s important that parents have realistic expectations of their baby’s sleep,” says Erica Neser, author of Sleeping Guide for Babies and Toddlers, “because sleeping through is a developmental milestone”.
The first 3 months
This is a significant time in your baby’s sleep life, because you can gently encourage a good sleep routine right from the start. Hopefully, you’ll avoid having to fix problems in the future.
It’s not recommended that you impose a sleep- training programme on a very young baby. Your newborn needs to feed every couple of hours and this is normal and necessary. Respond promptly to your baby’s cries and feed him when he wakes up.
At around six weeks, some babies show signs of settling into a routine naturally, and may start to sleep for periods of four hours or more during the night. Parents can work with these natural rhythms to start establishing a regular routine. The longest stretch of sleep will be from early evening to the middle of the night.
4 to 6 months
At four months, your baby will have a more predictable nap schedule and will probably have dropped at least one ofthe night-time feeds.
Usually, parents can consider sleep training between four and six months. Don’t consider sleep training until you’re absolutely sure he’s not genuinely hungry at night.
What you should know
- Some children naturally sleep better than others.
- Don’t impose methods before considering your child and his response.
- What works for one child might not work for another.
- Rule out any medical condition before starting.
- Both parents must be on board to avoid sending mixed signals.
It’s not just about the night
Parents need a holistic approach to a baby’s day and night routine. “Sleep training is just one piece of the puzzle. All the pieces – awake time, day naps, feeding – need to be addressed before sleep training can be implemented. The success of a baby’s night is often determined by how successful the baby’s day has been. It’s critical the baby is on an age-appropriate daytime routine,” says Flint.
Sleep trainers’ top tips
- Parents should take turns putting the baby down.
- Provide a dummy or blanket as a sleep object.
- Produce these only at sleep times.