Sleep training looks different for every family and includes a broad spectrum of techniques, from very gentle methods to cry-it-out (CIO) — in many cases, the latter can provide the fastest results, while gentle methods can take some time.
The purpose of sleep training is to help your baby become comfortable with soothing themself to sleep without relying on nursing, rocking, or a pacifier to fall asleep. But sleep training takes many different forms depending on your preferences and circumstances. While this can be a charged topic, there is no one-size-fits all method.
It’s important to note that while “sleep training” is often used synonymously with CIO, this is an incorrect interpretation. Sleep training does not necessarily mean CIO. If you decide to sleep train your baby, there are a range of methods to try. What works for one baby could be useless or unnecessarily stressful for others — it’s all about finding what works for you!
First, a note about crying
Crying is the way that babies communicate a whole range of emotions — from frustration, to irritation, to distress and pain, and a whole lot more. While we have a variety of ways to communicate with those around us, babies have a limited number of responses and rely heavily on crying.
For this reason, crying isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If a baby is getting frustrated with a new habit or method, it’s normal for them to cry. That said, it can be frustrating or distressing to you when you’re trying to interrupt your little one’s signals and address their needs.
Is sleep training going to happen without tears? Not likely. Even gentle methods involve some tears. When you’re deciding the right method for you, you’ll want to consider how much support you’d like to offer your baby throughout the process.
Sleep training overview
Sleep training isn’t typically recommended until 3-4 months of age — check with your baby’s provider to be sure they’re ready. Once you get the green light, there are a few key points to remember.
Make sure your baby has a safe sleep environment with a firm, flat surface and no blankets, pillows, bumper pads, or soft toys. More information on safe sleep here.
Routine, routine, routine. Around the time you start sleep training, your little one will likely have developed a daily rhythm. Staying consistent will help you both get the sleep you need. Part of your nightly routine can include a long and filling feed, a warm bath, and nighttime book. Make sure to feed your baby at the beginning of their bedtime routine, not at the end. This helps to create separation between feeding and sleeping.
Put your baby down when they are calm but awake. Baby shouldn’t be overly sleepy or they are likely already in the first stage of sleep.
Now, to you options.
The cry-it-out (CIO) method has gradations, the most firm of which is to put your baby down in a safe and comfortable sleep environment and leave with no intent to return until morning. While CIO may work for some parents, it is not the only option for sleep training — there are lots of other methods you might want to try. That said, studies do not show that this method negatively impacts baby’s development.
This method involves you gradually leaving your baby’s sleeping area. Start by laying your baby in their crib as they’re getting drowsy. Then, leave the room for 3 minutes. If your baby cries through this first interval, come back in and comfort them by gently patting and shushing them for no more than a few minutes. Leave the room again, but this time, set a timer for 5 minutes. If the crying continues, repeat the pacification process and then exit the room for 10 minutes. Until your baby falls asleep, make each necessary interval 10 minutes in length.Above all, Dr. Ferber, who invented this method, stresses that crying is a means to an end and that the long-term focus here shouldn’t be tears, but a healthy night’s sleep for the baby. He also suggests leaving babies in a safe and comfortable crib after a bedtime routine for short periods of time as opposed to an indefinite stretch to allow them time to fall asleep on their own. This allows babies to gradually adjust to being left to their own devices at bedtime. Too much solitude too soon may be difficult to handle, and ultimately ineffective. Plus, hearing those wails echoing from the crib is enough to tug at any parent’s heartstrings. Recent studies, including a 2016 study in Pediatrics, find no long-term stress-effects or effects on parent-child bonding linked to this sleep strategy. But every baby and every parent is different.
Pick up/put down
A gentle sleep training method is the Pick Up/Put Down method by Tracy Hogg. PU/PD starts with putting the baby in the crib. If they start fussing, try to calm them while they are still in their crib. If they won’t settle with you there patting, shushing, or rubbing their back or patting their bottom, then you can pick them up. Hold them until they settle down, and then right back to the crib once they are calm, but still awake. If baby fusses on the way back to the crib, lay them down completely before picking them up again. This is a tiring technique and can take a few weeks with a lot of consistency to really work, but many parents like that they can stay with their baby and respond to every cry. Often, older babies will get more frustrated with the frequent picking up and some babies do much better without parents offering a lot of comfort.
What’s right for you?
Parenting styles, including sleep routines, are going to look different from family to family and that’s okay. Some families choose not to sleep train their little ones at all — it’s up to you to decide what makes the most sense for you.
And all babies are different too! You know your little one best, so you have to do what makes the most sense for them and for you. When it comes to different parenting methods, there’s no rule that says you have to take an all or nothing approach when it comes to bedtime crying fits. Bedtime can be stressful, especially if your child is having a hard time getting to sleep, so if you have any questions about bedtime and your baby, be sure to speak with their healthcare provider for guidance.
Reviewed by the Ovia Health Clinical Team
- Mayo Clinic Staff. “Helping baby sleep through the night.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic. September 2, 2020. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/in-depth/baby-sleep/art-20045014.
- Michael Gradisar, Kate Jackson, Nicola J. Spurrier, Joyce Gibson, Justine Whitham, Anne Sved Williams, Robyn Dolby, David J. Kennaway. “Behavioral Interventions for Infant Sleep Problems: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Pediatrics. May 2016. e20151486; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2015-1486.