It's time to address the elephant in the room: What does sleep training actually mean? If you've watched my free Q&A's on Facebook, follow me on Instagram, or read my blog regularly you've heard me talk a lot about sleep training. Today I am going to lay it all out for you.
First of all, people probably use this term to describe all sorts of sleep strategies. Today I am going to explain what it means for me as a baby sleep consultant. While sleep is my end goal, I will not sacrifice the health, attachment, or well-being of your baby to get you more sleep. There is a right and wrong way to sleep train. I will always err on the side of being careful.
What is Sleep Training?
Sleep training is when the primary attachment figure helps a baby or toddler learn how to fall asleep completely, 100%, on their own. That means no binky, no swaddle, no nursing or bottle feeding to sleep, no rocking to sleep, no holding to sleep. Nothing! The final product means you are able to lay your baby down in his bed, completely awake, and leave the room while your baby puts himself to sleep. Does that not sound like a miracle? It is miraculous, I promise.
Is Sleep Training Necessary
There is no rule that says every parent will sleep train their child at a certain time and in a certain way. Clearly, at some point all children learn to sleep unassisted. Many parents choose to sleep train their baby or toddler so that they will sleep better. When a baby or child knows how to fall asleep unassisted they will also be able to fall back asleep during the night when they wake. This means that parents will not have to help soothe the baby back to sleep. It is normal for babies, toddlers, children, and adults alike to wake multiple times a night. As an adult you may not even realize you wake at night because it is so easy to roll over and fall back asleep. For a baby or child that has not learned how to fall asleep on their own it can be quite frustrating to wake and not know how to fall back asleep without a sleep aide (nursing, etc). As I mentioned above, everyone will eventually be sleep trained. The question is not should I sleep train, but when do I want to help my child to learn to fall asleep on their own.
What Methods are There to Sleep Train?
There a few different methods you can use to help a baby learn to sleep unassisted. The method that we hear about most is Cry It Out (CIO) or Extinction. In this method once the parent has left the room they do not return until morning. On the other hand, we have the No Cry method. For this approach, the parent will gradual reduce the help they give the baby to fall asleep until he is falling asleep on his own. And the in between approach is Gradual Extinction where the parent leaves and checks on the baby in timed intervals. Obviously, this is the short explanation of these methods. When I work with my clients to create a customize sleep plan there are a lot of details I outline for them in each approach to not only help them be successful but to do so with minimal crying no matter which method you choose. In another post I highlight all these methods in more detail and help you choose the right method for your family.
How do I Know Which Method is Best for Me?
No one likes to hear their baby cry. Period. So, it doesn’t make sense to use that as your only criteria when deciding what sleep training method is best for you. I tell my clients to instead think about how patient and consistent they can be and for how long. Extinction is the fastest way to get a child sleep trained, which means it is the quickest way to get you out of the sleep training phase and back to enjoying real life. Spoiler Alert! Extinction also involves the least amount of crying overall. It’s just all jammed packed into a few days. Now if you know you are extremely patient, super consistent, and have oodles of time to devote to sleep training then by all means choose the No Cry method. Many parents find themselves somewhere in the middle and choose a Gradual Extinction method.
When is the Best Time to Sleep Train?
You can start sleep training as early as 4 months (adjusted, calculated from the due date not birth date). I prefer to use a gentle method right at 4 months. Once the child is closet to 5 months CIO is perfectly safe. But a gentle method can still be effective. It is not recommended to start formal sleep training before 4 months. Newborns from 0-4 months have not developed the skills needed to self-soothe and most babies will require your help to fall asleep until around 4 months. That doesn't mean you can't let them fuss for a few minutes and see if they can figure it out. However, formally sleep training before four months is not recommended.
It seems that as babies get older it becomes slightly more difficult for them to sleep train. Older babies (10-14 months) have a harder time letting go of their established routines to fall asleep. And rightfully so, as they have had a longer time to become attached to these routines. Sleep training a baby up to the second year of life is still doable, and a more direct approach probably needs to be implemented. After two years I recommend a slower, more hands on approach to train toddlers.
Are Comfort Items Okay While Sleep Training?
A comfort item is not a necessity when sleep training, and many babies do just fine without one. While not necessary, comfort items can be used while sleep training. Usually a small stuffed animal or lovey (12x12 soft blanket with a small animal attached) is completely appropriate. In fact, I prefer giving my babies a comfort item. I love that I can give my children their comfort item in the car when I need them to sleep and it naturally soothes them and helps them sleep. It also works great when traveling and sleeping in new or different environments. But above this, a comfort item can provide your child with a sense of security and safety as he navigates life, not just sleep. A comfort item can also help ease the anxiety the parent is experiencing while sleep training because the child has something from which to seek comfort. If your child already has a comfort item he appears attached to then it would be a great idea to use that item while sleep training.
Please take note that unless your child can find and reinsert his binky in his mouth without your help, the binky would not make a good comfort item. Even when binkies are used with older babies who can manipulate them, they are still associated with more frequent night wakings. My preference is no binky!
Can I Sleep Train My Swaddled Baby?
If your baby is still being swaddled, and appears to love it, listen up! A prerequisite to sleep training is a baby who is A) old enough to self-soothe (at least 4 months adjusted) and B) the freedom or movement to self-soothe. In order to self-soothe babies need to be able to freely move their arms and their body. You will most definitely want to stop the swaddle before you sleep train. While this could cause some sleep regression initially, your child will recover and sleep even better.
What Should I include in my Baby’s Sleeping Environment?
Your baby’s room should be dark, safe, and include white noise. This is the same environment your baby should continue to have once they are sleep trained in order to help them to continue to sleep the best possible. Darkness signals our brains to make and release melatonin in our bodies. And melatonin tells us when to sleep. If you don’t have blackout curtains use tin foil and painter’s tape. It is inexpensive and damage free! You want to lay your baby down in a crib or pack n play flat on their back, with nothing (except a comfort item) in the crib with them. No bumpers, no mobile. Nothing. You want to include white noise in your baby’s room to help them sleep better and longer. Babies nap during the day and sleep earlier at night so we want to make sure we have some white noise to drown out any sounds. We want the white noise to be loud, boring, and continuous for the entire night. Here's another post with more information on this.
Is it Possible to Sleep Train Multiples?
Not only is it possible, but it is also one of the situations where sleep training is a must! Multiples are hard. Multiples that aren't sleeping are practically impossible (trust me I know!). Sleep training my twins was the only way I was able to survive their sleepless habits. Noise machines and lots of them (a box fan works great in this situation) are must haves to drown out unwanted cries or other noises. Be assured babies and children can learn to sleep through the cries of their siblings. There are some special guidelines to follow with multiples to make it go smoother, but having multiples is all the more reason to sleep train, not avoid it!
Is it Possible to Sleep Train with a Sibling in the Next Room?
You can probably guess what I am going to say. Yes, it is! You might be surprised how your older child learns to sleep through the cries. Noise machines can also be a big help here. If you are extremely worried, or have a rare light sleeper you may consider sending the older sibling away for a week to Grandma's house or to sleep in a tent in the backyard with Dad. There are options. Don't let this deter you!
Can I Sleep Train if My Baby is Teething?
Obviously sleep training is easiest when your baby is not dealing with any 'extra' stuff. But we live in the real world and if you waited for all your stars to line up to sleep train you might never do it. Out of all the possible situations that can make sleep training more difficult, teething is one of my preferred problems. I know some of you are laughing at me, but did you know that there is no research that can support that babies wake more frequently at night when teething. In fact, research actually says the opposite. Babies who are teething tend to sleep more. That's right, their bodies are working hard and when we work hard we sleep hard! If you are seeing more night wakings they are more likely due to over stimulation, overtired, nap deprivation, or abnormal sleep schedules . If you do feel like your baby is in pain, then comfort them and give them what you normally do for the pain and then continue to lay them down awake to help them learn how to fall asleep.
Can I Sleep Train if My Baby is Sick?
This one is a little harder to answer because there are so many variations of a sick baby. Is it possible? Absolutely! I would first send you to your pediatrician to discuss the safety of sleep training with the specific illness your child is dealing with. If you get the green light from your pediatrician then go for it. Often when a child is sick there will be an increase in night wakings, as would be expected. When your child wakes, I would wait 10-15 minutes before checking on them in case they can self-soothe back to sleep. If they don't, go and check on them. You can talk to them, sing to them, pick them up, cuddle, change their diaper, pretty much anything to help. And then just lay them back in their bed awake and allow them to fall asleep on their own.
Is It Possible to Sleep Train and Nurse My Baby When He Wakes at Night?
Yes! This is one of the biggest misconceptions about sleep training. Just because your baby will be falling asleep unassisted at the beginning of the night does not mean you can't feed or assist your baby to sleep during the night. When I create my customized sleep plans I always look at the age of the baby and night time habits in order to make a recommendation specific to your baby's night time sleep needs. The only time I suggest taking feeds away are when too many feeding sessions are present at night and they could create a sleep association or if you are ready to drop nighttime feeds with your pediatrician approval.
What should I ask my pediatrician before I sleep train?
Before sleep training you need to talk with your pediatrician and specifically ask him the following questions: 1. Can I get the green light to sleep train my baby? 2. If my baby rolls unto his tummy should I turn him back over? And if I do need to turn him over how long should I continue to do this? 10 min? 1 hour? 4 hours? 3. How many times do I need to be feeding my baby at night? 4. What is the longest length of time my baby can go without eating? 5. Is it ok to move my baby to his own room? 6. Is it okay to ditch the binky at this point?
Remember that it is not safe to sleep train a baby before they are 16 weeks. It is also a thousand times easier to sleep train a baby who sleeps in their own room. The AAP recommends that a baby stay in the parents’ bedroom until at least 6 months and up to a year, but there is contradicting research (and lots of personal experience) that says baby and parents, both sleep better in separate rooms. It is important for you to get the green light for your specific situation and baby from your pediatrician.
Hopefully this helps clarify a little about sleep training. Still have another question? Email me and I would be happy to answer. Sleep training can be difficult to navigate but it doesn't have to be confusing with my help. By filling out this short form I will contact you for a free 15-minute phone call answering any question you have. We can also discuss my fully customized sleep plans where I walk you through every step of sleep training. Don't do this alone, let's do this together!