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!