Considering sleep training your baby? Big step!
I wanted to add a little bit about what I mean by the phrase ‘sleep training’. For me, it’s a catch all term that covers a range of different approaches and methods for working on your little one’s sleep. Now, that may be lengthening naps, learning to fall asleep independently, reducing night wakes, a later morning rise time… you get it. It’s different for each family. Also, how each family gets to their ‘goal’ is different too.
Unfortunately the phrase ‘sleep training’ has become synonymous with just one method. The cry it out method. From my perspective, the cry it out method is a type of sleep training. It is not all sleep training! Sleep training methods are wonderfully diverse and if the cry it out method doesn’t feel right for you thats OK! There’s absolutely a better fit for a good night’s rest and better sleep!
Table of Contents
Can I sleep train a newborn?
For the first few months of life (aka the fourth trimester) your newborn will have sleep patterns that are highly variable. Most babies have naps that are both hours long and just 10 minutes. Flipped days and nights (day-night confusion) and multiple night feedings are very normal.
At this point, it is not possible to set clear ‘goals’ for baby sleep. However, you can start to work on healthy sleep habits and make the sleep environment optimal for your baby to get some good restful sleep.
You may also want to work on small things such as getting your baby used to baby’s crib or their own sleep space, playing games in the day in there so it feels familiar for them. Your goals may also be to see if they can fall asleep beside you, rather than on you.
Whilst you may want your baby to sleep longer stretches at night, goals for newborn baby sleep training are SMALL. Things that work one day, may not again then next. That’s totally normal! Try and work on recognising your baby’s sleep cues at this point, as we want to help them fall asleep before they get overtired and fussy.
When Is Your Baby Ready For Sleep Training?
Some families feel that their days become a little clearer and less foggy by the 4-5 month mark. Babies have usually dropped to 3 or 4 naps and are spending longer periods awake. Typically babies have passed through the four month regression and have a more established (and adult-like) sleep cycle.
For some families they may want to start sleep training to see if they can start to improve their baby’s sleep.
Caution: the 4-6 month mark is still highly variable though. It’s normal for naps to still be short in length (your baby may be a serial cat-napper), they can still be very fussy in the evenings and require lots of support when falling asleep. It’s also normal for your baby to still be waking in the middle of the night for feedings.
At this age we’d still be working on establishing good sleep habits including baby’s bedtime routine.
Common sleep training methods are less applicable at this stage, due to the variability in sleep, but some families are now considering working with a more supportive and hands-on sleep training strategy.
Which sleep training method is best for 6 month olds and older babies?
By the time your baby is 6 months of age they’re a little bigger and stronger and typically able to go for longer periods at night without feeding.
It’s a bit more realistic at this point for families to begin to work on improving sleep and most families have discussed sleep training by this point!
Therefore they may want to begin sleep training at some point 6 months onwards. It is more realistic for your child to begin to learn to sleep independently from this age and self soothe.
The sleep training technique each family chooses is different.
Choosing a Sleep Training Method That Works for Your Family: Picking the right sleep training method
Essentially ALL sleep training techniques end with the same goal. For your baby or child to fall asleep happily and independently after a lovely bedtime routine.
If they self soothe they can fall asleep in the same environment that they will wake in the night. Their bodies won’t sense any big changes (e.g. that the parent has gone) and if all their other needs have been met (e.g. their nappy doesn’t need a change or they’re not hungry) then they’ll be able to fall back to sleep by themselves (aka self-soothe).
After they’ve learnt both falling asleep (settling) and resettling at night, then you can start seeing the come back of a good night’s sleep!
Gradual sleep training (or ‘gentle’ techniques) mean you are a little less hands on, bit by bit, as your baby gradually learns to fall asleep in new ways. The more skills they learn, the more you’re then able to do less and eventually leave the room!
‘Out of room’ methods, skip some of the steps above. You’d spend increasing periods of time away from your baby’s sleep space, allowing them more opportunities to fall asleep independently without your assistance. Typically these methods involved timed intervals where you’d go back in the room to calm or reassure until your baby falls asleep.
Extinction sleep training is different. This approach involves leaving your baby and not returning until morning.
I go through the techniques in more detail below, however you need to choose the approach that feels right for your parenting style and your baby’s temperament. Don’t be led by other peoples opinions. You need to be confident with your approach. We also need to be mindful that baby’s cry. It’s likely that this process will involve tears, even with the slow gentle methods. Your ability to emotionally manage your hearing your baby cry is also a very personal thing.
If you’re confident in your approach then you will be consistent. It’s the consistency that makes change happen as new things start to feel familiar as your baby learns to self soothe and falls asleep.
Create A Consistent Bedtime Routine
Transition between the hustle and bustle of daytime and calming down and removing the stimulation of life is really important. Don’t overlook the steps of a peaceful wind-down ritual.
It’s a great time to bond with your baby as well as set up some expectations to help your baby learn what happens next! A peaceful transition will help your baby fall asleep faster.
The bedtime routine is as unique as each individual family! Typically a bedtime routine will involve bath, change, milk, stories, cuddles and bed.
For toddlers who delay during the bedtime routine I’ve created a series of flashcards to help with a visual reference to each step and help the transition from day to night.
You can download my bedtime routine flashcards here.
Sleep Training Methods – From Gentle Sleep Coaching to Cry-It-Out
Is there a No-Tears Method?
There is a book on using a no-tears method. HOWEVER, babies cry. Fundamentally it is how they communicate. It’s never nice to hear your baby crying, but they’re just trying to tell you something. Perhaps it’s that they feel uncomfortable, that they’re hungry, or everything’s just a bit overwhelming for them.
As parents, we get quite good at distinguishing between our baby’s cries. We know that if they’re crying it doesn’t necessarily indicate distress.
As humans, we tend to struggle with change! Things that feel unfamiliar to us can take a while to get used to. Your baby may cry as they go through a period of learning something new. It’s never nice for both you and your baby, but we can usually figure it out.
You need to mentally tick off everything. Is the nappy dirty? Does their skin feel hot? Are they uncomfortable? Are they hungry? If the answer to these things are no, then they’re probably crying because they’d quite like you to do the same thing they’ve always been used to. This feels familiar and they’d like to go back to it.
So, essentially, it’s likely your baby will cry. Even with very gradual approaches. However crying as a response to change feeling unfamiliar isn’t the same thing as leaving your baby in acute distress.
Put Your Baby To Bed While They’re Drowsy but Awake.
Argh. Drowsy but awake!!! How many times have you heard sleep train=drowsy but awake?! This involves putting your baby down in their sleep space as they’re getting sleepy in your arms, but before they completely fall asleep.
This is marmite. Some babies will, some won’t. If I was the baby and I was just drifting off to sleep and then I was put down I’d be upset too! If it doesn’t bother your baby and baby sleeps well then great! For those babies, each night, put them down a little more awake until you can pop them down calm and awake.
If your baby cries and baby wakes immediately on being placed in their crib then you may want to consider another method where you settle them in a position where they’re already lying down.
Pick Up, Put Down Method
We pop them down in their sleep space and stay by their side shushing. If they get really upset then you’d pick them up to calm. And repeat!
This method works a dream for some of the families I work with. For others though it can be quite a lot of up, down, up, down and overload. Eventually your baby falls asleep in a position where they’re lying down in their sleep space.
Each night this should get a little easier as it feels more familiar and baby learns to self soothe. You can then be less hands on and start to take steps back (and out of the room) as they are placed down and self soothe, falling asleep independently.
Ferber Method (Also Known As Check And Console)
The Ferber method is a popular out of room method. You’d pop baby down in baby’s room say night night and leave. You’d then wait outside the room for specific intervals. You’d respond after hearing baby cry for a certain period of time.
You would go into the room, calm or console and then leave baby to learn to self soothe again.
The intervals progressively get longer to allow baby more lime to learn the skills of self soothing. With this approach it’s likely you will hear your child cry for long periods and for some, letting baby cry for this long doesn’t feel comfortable.
For families where it feels a good fit, (e.g. where they have babies or toddlers who are typically quite stimulated or distracted by a parent in the room and just want to play) they will see improvements in the first week and for some, just a few days.
Gradual Withdrawal (Chair Method)
Also known as the sleep lady shuffle. This chair method involves sitting by the cot or bed for the first couple of nights and then each night moving a little further away. This is a great technique for kiddies who needed a parents presence to fall asleep or are currently going through a period of separation anxiety.
For middle of the night wakings the parent would return to where they were sat at bedtime that night. Over the next few weeks the child learns to fall asleep with less parental presence and proximity.
The “Camping Out” approach, adds another step to this, having a camp bed in your child’s bedroom for the first days of nighttime sleep training. Helpful for families who have been long-term co-sleepers and are transiting a child to their own room.
Bedtime fading method
For some (typically toddlers), they may have trouble falling asleep. It’s not necessarily that they need to learn to self soothe, more that we need to work on their circadian rhythm and find a more optimal time that they’re tired enough to fall asleep.
The bedtime fading method starts with a later bedtime routine, in the hope that the child will fall asleep quicker (as they’re more tired). Gradually over the next few nights, it will be brought earlier.
Helpful Tips for Baby Sleep Training
Q. How long does sleep training take?
How long is a piece of string?! Seriously! We can make super slow, gentle changes and go over a number of weeks. Or some families may feel ok with leaving the room and may see some changes to sleep patterns in a few days.
It’s also down to parental consistency and your baby’s temperament. Daytime sleep, illness, regressions, sleep environment and lots of other factors can affect you baby’s ability to self soothe and disrupt sleep training.
I do recommend tracking babies sleep. We’re looking for ‘trends’ in the right direction over a number of days as there are always one-off bad nights that we need to ignore.
Q. When to Start Baby Sleep Training
Considering starting sleep training? As I mentioned earlier, if your baby is young then you can start slow, working on positive sleep habits, a great bedtime routine and see everything as an opportunity to practice!
For families who have sleep training goals they’d like to work towards then more ‘structured’ sleep training usually takes place 6 months onwards.
Q. Should I hire a sleep coach or sleep consultant to help with sleep training? When to Call In The Experts?
You may want to consider talking to a certified sleep consultant if you’re unsure whether your sleep goals are age-appropriate, if you feel you’ve ‘tried everything’ or you are uncertain which sleep training methods feel right for your family.
It’s often helpful to have a coach that will support you through this process as there will be ups and downs. The expert can provide a wealth of sleep training tips that will help.
The effects of sleep deprivation can also mean families are really struggling and working alongside an expert in this field can make a difficult process easier.
Q. What to do if sleep training your baby is not working?
First I’d look at whether your expectations are age appropriate. Also, how much time have you given the process? Change takes time. The biggest thing here though is consistency. Have you been truly consistent with your approach?
If you feel you’ve worked on all of these things then get in touch and I can help.
Q. When is it too late to start sleep training?
It’s not! However, methods that work well may not work so well with a stubborn toddler! Also toddlers in ‘big beds’ who don’t yet have the impulse control not to get out can present further challenges.
Looking at each situation holistically can mean there is an approach for everyone.
(Please note the advice and guidance I give is for children up to the age of 5 years)
Q. Is sleep training safe?
Yes! On the whole, guidance I give is gradual and gentle and we help support our child through change. I always work with in-room methods or check-ins to check on a child and their safety (for this reason I don’t work with or recommend the extinction method).
For some children, there may be medical reasons why sleep training wouldn’t be safe. For example you shouldn’t look to sleep train a child who still has feeding difficulties or a low weight. Also children shouldn’t snore. This can be a sign you need to see your doctor or a specialist in sleep medicine.
Please only consider sleep training methods if your child is meeting all their physical and developmental milestones and is fit and well.
Please also ensure your sleep space is safe and in line with NHS guidelines. The Lullaby Trust have great advice!
Get in touch!
Please, don’t struggle! I’m here to help. If you’d like some support through this process or feel overwhelmed by the choices available and what’s right for your family, then let’s chat!