Sleep Training is helping your baby learn how to fall asleep and stay asleep independently. Simpler than you thought, right?
There’s an awful lot of information on how to sleep train out there, leaving most parents confused, frustrated, and still wondering what sleep training is and how to do it. In this article, we’ve rounded up all the facts from real moms and professional sleep consultants on what sleep training is, how to do it, and how to decide if it’s right for you.
First, let us introduce you to Melissa, mom of 6 month old Theo (@mohrlivingmama on Instagram). After struggling with sleep training, Melissa offered to share her personal story and best tips for other moms thinking of giving sleep training a try. Since it's always most helpful to hear from a mom who's been there, throughout our Sleep Training Guide Melissa will be sharing what worked for her and her son during sleep training.
What is sleep training?
It might be strange to think of sleeping as a skill that does not come naturally. As a new parent, you’re probably so exhausted that you pass out as soon as your head hits the pillow. Your baby, however, doesn’t have this same ability yet. Although they spend a lot of time sleeping, they need to learn when to sleep (day vs. night) and how to sleep. Until they do, they need your assistance, which is why you (as you should) help soothe them to sleep at bedtime and comfort them when they wake in the middle of the night. Sleep training is teaching your baby how to sleep without any help from you - just like you’re able to fall asleep without anyone there to help you do it.
FROM THE EXPERTS
“Everybody with a baby has been sleep training since the minute the baby arrived on the scene. Learning to sleep is a skill that we teach with swaddles, pacifiers, swings, nursing, white noise, consistency, and bedtime routines. All of these, collectively, constitute sleep training."- Alexis, Precious Little Sleep
If you google “what is sleep training?” you’ll find the following definition:
“The process of training young children to fall asleep on their own, typically by means of techniques in which the child is left to cry without being comforted, either for gradually increasing periods of time or until they fall asleep.”
It’s definitions like this that have given the general term “sleep training” a bit of a bad rep. There are certain methods of sleep training, such as “Cry-It-Out” or the Ferber method, that might make some parents wearisome of sleep training as a whole. However, sleep training does not necessarily equal cry it out. There are many different sleep training methods and practices behind sleep training, including gentle sleep training—the most important part of sleep training is finding the method that works best for you and your baby!
Sleep training looks different for every family based on their needs and what they are comfortable with. So before we go any further, let’s establish what sleep training is NOT:
Sleep training is NOT "Cry It Out" if you don't want it to be
Sleep training is NOT neglecting your baby
Sleep training is NOT denying your baby food when they are hungry at night
Sleep training is NOT about getting your baby on the schedule that’s best for you
Alternatively, look at the term sleep training like this: sleep training is giving my baby the tools and skills they need to help them sleep better on their own in a way that me and my family are comfortable with.
When Should I Start Sleep Training?
“When should I start sleep training?” is almost a trick question. There's no one "sleep training age" — the answer will be different for every baby! Plus, there’s a different question you should be asking first: How do I know if I’m ready for sleep training?
That’s right! Your baby of course needs to be ready - but before they are, YOU need to be ready too. Sleep training requires a commitment from parents. You’ll also want to be sure you’re logistically ready for sleep training, as it’s best to start when you don’t have anything that might disrupt the training coming in the near future, such as a vacation or trip.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF BEFORE SLEEP TRAINING:
1. What does my schedule look like for the next few weeks? Any events, trips, etc. that might disrupt sleep training?
Answering these questions will require that you do your research and communicate with your partner or anyone living in your home. We’ll talk more about how to prepare for sleep training later on. But keep these questions in mind while you begin your research on sleep training.
Once you’ve decided that you’re ready for sleep training, you’ll need to determine if your baby is ready too. First, get clearance from their pediatrician to rule out any other health or medical factors that could be playing a role in your child’s sleep.
FROM THE EXPERTS
“I always say bedtime and nap routines can start from day 1. A child is never too young to learn healthy sleep habits and routines! But to get a baby sleeping through the night there are a few things I check. The baby should be at least 15 lbs, no medical concerns, and on a healthy growth curve approved by their pediatrician. If all these points are met, then I'm ready to start getting that little one sleeping through the night!"- Rachel Turner, Hello Sleep
Next, consider their age. Most babies are not ready for “formal” sleep training until 4 to 5 months old. However, setting up healthy sleep habits can start from birth. Establishing bedtime routines, putting your baby down drowsy but awake, and other techniques can lay the foundation for sleep training.
The first time around, Melissa didn’t have much success sleep training Theo - he just wasn’t ready yet! Here’s how she knew when it was time to try again:
As your baby gets older their sleep cycle will start to change (which is the main reason behind the 4 month sleep regression) often sending parents searching for sleep training solutions. Before this point, your goal should be to teach them good sleep habits.
AGES & STAGES OF SLEEP TRAINING
Is it ever too late to sleep train?
If your baby is past the 6 month mark, you might be asking “is it too late to sleep train my child?” Many parents wait to sleep train hoping that their child will just grow out of being a “bad” sleeper. Luckily, sleep training has no expiration date and can be done with babies at any age - even into toddlerhood!
How do I know if my baby needs sleep training?
Parents often wonder how to know if your child needs sleep training or if their sleep habits are just something they’ll grow out of. If your baby is consistently cranky and overtired, it's probably time to look into helping them become a better sleeper. And as Melissa noted, she started sleep training the second time around because she could tell her son was just as frustrated as she was about not sleeping!
Healthy sleep is so important for your baby AND you! If your baby isn’t sleeping, chances are you aren’t either. Sleep deprivation in children has been linked to obesity, behavioral problems, learning issues, and more later on in life. Sleep deprivation in adults can lead to similar issues, and has even been shown to play a role in Postpartum Anxiety and even depression in parents. Teaching and establishing healthy sleep habits right from the start will make sleep training easier and, more importantly, help keep you and your baby well-rested!
How do I prepare for sleep training?
There are a number of ways you can prepare yourself and your baby for sleep training, but the most important step in your preparation is: research.
Do your research! There is a lot of information about there about sleep training, and much of it is controversial or contradicting. However, just like making any important decision, your choice to sleep train (or not sleep train) should be informed by your own reading, research, and inferences. Furthermore, there are many different methods of sleep training (which we’ll cover in this article as well) and you’ll need to decide which method is right for you.
As we previously mentioned, introducing healthy sleep habits and routines as early as possible will help significantly during sleep training. If you haven’t already, try to establish a bedtime routine before you start sleep training baby — this will encourage healthy baby sleep patterns. This should be a series of soothing activities that help to calm your baby and prepare them for sleep - things like swaddling, bathing, and rocking usually work well, but every family’s routine will look different.
Melissa incorporated the Zen Sack into her bedtime routine with Theo because the gently weighted center of the Zen Sack helps to calm babies and aids in teaching them to self soothe- which is what sleep training is all about! The gently weighted center actually mimics your touch offering comfort and security to your baby, even when you’re not there. The extra bit of pressure from the Zen Sack has been shown to help babies feel calm and fall back to sleep easier...super helpful for starting sleep training!
The Zen Sack can help your baby learn to self soothe while sleep training!
Lastly, make sure you have discussed sleep training thoroughly with your partner and clear your schedule for the next 2 to 4 weeks. Sleep training takes time, patience, and consistency. You’ll want to be sure nothing is going to disturb your sleep training schedule and that you and your partner are fully devoted to sticking with the plan!
How to sleep train & sleep training methods
How Do I Pick the Right Method for Me and My Baby?
One of the most important aspects of sleep training is finding the method that works best for you. Ultimately, YOU are the only one that knows what your (and your baby’s) tolerance for crying is. If a method doesn’t feel right or sounds too “intense” for you, then don’t try it. Start with a gentle plan that you’re comfortable with.
Keep in mind, you and your partner might have different comfort levels and tolerances. It’s best to start small and, if needed, move to a less gentle method so you can learn what you’re comfortable with and what just isn’t going to work for you and your family.
Ultimately, the best method for you and your family is going to be the one that you can alter to meet your needs and comfort levels. Melissa points out that although she chose a particular sleep training program, she made it work for her.
There are many different sleep training methods to choose from, but the most common methods are one of or a variation of one the five we've explained below. You might find that one of these methods sounds like it would be a perfect match for you, OR you might find aspects from each plan that you like. Just like Melissa said, don't feel like you need to stick to a certain method 100%. Make the plan work for you!
The Pick-Up-Put-Down method is almost self explanatory. You simply pick up your baby when they are fussing and comfort him until he is calm and drowsy, then put him back in the crib, repeating until he is asleep. This is an extremely gentle method and doesn’t work for all babies, but it may be a good place to start if you’re hesitant about sleep training in general.
The Chair method is a great method if you’re not comfortable leaving your baby unattended for any period of time. You begin with your normal bedtime routine and place your baby in the crib drowsy but awake. Then sit on a chair right next to the crib until they fall asleep. You shouldn’t console or help your baby fall asleep - the goal is just to reassure them that you’re there will them. Each night, move the chair a little farther away from the crib until you are outside of the room, and no longer need the chair at all. This tactic is helpful for babies with separation anxiety, but can take weeks to accomplish. Additionally, some parents find it difficult to be in the room with their baby without being able to comfort them.
The general idea with fading sleep training is you very gradually get your baby to self-soothe. Essentially, this method requires you to wean your baby off of the ways you help them fall asleep. For example, if you rock your baby until they fall asleep, gradually decrease the amount of time you spend rocking them each night until they only need a few minutes of rocking before falling asleep on their own. This method requires more patience and time than a less gentle method like Ferberization or Cry-It-Out (CIO), but also involve less crying.
The Ferber Method is an example of a “controlled crying” technique and uses gradually increasing timed check-ins to wean your child from sleep associations and help them learn to fall asleep without you. For example, on the first night of Ferberization you would put your baby to bed drowsy, but awake. If they start to cry or fuss, you’d wait 3-5 minutes before going in. If he isn’t able to soothe himself, then you’d go in and calm him down after the 3 minutes but leave the room while he’s still awake. The next time, you’d wait 5-7 minutes before going in to soothe him.
On day 2, you would increase the amount of time between check-ins by a couple minutes. On day 3 you increase by another few minutes, and so on. The sample schedule below is an example of a fast-paced plan. Controlled crying methods like the Ferber Method can be adjusted based on your needs and comfort level.
Day 1 - 3 minutes (1st check in); 5 minutes (2nd check in); 10 minutes (3rd check in); 10 minutes (any remaining check ins)
Day 2 - 5 minutes; 10 minutes; 12 minutes; 12 minutes
Day 3 - 10 minutes; 12 minutes; 15 minutes; 15 minutes
Day 4 - 12 minutes; 15 minutes; 17 minutes; 17 minutes
Day 5 - 15 minutes; 17 minutes; 20 minutes; 20 minutes
The Cry-It-Out Method is considered an “extinction” method of sleep training. It follows similar rules as the Ferber Method, except baby is left completely alone to fall asleep. Once you put him down, this method requires you to leave them alone - even if they are crying or fussing - with no time limit.
Cry It Out is the most controversial method of sleep training. It is not for everyone, which is completely okay! There are many other methods of effective sleep training.
You may have also heard of the "sleep sense" (Melissa mentions in the video above) or the "sleep lady shuffle." These are simply different sleep training programs, as opposed to a single method. However, they usually incorporate or work from the same methods we covered above.
While researching the different sleep training methods to decide which one is right for you, also remember that every baby and every family is different. What one mom swears by, another mom swears off. You will see the most success from sleep training if you use your intuition to pick a method that you know you and your baby will be comfortable with.
How can I make sure sleep training successful?
Sleep training will look a little bit different for every family, depending on what method you choose to follow. The different methods require different tactics from the parents in order to be successful. Melissa’s tip: take notes! Having a record of how your baby has progressed throughout the sleep training will come in handy when you’re too tired to remember how long (or little) they slept the previous night.
Should I hire a sleep coach or sleep consultant to help with sleep training?
Some families opt to hire a sleep consultant or sleep coach to help them with sleep training. Just like deciding what sleep training method is best for your family, the decision to hire a sleep coach is a completely personal one. We talked to Rachel Turner, a certified sleep consultant and owner of Hello Sleep, and asked her how why a family might consider hiring a sleep consultant. Here's what she had to say:
"With all of the information that’s readily available online and all the books and resources at your disposal in the form of friends and family who have managed to get their kids to sleep, why would you want to invite a stranger into your home to get your child sleeping through the night?
I know a lot of my clients felt that way before they hired me! But I know it’s a concern that a lot of parents have when they’re thinking about getting some professional help with their little ones’ sleep habits. And it’s a valid question! After all, your mother managed to get you to sleep at some point. Your friend might have four kids who are all champion sleepers, so she should have some answers for you, right? Well, yes.. .and no!
The biggest reason why the solutions that work for one parent don’t work for another is simple. They’re not dealing with the same baby. Some babies are heavily reliant on sleep props. Others can’t sleep in a room that’s too warm. Some may not be getting enough daytime sleep, and others might be overtired. This baby might have developed an association between feeding and falling asleep, whereas that one might be ready to drop their second daytime nap. And, of course, it could be any combination of all of the above, or the many other sleep challenges that babies might experience.
Adding to the challenge is the fact that most solutions don’t work overnight, so parents might try a solution that could potentially help baby start sleeping through the night, but abandon it before it takes effect due to some heavy protesting on baby’s part.
FROM THE EXPERTS
“The biggest reason why the solutions that work for one parent don’t work for another is simple. They’re not dealing with the same baby...sleep is a complicated issue and there’s very rarely one single thing that can remedy the situation overnight. A professional sleep consultant has the experience and training to recognize which problems result in specific symptoms, and can work with you to develop a personalized plan for your child that addresses those individual issues."- Rachel Turner, Hello Sleep
In short, sleep is a complicated issue and there’s very rarely one single thing that can remedy the situation overnight. A professional sleep consultant has the experience and training to recognize which problems result in specific symptoms, and can work with you to develop a personalized plan for your child that addresses those individual issues.
They can also provide some much needed support when things don’t seem to be working, and give you the encouragement you need to follow through on that plan until it starts to work.”
Want to hear more about what it’s like to work with a sleep consultant during sleep training? Check out our Sleep Training Q&A with Taking Cara Babies.
The Zen Swaddle and Zen Sack are used by many sleep consultants as a tool to help babies sleep better on their own. Parents who use the Zen Swaddle or Zen Sack have seen great results when incorporating it into their sleep training efforts!
Real Mom Review
“I used his Zen swaddle religiously until he out grew and it helped so much with sleep training! Last night he slept 11 1/2 hours straight without even waking for a bottle. I am convinced his awesome night-time sleeping habits are because of his early on swaddling...I am so thankful for his Zen Swaddle!"-Reeba S. 11/8/2017
Lastly, remember that sleep training takes loads of patience. Here's Melissa's parting words of advice:
If you want to hear more from Melissa about her sleep training experience, be sure to check out her Sleep Training Instagram story!
If you think your baby needs some help with learning to fall asleep, sleep training might be a great option for you! If you’re just looking for some more general tips on helping your baby sleep better, check out the following helpful articles on the Zen Blog: