It doesn’t take long for bleary-eyed new parents to try and get their baby to sleep on a schedule. Moms and dads desperate for sleep quickly start focusing on how to sleep train for a little shut-eye. As soon as you try to put the baby down on his own he starts wailing and the exhaustive cycle starts again.
Of course, for the first several weeks of your infant’s life, he gets hungry at night, so a reversal of night and day can easily happen. During this period, providing your baby to natural light during the day might bring more day wakefulness and perhaps more nighttime sleep. But babies need help during this period of time to soothe themselves into slumber. Moms and dads rock, jostle, swaddle, feed and fret in an incessant cycle of sleep preparation.
Of course for older children, the bedrock of sleep is consistency: bathing, changing into pajamas, story time. You can start this routine with your baby so he learns the drill, but you can’t expect a baby to settle down on his own until he learns how. So when is a baby ready for sleep training?
Getting Started With Sleep Training
While some babies (between 4 and 6 months old) may sleep independently for eight to 10 hours a night, others may still be waking to breastfeed several times a night. For these wakeful babies, you may want to get started with sleep training.
Before you begin, make sure that you already have in place a bedtime routine and that you and your partner are on the same page for the technique you choose. Commit to a couple of weeks to see how it goes. Two proven techniques exist:
“Cry it Out” or, C.I.O.
C.I.O. is controversial but it’s also been used for generations. While it may sound alarming, Dr. Marc Weissbluth, M.D. author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child: A Step-by-Step Program for a Good Night’s Sleep (Ballantine; 2021) say it is safe and effective.
Simply put, you initiate your bedtime routine (changing a diaper, putting Baby in a sleep sack, feeding and reading a story), then you place your baby down in his bed, drowsy but awake. Next you leave the room without returning to check on or soothe your baby. The method produces prolonged periods of crying for several nights, which can be difficult for you to tolerate.
According to Dr. Richard Ferber in his book, Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, if you can’t take the crying, you can go to soothe the baby for a quick moment, provide a soothing comment like, “Everything’s OK, you’re OK,” but then leave the room again. Ferber says to resist the temptation to check on your baby if he seems to be calming down.
An “extinction burst” can occur. This is when the crying worsens for a night or two. It may cause you to abandon this sleep-training method. If you are able to hold on, sleep often comes after the burst.
“Fading” or, “Camping Out” or, “The Chair Method”
For parents who can’t deal with the CIO method, another approach may be a better fit. The name of this technique has evolved and is currently called “fading.” It involves gradually withdrawing your presence from your child’s room over the course of a week or two. Kim West (aka The Sleep Lady), author of Good Night, Sleep Tight: Gentle Proven Solutions to Help Your Child Sleep Without Leaving Them to Cry it Out — revised edition — (Hatchette; 2020) is one of the leaders of this method.
With the Fading method, you do your sleep routine with baby and then put him down in his own bed. Continue like this:
Days 1–3: Instead of rocking, you stand by his crib and rub his back.
Days 4–6: You sit by your child’s bedside but do not touch him.
Days 7-9: You move your chair to midway between your child’s bedside and the door.
Days 10–12: You sit in your chair by the door to the room.
Days 13–15: You sit outside the door but where your child can still see you.
Days 16–18: You sit out of sight but provide verbal reassurance, either by sitting outside the room or via a two-way monitor.
During this process, it’s O.K. to talk to your baby and reassure him that he’s alright, that you love him and that it’s time to go to sleep. If it seems to be working, you can move more quickly through the steps.
Getting your baby to sleep through the night takes time and patience. Of course, always adhere to safe sleeping methods. And it’s helpful to realize that even if your baby gets seven hours of nighttime sleep at last, that can change quickly. Babies grow and change rapidly as do their needs. Teething or illness, big changes at home such as moving can all disrupt a baby’s nighttime. The good news? All babies grow up and eventually, you WILL get the sleep YOU need and they will, too.