By Reneé Prince
Reviewed by: Dr. Sherrie Neustein
Updated March 26, 2021
If you worry that your baby isn't sleeping well, you're not alone. Studies show that 20% to 30% (1) of babies and young children suffer from sleep problems, and, although it is normal and expected for this age, 25% to 50% of babies over 6 months old continue to experience nighttime awakenings.
Many babies start sleeping for extended periods at night by 6 months of age (2). If your baby is able to go long periods without feeding, but they're having trouble getting to sleep without your help, you may decide to try sleep training.
What Is Sleep Training?
Sleep training refers to various methods that are used to teach your baby to fall asleep on their own. Not only does sleep training help with bedtime, it also helps babies get back to sleep without help from you if they wake up in the middle of the night.
What Are the Benefits of Sleep Training My Baby?
The sleep habits you teach your baby now will likely stay with them for years, so it's important to nip any sleep problems in the bud. Sleep plays a vital part in your child's development, contributing to learning, memory, mood regulation, immune system functioning, metabolism, and attention. A well-rested infant is also more likely to be happy and less fussy during the day, which allows parents to be better rested and helps reduce symptoms of depression in mothers (3) as well.
What Are the Different Baby Sleep Training Methods?
Today's parents can choose from several sleep training methods that have worked for many babies. As long as your child’s needs are being met and they are in a safe sleep environment, there is no one correct way to sleep train your baby.
Extinction or "Cry-it-out" Method
The extinction method involves putting your baby to bed, leaving the room, and not coming back until the next morning. By putting your baby to bed when they are drowsy but not quite asleep, you lay the groundwork for them to self-soothe if they wake up in the middle of the night. Following this logic, you can ignore their crying unless you believe they might be hurt, ill, or in danger.
Parents using the extinction method usually see improvements to their baby's sleep after just a few days. However, the extinction method has faced controversy because many parents find it difficult to ignore their baby's crying.
Extinction with Parental Presence or "Camping Out" Method
Extinction with parental presence (4), or the "camping out" method, allows parents to stay in the room, but without responding to their baby's cries. One version of this is the "chair" method, in which parents move their chair further and further away from the crib as their baby starts to nod off.
Some parents find it easier not to leave their baby alone while they cry. However, if you're still in the room when your baby falls asleep, they might be distressed when they wake up in the middle of the night and you are no longer there. Many parents find this method difficult because they are physically with their baby while the baby is crying but are not permitted to respond to the cries.
Graduated Extinction or "Ferber" Method
Using graduated extinction, parents gradually increase the time before checking on their baby after the baby begins crying, by first waiting two minutes, then five minutes, then ten, and so on. Checks should last less than a minute, and you should try to avoid picking your baby up. Graduated extinction is what many parents picture when they talk about sleep training.
Graduated extinction involves shorter periods of crying between parental “check-ins” compared with regular extinction, and it has a similar success rate (5). That said, graduated extinction still incorporates a certain amount of ignored crying, which may cause distress for parents and interfere with the sleep of siblings (6).
Bedtime Fading with Positive Routines
Bedtime fading requires recording what time your baby normally falls asleep and not putting them to bed until just before that time. This practice reinforces the idea that bed is for sleeping. Once your baby is falling asleep more quickly, you can move bedtime earlier by 15 to 30 minutes. This process can be repeated until a baby's bedtime is where you want it. Bedtime fading is often performed together with calming pre-bedtime routines that your baby enjoys.
Scheduled awakenings involve waking your child up and soothing them at consistent times throughout the night. These awakenings generally happen about 15 to 30 minutes before they would normally wake up on their own, with the time between awakenings gradually increasing in length.
Scheduled awakenings have proved useful for increasing the amount of time your baby can sleep without waking up. However, this method only works for babies who are able to fall asleep on their own at bedtime. Some parents may also find scheduled awakenings more difficult than other sleep training techniques, and they may take slightly longer to show effects.
Every baby is different, and finding a sleep training method that works for you and your baby might involve some trial and error. It's important to be consistent so your baby doesn't learn that they can get a response from you by crying more. Be aware that it may take one to two weeks (7) to see results.
Although more research is needed, behavioral sleep training methods do not appear to cause harm to your baby, even after a 5-year follow-up period. However, sleep training your baby should happen when both you and your baby are ready. As there are many factors involved in readiness for sleep training, please check with your pediatrician before sleep training your baby.
What Are Some Other Tips to Help My Baby Sleep Through the Night?
Regardless of which sleep training method you choose, there are some other good habits that can't hurt to include:
- Regular Bedtime Routine: A calming, consistent bedtime routine helps your baby learn when to wind down and teaches them to form positive associations with bedtime.
- Sleep Hygiene: Sleep hygiene encompasses all the habits that help prepare us for better sleep at night, such as turning off electronics well before bedtime and keeping the bedroom cool, dark, and quiet.
- Daytime Activity: Babies sleep better when they receive enough stimulation during the day, so try to get them outside for some exercise, sunlight, fresh air, and bonding time.
- Sleep Schedules: Try to establish a regular sleep schedule, keeping in mind that newborns need 14 to 17 hours of sleep (8), and older infants need 12 to 15 hours of sleep per 24-hour period. Babies who are overtired have trouble falling asleep, so be on the lookout for tiredness cues and don't fall into the trap of scheduling bedtime too late.
Even the best-trained babies are susceptible to setbacks once in a while. If illness, travelling, or other disruptions interfere with your hard work, just try to get back on track as soon as possible. Don't be afraid to share any concerns with your pediatrician, in case there's another issue behind your child's troubled sleep. It might be helpful to keep a sleep log so you can identify trends in your baby's sleep patterns.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17068979/ Accessed on March 8, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27221288/ Accessed on March 8, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17158146/ Accessed on March 8, 2021.
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- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29358251/ Accessed on March 8, 2021.
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- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29073412/ Accessed on March 8, 2021.