As with many parenting questions, the answer to, “Should I sleep train my baby?” is maybe. Sleep training can be a game changer for some families and—at the same time—does not work at all well for others. In this blog post, we’ll explore some of the sleep training options available. As is true with just about everything, you decide what’s right for your family.
Sometimes, sleep training and learning works right away. Sometimes you need to retrain once you stop feeding your baby at night (usually this decision is made in conjunction with your pediatrician and happens when they’re big enough and eating a lot during the day) or after a big change like a move or the start of daycare or school. And regardless of whether you formally sleep train or not, most kids figure out how to sleep at night eventually. If you’re really struggling with your kid’s sleep, there are tons of books out there, as well as sleep consultants you can hire to help your family figure out how sleep can work for all of you.
Does sleep training have to involve crying? The truth is that learning to sleep is hard, so most babies cry. The group of methods commonly referred to as “cry it out” are also known as “extinction,” named for how they work to extinguish behaviors. Extinction involves letting baby fuss or cry until they fall asleep. Graduated extinction, where the caregivers reenter the baby’s sleeping area after a prescribed amount of time to provide verbal or physical comfort, is another variation.
These techniques really work for some families. For instance, my first child sucked her thumb from birth, so she was already good at self-soothing. Thus, it was really easy for us to put her down in her safe sleep space, knowing that she was well-fed, had a dry diaper, and would probably put herself to sleep if she could find her thumb. She cried and fussed a little bit at first, but we had a video monitor and could tell when she was escalating to becoming more upset and when she was crying a bit to let off steam because she was frustrated looking for her thumb. In a sense, we used extinction because we didn’t go back in after we put her down, but it wasn’t hard for us or for her because she had such good self-soothing strategies from a very young age.
If you have a baby who doesn’t already have good self-soothing strategies, you can use the cry it out method (it’s usually recommended to start as early as six months), but you might be in for more crying. Some parents are okay with listening to their baby cry and trusting that a baby whose needs are generally met will not suffer any ill-effects from a few nights of crying. Some parents aren’t. You may think you’re okay with it, but then you try it and it doesn’t feel right. Or you try it, and baby figures things out and the crying is hard but you all move through it.
Sometimes families who don’t want to use full extinction, where you don’t go back into baby’s room once you’ve put them down for the night, use graduated extinction, where you let baby cry for a certain amount of time and if they’re not settling, go back in to help them settle. You might plan to go in after 10 minutes of crying if there are no signs of stopping, and place your hand on baby’s belly and reassure them that it will feel so good to rest, and then leave the room again. Then you might go in after another 10 minutes of crying and do slightly less comforting than you did before and repeat this pattern until baby falls asleep.
There are also techniques you can use in which you stay present with baby, either holding them or sitting in a chair close by. While they may still cry, some parents do better with this because they feel as though they are supporting baby’s crying. If you choose a method like this, you can do slightly less physical support each night. Move the chair further away until you are sitting near the door, then move it outside the door. Or start out holding baby to sleep and then start out lying down near baby with them in their co sleeper or crib alone. Then move to a chair, and finally move out of the room. Some babies will be overstimulated by the presence of their parent and intermittent comforting and it will take them longer than if they had just cried for a bit, but you know your baby best and can pick what will work.
If you try something unsuccessfully for a while, you can try a different technique or take a break for a week and try again in a bit. Babies grow and change so rapidly that you might be surprised what baby is capable of after a week’s break that they couldn’t seem to figure out before.