Baby sleep training is an umbrella term for a number of methods that help babies stabilize their naturally chaotic sleep patterns — and in turn help parents get more sleep. Parents can choose from a variety of sleep training methods, most of which were developed by pediatricians or infant sleep experts. Each of these methods requires a different kind, and amount, of parent participation — and each elicits a different response from the baby. With some sleep training methods, baby crying is expected. For others, it’s discouraged.
But despite the diversity of baby sleep training methods, the goal for each is the same: a baby that can sleep several hours at a stretch without parental intervention. When a baby is able to sleep more soundly and can fall back asleep on their own, it not only improves the mood and disposition of the child but also improves quality of life for sleep-deprived parents.
No matter what sleep training technique parents choose, successful sleep training requires parents to be patient, resilient, and consistent. The process is also helped by parents creating a nighttime ritual and an environment that is built to promote healthy sleep.
Cry It Out
Also known as “extinction,” the Cry It Out sleep training method (CIO) involves parents going through a bedtime routine, cuddling their baby before bed, kissing them goodnight, shutting the door, and not responding to cries. The baby eventually gets tired out from crying and/or eventually soothes themselves back to sleep. It was popularized by Dr. Marc Weissbluth.
Cry It Out is wildly controversial. Many parents feel that not responding to a baby’s cries will cause irreparable trauma and teach babies that parents aren’t to be relied upon to address their needs, either waking or sleeping. Other parents feel that the Cry It Out sleep training method is simply too painful for themselves and can’t understand how a person could simply listen to their child cry.
The proponents of the method note that it is efficient. Most parents who have practiced the CIO method say that a child can be sleep trained within about three days, and so, while unpleasant in the short term, is better for both child and parents in the long run.
As for the questions of trauma or the possibility of a baby losing their attachment to their parents, studies are inconclusive on the psychological effects, if any, that the CIO method might have on a child. Inconclusive does not mean there isn’t any harm in the method — nor does it mean that it will damage the child. That said, if parents are concerned, they should skip this method for one they feel more comfortable with.
The Ferber Method
A kinder, gentler version of Cry It Out, the Ferber Method, or Ferberization, was developed by Dr. Richard Ferber. It’s also known as “graduated extinction” because parents gradually increase the amount of time they allow the baby to cry alone until the child learns to self-soothe.
The Ferber Method occurs in a set series of intervals. Parents begin by completing their bedtime routine, cuddling their child, laying them down, and then leaving the room. The first few nights, parents respond to the babies cries quickly, patting the child on the back and offering reassurance until the baby is calm, at which point the parent leaves again. In subsequent nights the parent gradually increases the amount of time they allow the baby to cry until eventually the child is left to soothe themselves.
Critics of the Ferber Method consider it just as bad as CIO. However, many parents who might have been drawn to CIO often choose Ferberization because it allows them to respond to their babies cries at least part of the time.
Studies on the effects of Ferberization on a baby’s attachment or psychological outcomes are much the same as CIO. There is no conclusive evidence of long-term harm. But again, parents should expect that at some point they will have to listen to their baby cry and not respond.
Parents who use the Fading sleep training method very gradually distance themselves from their baby over time. Unlike other methods, parents offer very little verbal and physical comfort as they increase their physical distance from their kid night by night. Some crying is expected.
The main difference between Fading and Ferberization is that parents start out in their child’s room, putting their baby down after a bedtime routine, while their child is drowsy but not yet fully asleep. Parents then stay by their child’s side as the baby falls asleep. As nights progress, parents begin increasing their physical distance to their child. So, if they started out by their crib, they will move a few feet away. On subsequent nights they will move still further away while remaining in sight of their child.
When the baby fusses, parents using the Fading method are encouraged to offer verbal cues like a hushing sound or soft reassurances that they are present, while maintaining minimal physical contact so that the baby can learn to soothe themselves to sleep. While fading is considered “gentler” than the Ferber Method or CIO by its proponents, the baby will likely cry as a parent’s distance increases.
Gentle Sleep Training: The No Tears Methods
“No Tears” sleep training is a catch-all term for Gentle Sleep Training methods that have responsiveness at their core. In these methods, parents take time to cuddle and soothe their baby back to sleep when they wake, often while using a consistent sleep trigger-word or phrase.
Gentle Sleep Training methods lean on consistency, not only in parental response to their baby but also in the bedtime routine that leads up to actually putting a child to bed. The idea is to create a series of cues that help a baby understand that they are transitioning from hours of sun and playtime to quiet sleepy hours.
There is a multitude of ways that parents can respond to their babies cries once they have put their baby to bed. Some parents may use a Fading-type technique by staying in the room and gradually increasing the distance between themselves and the baby night but night, but also responding to a baby’s cries by picking them up, shushing them, and rocking them until they are drowsy again.
Other parents may choose to leave the room and come back to soothe only when children cry but remain outside the room if a baby is simply fussy. At any rate, the end goal is the same as every sleep training method in that parents are helping a child develop techniques to self-soothe, so that if they wake up, they can put themselves back to sleep. While No Tears sleep training methods feel less stressful for both parent and baby, they require more involvement for a longer time.
Choosing a sleep training method is a deeply personal decision. The right method is the one that parents feel is right for their family. We recommend the Fading sleep training method because, in addition to being effective, it’s a balanced approach that many parents find to be a happy medium between more austere Cry It Out methods and the Gentle Sleep Training or No Tears methods, and therefore a good place to start.
The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) has researched Cry It Out methods (which include fading) and found that they work and are not particularly stressful to the child. We recommend fading over classical CIO or the Ferber Method because it gives parents a certain peace of mind: Unlike the Ferber and extinction methods, Fading allows parents to feel as if they are still nurturing and connected to their child during the sleep training process.
That said, the method does come with some downsides. Fading will take longer to complete than other Cry It Out sleep training methods. And because parents are encouraged to interact with their child, they may lose more sleep during the night, making them more tired over the course of the training. However, many parents find that feeling tired but also connected and responsive to a child is better in the long run than feeling as if they’ve left their child to suffer — a feeling commonly reported by parents who engage in more extreme versions of Cry It Out.
Whatever sleep training method parents choose, consistency is key, as is a good bedtime routine or ritual, which can often set the stage for ultimate success in sleep training.
All behavioral sleep issues are 100 percent solvable, but it’s your job to be consistent in the routine so your baby knows what to expect.
Dr. Rebecca Kempton
When babies come into the world, their sleep rhythm is chaotic. Not only do their sleep cycles typically last just 45 minutes, with brief wakeful transitions, but they also do not know the difference between night and day. And this last point is the reason experts suggest developing a bedtime routine.
At first, the routine does not have to be elaborate. At the very least, a routine should include turning off screens, decreasing play activity, and dimming lights. This will help a child start to orient to the rhythms of their environment.
But parents can, and should, add more to a bedtime routine. Experts agree that the best bedtime routines present a child with a series of cues that it’s time to stop being active and start getting sleepy. These cues might include a warm bath, some dental (or gum) hygiene, a story, and a song. With each activity, a child should begin to relax.
Some experts suggest parents go the extra mile to make the routine a ritual, by adding special moments of connection. These might include a unique phrase or prayer, a moment of mindfulness, or a low-key imaginative game. Adding these elements are particularly great for older children who will start their sleep time with a sense of peace and connection.
Whatever bedtime routine a parent chooses, sleep experts say that it’s important that parents put children down when they are “sleepy but not asleep.” This helps a child learn how to self-soothe and reduces disorientation if they wake to find themselves alone in their crib.
When should I start sleep training my baby?
Sleep training can start for many babies at 3 or 4 months old, but it will depend on when they develop the ability to soothe themselves to sleep. Babies simply do not have this skill until they’re at least 3 months old. Parents will know it’s time to start sleep training when their baby can be put down and fall asleep on their own, even if they wake up several times during the night. Most babies will be able to self-soothe and be ready for sleep training sometime between 3 and 9 months of age.
Doesn’t my baby need me at night?
A baby who can self-soothe should be able to wake up during the night, which is natural, and then put themselves back to sleep without intervention from parents. That’s what sleep training will ultimately accomplish. While there may be times, like when a baby is sick, when a parent will need to be present during the night, most babies should be able to sleep through the night without being fed or rocked back to sleep.
Will my baby cry during sleep training?
Some sleep training methods involve tears (and even have “Cry” in the name), while other methods are designed to keep crying to a minimum. Whether or not a baby cries during the process depends on a variety of factors, including the method being used and the baby’s natural temperament.
Will sleep training be psychologically damaging for my baby?
It’s unlikely that sleep training will have long-term psychological effects of your baby. That’s true even for methods that require parents to not respond to a baby’s cry. According to a study in the journal Pediatrics, these methods were not found to have any long-term effects on a child’s developmental outcomes.
How long will it take to sleep train my baby?
Sleep training can often be accomplished in two to three days. However, some methods extend the process to minimize crying. A lack of consistency will also extend the process, so parents should pick a method and stick with it.
What is the best sleep training method for my baby?
The best sleep training method will depend on a parent’s level of comfort with the process and a baby’s temperament. A child who is more independent may respond well to a method that involves minimal parental intervention, while a baby who is very attached to a parent may do better with more intervention. At the same time, parents may feel more or less comfortable hearing — and not responding to — a child’s cry and will want to choose a method accordingly.
Does my baby need to be in their own room to sleep train?
While babies don’t need their own room to sleep train (and in fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that they share a room with parents until they’re 6 months old), it can help if parents can separate themselves from their child. This is particularly true if a child is breastfeeding and is sharing a room with their mother: they’ll be much less likely to self-soothe if she’s in the room. At the very least, transitioning a child to a crib before sleep training begins will be incredibly helpful.
Can parents share sleep training duties?
Parents can and should share sleep training duties. In fact, sleep training can often be more successful if a father takes the lead. This is why it’s imperative that parents come to an agreement on sleep training long before it’s time for the process to begin. A clear delineation of scheduling and division of labor will help.
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Banish the Blue Light: Cell phones, televisions, and tablet screens have no business being on at bedtime or in a kid’s bedroom. Turn them off to optimize your kid’s sleep.
Try White Noise: White noise works well to drown out more disruptive sounds, and it mimics the sound of the womb, which was surprisingly loud. But if you use white noise, be prepared to keep it on all night. A sudden silence can wake a kid up.
Optimize the Nursery: Aim for a super-dark room, with a clutter-free floor to keep from tripping. The optimal temperature should be around 68 degrees to keep a kid from overheating.
Don’t Skimp on Naps: It might seem to make sense that fewer naps during the day would lead to better, longer sleep at night, but that’s just not true. An overtired baby will often struggle to sleep. Keep naps consistent, even when sleep training.
Wait to Step In: Babies naturally wake during the night. They also tend to be pretty active sleepers. Some parents will make matters worse by intervening the second a baby fusses. Even if you opt for a more hands-on approach to sleep training, t’s better to give the kid a moment to see if they can soothe themselves into their next sleep cycle.
Ditch the Swaddle: Babies who have their hands free will often turn to sucking fingers and thumbs in order to put themselves back to sleep. It’s a good tool for them to have.
Don’t Fear the Pacifier: There’s nothing truly terrible about a pacifier. In fact, having access to a pacifier can make it easy for children to soothe themselves back to sleep.
The Halo swivels 360 degrees and has an adjustable sidewall, which makes midnight feedings that much easier.
The sleepsuit provides a middle ground for babies transitioning out of swaddles by keeping them snug but able to move their arms. It's great for babies ages 3-9 months.
Dr. Harvey Karp’s 'The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Newborn Baby Sleep Longer' is a great baby sleep training starter guide. Karp guides parents in soothing and establishing good sleep habits in newborns, paving the way for easier sleep training in the future.