What is sleep training? In simple terms, it’s teaching and guiding a baby the “skill” of how to be an independent sleeper. What does that actually mean? You know how when you hop into bed to go to sleep, you know to you need to lay down, find a comfortable position and sometimes you may even need to tell your brain to stop thinking of the long list of things you could-of, should-of done today or need to do tomorrow. Then you close your eyes, maybe take a deep relaxing breath because you made it to the end of the day, and then you drift off to sleep? Strangely, babies need these same skills to be true independent sleepers. They are learning how to get comfortable in their bed, how to relax their body, close their eyes, and enjoy going to la-la land.
Guiding a child how to do the above things can be like putting a puzzle together. IF you do not have all the pieces, it will be impossible to fully complete and see the beauty of the finished product. Likewise, laying a foundation for healthy sleep hygiene is absolutely essential for children to succeed. After the foundation is laid correctly (think of that as being individual pieces within the puzzle), only then you are able to combine that with a behavioral method (or sleep training method) for your child.
No matter which sleep training approach you chose to use (or a combination of different ones) there is ONE thing across all methods that remains the same: You MUST put baby down awake and not asleep at some point in the process. Why? So long as someone is always assisting a baby/child to get to that place, they are never presented with the opportunity to learn the skill. Learning to be an independent sleeper can be related to riding a bike without training wheels. If daddy is always behind his daughter, holding the bike steady while she steers it and pushes the petals, she is not given the opportunity to even see if she is capable of additionally balancing it. He must at some point let go and see what skills she possesses. If we want our babies to possess that skill, we must also give them an opportunity to accomplish it.
Below are brief descriptions of the most popular sleep training methods (this is not a comprehensive list). It’s important to note that every child is different, and what works for one may not work as well for another. Additionally, there are several variations of each of these (as you can combine all different techniques to create something that works well for a particular child).
The Fading Method
This method I would consider the most “hands on” approach. You would begin with continuing to use props such as rocking your baby to sleep/nursing to sleep, and gradually overtime do less and less of this. One example of this would be if you are rocking your baby to sleep, you may choose to do this for 1 week. After one week, you would rock until very drowsy but not asleep and begin putting in bed after let’s say 10 minutes of rocking. You would still stay next to the bedside as your child drifts off to sleep. IF they start crying, you can pick them up again and do the same thing. Continue doing this until they fall asleep. You will then continue in this process with less and less dependency on you until eventually they get to that place of not needing you anymore to fall asleep.
Pro: It’s a great option for those parents who want to do their best at minimizing crying (though there will always be some form of crying because it’s your baby’s only way to communicate) and be as “hands on” as possible.
Con: It can take a month or more to accomplish and it demands a good amount of your time in the room working with them (thus meaning less breaks for the parents). So, if you are a parent who wants to see quicker results or do not want to spend hours in your child’s room working with them, this may not be for you.
The Chair Method
You would begin with rocking your child until they are drowsy but not asleep and then setting them in the crib. You would sit next to your child in a chair, and comfort him/her with your touch (like rubbing their back, patting bottom, ect…) intermediately, your words, and if needed, occasionally picking up (but not falling asleep in your arms) and setting back down. You would stay at their bedtime until s/he fell asleep. After several days of doing that, you would move your chair to the middle of the room and do the same thing. The goal would be to slowly move your chair further and further away from the crib and toward the door until you are out the door. At that point, you should be able to rock for a minute, give them a hug and a kiss and walk out.
Pro: It is a good middle place to land for parents who want a more “hands on” approach that also will not take a month. Typically this method will take roughly 2 weeks. This method is also a great option for older toddlers and preschoolers.
Con: For some children, being in the room with them and not picking them up can be much harder for them (and the parents). This seems to be true because if s/he is crying, regardless of the form of comforting you are doing, if s/he only wants to be held, every time you set them down, it can feel like a “tease” to your child.
Pick up Put Down Method
This method is exactly what it sounds like: you rock until drowsy but not asleep and put down. If and when s/he starts crying, you can shhh & pat (in the crib) or pick your child back up and rock until drowsy again, then put back down. You would continue this dance until s/he fell asleep.
Pro: It’s a great option to use with younger babies to begin to instill good sleep habits (under 6 months). If you begin this at a younger age, there seems to be less official “sleep training” you would need to do as your baby got older (because you are technically putting them down awake, so you are teaching that essential skill talked about above).
Con: It really only works well with babies who are younger than 4-6 months. If you try to do this with older babies, most times, it will feel a bit more disastrous to you. It’s also important to note that if you are working with a baby younger than 4-6 months, it could be labor intensive as it may take 6 “pick up put down” sessions before baby goes to sleep.
Checks Method (“Ferberizing”)
There are many variations of how to do this method (as most). However, the base structure of the method would tell you that when nap/bedtime come, give your child a hug and kiss, place him/her in their crib awake, say goodnight and walk out (regardless if s/he starts crying). If your child begins to cry, you would set the timer for a certain duration of time (this is one aspect where there are a variety of time frames you could use). If your child has not fallen asleep after the designated time frame, you would go in to do a soothing session. The soothing session would include things such as verbal soothing, patting or rubbing a back or bottom and briefly picking up. You would continue with increasing the amount of minutes of crying for following sessions before going in to do a “soothing session” or “check” until your baby falls asleep.
Pro: When it’s done correctly, it is quick (ferber is known for having a baby trained in 3 nights) and typically WAY LESS crying then parents expect to happen.
Con: A baby’s crying can seem endless. Parents give up and feel as though it’s ending in a disaster with no improvements of sleep and a bit traumatic on them (if there is no improvement) because they feel like they had their babies cry for no reason (the most common reason it is a disaster with no improvements is because the “foundation” is not laid out appropriately).
Things to consider with all methods:
- A child’s temperament and age. You can do the same thing with 5 different children, and get 5 different results. No two babies are the exact same.
- It is ESSENTIAL to lay down the foundation for proper sleep hygiene before considering a “method.” This is many people’s pitfall of why they are not successful.
The two most common reasons people fail at teaching their child how to be an independent sleeper:
- The daytime foundation is NOT presented properly for your baby. A few examples of this (but not comprehensive) would be environment, calorie intake and proper wake-times.
- Inconsistency. The foundation and proper techniques must be put in place correctly to get positive, lasting results. Then, it’s essential to be consistence with implementing these things.
Bethany Allen of Dream On, Babies is a Pediatric Sleep Consultant, Certified Birth Doula, Postpartum Doula, and Breastfeeding Specialist.