Sleep is a really important factor in the healthy development of babies and toddlers, so naturally, lots of parents worry about the prospect of introducing sleep training into their little one's nighttime routine.
Although there may be a few tears and lots of patience needed to begin with, many experts say that sleep training is not only safe, but it’s also beneficial for a baby's development.
Sleep training has benefits for you both, after all, more sleep for baby means more rest for you, too!
What is sleep training?
Put simply, sleep training is the process of helping your baby learn how to wind down before bed and self soothe when it’s time to go to sleep.
That means your baby is put down for bed drowsy but awake, and then is able to drift off without being rocked, swayed, cuddled or nursed.
The benefits of sleep training for both parents and babies include…
- It teaches your baby how to fall back to sleep when they inevitably wake during the night.
- It helps your baby become a better sleeper, and means they'll be less likely to become cranky and overtired.
- Bedtimes become less stressful.
- It encourages your baby to become a little more independent and gives you some more time for yourself.
When to start sleep training
It’s generally recommended that if you want to introduce sleep training to your baby, that you do it when they're around four or six months old.
Sleep training isn’t suitable for newborns or any little ones under the age of four months old. Night wakings are important for newborns nutritional and developmental needs, and their cries should never be ignored.
It's also good to note that sleep training requires your commitment too, so make sure that you're ready before you begin and that you don’t have anything that might disrupt the training coming in the near future, such as an event or a trip away from home.
How long does sleep training take?
Every baby is different, so sleep training will take different lengths of time depending on your unique situation and the method you choose to use. For this reason, it’s important to be consistent and patient when you're sleep training.
Most sleep training methods usually take a couple of weeks or longer to work, but with time, consistency and a little bit of luck, you’ll soon be sleeping peacefully, and your little one will have learned the valuable life skill of how to fall and stay asleep all on their own.
You can also check in with your baby’s doctor if you want guidance on when and how to begin sleep training. If you follow a sleep training method consistently and it’s still not working after two weeks, they will be able to advise you if you're little one is ready and look into any additional medical factors that could affect your baby's sleep.
Popular sleep training methods
There are many different sleep training methods that you can research, but the most important part of sleep training is finding the method that works best for you and your baby! Remember, your approach to parenting is very personal, don’t feel pressured into using a sleep training method by others if you don’t believe it’s good for you or your baby.
Your health visitor or doctor can offer you advice according to your family's individual circumstances, but here are some of the most common baby sleep training methods…
Sometimes called the Ferber method – because it was developed by paediatric sleep expert Dr. Richard Ferber, check-and-console involves putting your little one to bed when they're drowsy but awake, then telling them goodnight and leaving the room.
If and when they wake, you allow your baby to cry for a set amount of time before you check on them briefly and comfort them by talking in a soothing voice or gently patting their back. The idea is that the timed intervals of crying gradually get longer by a few minutes, until your little one falls asleep.
Over the course of a few nights, you’ll gradually increase the length of these intervals, reducing your presence in baby's room and encouraging them to self-soothe.
This technique requires you to go through your baby's normal bedtime routine, then put them down to bed drowsy, but still awake.
Then, when and if they cries, wait a few minutes to see if they settle, and if not go in and pick them up and soothe them. When they're calm again, put them back down and leave the room.
Repeat the process until your baby falls asleep.
It’s good to be aware that this sleep training method can take some time and requires lots of patience.
If your baby cries for extended amounts of time before they fall asleep, it's possible that their body might not be ready for sleep at your desired bedtime. The bedtime fading method can help to adjust their circadian rhythm to get bedtime to where you want it to be.
First, look for baby’s sleep cues (eye rubbing, yawning, turning away from lights or sound, fussiness).
Then, once they seem tired, put them to bed. Hopefully, they'll fall fast asleep, but if they do stir and cry, take them out of the crib for around half an hour, and then try again.
After a few nights, move their bedtime 15 minutes earlier and repeat the process with this new bedtime. Then you can gradually move bedtime earlier in 15-minute increments night by night to reach your desired bedtime.
Some parents find that the chair method (also known as the chair method of gradual withdrawal) works better for older babies who know that you’re still in the room when you aren’t feeding or cuddling them.
After saying goodnight, sit down by the bed. If your little one cries, avoid eye contact, but you can reassure them by touching them with your hand. When your they calm down, go back to sitting.
Keep repeating this process until they fall asleep, and repeat the steps any time they wake in the night.
Gradually, you can move your seating position a little further away from the bed each night until it’s outside the room – when that happens, your baby will hopefully be ready to sleep without you in the room.
You may find that when your baby falls asleep with you in the room, they might be startled and possibly upset when they wake up and you're not there. Don’t worry if your baby gets upset when you move the chair, you can simply put it back in the last place it was before you moved it.
This method aims to help your toddler learn to fall asleep while you’re not in the room and it’s only suitable for babies over one year old.
First, after putting your little one to bed, give them a kiss and say you’ll be back in a few minutes to kiss them again.
Leave the room, then go back almost immediately and give them another kiss. Walk a few steps toward the door then go back and kiss your child again. Promise another kiss, then tidy up a few clothes or toys in the bedroom and go back with yet another kiss.
If your little one stands up or gets out of bed, reassure them by saying ‘go back to bed and I’ll give you another kiss’.
Keep returning with kisses until your they fall asleep, and repeat the routine if your they wake during the night.
Potential sleep training hurdles
However your sleep training is going, your baby won’t be able to fall or stay asleep if they're hungry, need a nappy change, or are uncomfortable in any way.
Don’t worry if you do encounter some problems along the way, you're not alone! Just be patient and begin your sleep training again when they're feeling better.
The following points have the potential to setback your sleep training journey…
- Illness – A fever, cough, cold or other common illness will make it difficult for your baby to sleep and cause waking in the night. Try to give them extra cuddles and comfort if they are feeling under the weather and seek advice from your family doctor.
- Teething – Those first teeth can be painful and unsettling for little ones, so strap in and get ready for some restless nights!
- Growth spurts – During the first four months or so, your baby may have growth spurts accompanied by periods of cluster feeding. These feeds might interrupt their sleeping and feeding patterns.
- Separation anxiety – Separation anxiety is a normal phase in a child’s emotional development, and it may affect them between the ages of six months and three years. During times of anxiety, your little one may become clingy and cry if you leave the room, which might make nighttime sleep training more challenging.
Top tips for successful baby sleep training
Discuss some quick tops tips to make sleep training easier and improve chances of success, such as identifying when your baby is tired, avoiding overstimulating baby near bedtime, and establishing a consistent bedtime routine.
No matter what sleep training method you’re using, the following tips should help to make the experience a little smoother…
- Spot their sleep cues – It can really help to watch out for your baby's sleep cues (like yawning, eye rubbing or crankiness) which may happen around the same time every night. That way, you can put them to bed when they're sleepy but not overtired.
- Put baby down awake – Once you've spotted their sleep cues, put baby down when they're snoozy but not fast asleep.
- Get into a good bedtime routine – Pre-sleep rituals or bedtime routines are really good to introduce to your baby around three months old. They help your little one to transition from awake time to sleepy time.
- Time it right – We've covered that some things can interrupt your baby's sleep like them feeling unwell or your family taking a trip away, so it's a good idea to wait until things have settled down before attempting sleep training.
- Delay and keep your nighttime interactions brief – If they do whimper, don’t rush straight in to check on your little one. Responding to every little noise might wake them as they're nodding-off or spoil their efforts to self-soothe. When you do respond, calmly and quickly do any checks, feeds or diaper changes to avoid overstimulating them.