Just like babies, the idea of “sleep training” is something of a mystery. Depending on whose advice you’re following, there are conflicting rules. Even among experts, there are different methodologies. And given any methodology, there’s probably going to be a whole lot of trial and error to get it right. But above it all, there is the promise of sleep — beautiful, precious, sleep — for baby and you. To help those of you who are especially sleep-deprived, we consulted with some experts to break down the basics.
What is sleep training?
At its core, sleep training is behavior modification — which means that if you do it consistently, you will see change. Babies like consistency. So some argue that sleep training is a natural extension of reinforcing baby’s routine.
What are the different methods?
“There are really just three different ways to change sleep behavior in children,” says Linda Szmulewitz, owner of Sleep Tight Consultants. There are many different methods coined by different doctors and experts, but they really boil down to one of the following:
- Extinction, aka “cry it out” method: Putting your child in their crib and leaving, not returning again until the morning. “This can work well for some children,” Szmulewitz says, “but many parents have a hard time essentially ‘doing nothing,’ especially if their child is very upset.”
- Graduated Extinction, aka the Ferber or “check-in” method: Putting your child in their crib and leaving, but coming back over intervals of time. “There is no magic in the actual timing of the interval checks,” says Szmulewitz, “but it is important to monitor yourself. If you are coming in and out too frequently, it can make children more upset and overstimulate them.”
- Behavioral Fading, aka “the shuffle” method: Staying in the room with your child while they are going to sleep (and staying until they are fully asleep), and then gradually over a period of time, working your way out of the room. “It is great with toddlers and preschoolers who want their parents with them,” Szmulewitz says, “but then their parents are stuck in the room with them, so we need to work them out of the room in a way that their child can tolerate.”
What’s the best age to start sleep training?
It depends on who you ask. Kim Schaf, Founder and President of Sleep Training Solutions, uses weight as a gauge. “A great time to start thinking about sleep training is when baby is at least 13–14 pounds, having doubled birth weight.” Typically, this baby is at least 3-4 months old and there are no lingering medical issues — like reflux — that could be affecting their sleep. Szmulewitz cites that there is no science that supports sleep training for children under 4 months. “While some children are ready at 4 months, some are not and need to be a bit older, in which case sometimes 6 months is better,” she says. Most important is that both parents are ready and on board with a plan.
How can you know if sleep training is the right solution?
For starters, always check in with your pediatrician to make sure they support you beginning sleep training. After that, says Schaf, “I truly believe it's a gut feeling. When parents know their baby is ready and not getting enough sleep (or they're so exhausted that they can't function), it's the right time.” But, she warns, there is going to be some crying. “If parents know they can only hand X amount of crying, they shouldn't start.”
What are the myths?
Szmulewitz says that the biggest myth is that the Extinction (aka “cry it out”) method is the only way to sleep train. A close second: sleep training at a specific age, like 4 months old, or not at all. “This is absolutely not the case,” says Szmulewitz. “There are other ways to teach children these skills without leaving them alone crying. And there are many children (and parents) who aren’t ready at 4 months old.” Schaf says one of the most common myths she’s come across is that parents can decide to start sleep-training on a dime — i.e., get home on a Friday night and go for it. “It's so important to ‘preplan,’ to figure out which sleep training method is a fit for your baby's temperament and their parenting style,” she says.
Not sure which method is right for you? When in doubt, ask an expert. “That's my job,” says Shaf, “to develop the right plan to minimize crying, and make this process as easy and simple as possible for baby and parents.”