How to sleep train a baby: the basics

If you’ve landed on this page, you’re likely the sleep-deprived as f*ck parent of a new baby. Welcome, and know you’re in good company (we’re either just as tired as you or have lived through it before – we get it).

You might have heard whispers about sleep training, touting it as a glittering beacon of hope for parents desperate for a solution to sleepless nights. “Tell us, quick! What is sleep training for babies, and how do you do it?!” we hear you cry as you reach for another giant cup of coffee. So, here’s what to know about sleep training.

What is sleep training for babies?

Sleep training is the process of teaching your baby to fall asleep and go back to sleep on their own. 

Wait, you mean we have to birth them and help them learn how to sleep?! Yeah, we do. Even though babies are very clever, they simply don’t know how to sleep.

Should you sleep train?

Here’s the deal. Sleep training works for some babies but not for others (interestingly, sleep training simply doesn’t work for about 20 per cent of babies). Some families decide it’s a must; others prefer to pave their own way – research has shown there is no long-term difference between children who were sleep trained as babies and those who weren’t. So whether you try sleep training or not is a very personal choice. But, if you are curious, let’s discuss when and how to sleep train a baby.

When do you sleep train a baby?

Between three to six months old is the ideal time to start sleep training your baby. At this age, your little one’s circadian rhythm has started to come into its own, and their sleep cycles have begun to mature, so they’re primed to learn to self-soothe (which refers to your baby taking themselves off to or back to sleep). If you’re unsure when to start sleep training your baby, speak to your pediatrician for tailored advice. 

Before we move on, it’s essential to understand that the question of when to sleep train your baby is two-sided: when to start and when to do it again. Unfortunately, things like sickness, travel, developmental milestones, and sleep regressions can disrupt your babe’s sleep and cause good sleep habits to come undone. So, do know that you might find yourself needing to re-sleep train your little one more than once (and, in some instances, multiple times over).

How to sleep train a baby

There is a range of baby sleep training methods, but we’ll explore four of the most common here.

Cry it out method

The cry it out method is perhaps the method that’s most associated with sleep training. 

How to do the cry it out method? First, you make sure your baby is fed, has a clean diaper, and that their crib is safe, plus that they’re neither too hot nor cold in their room or sleepwear, and that they’re not unwell. Then, you put your babe in their crib while they’re tired but awake and say goodnight. From there, you don’t enter the room or pick them up again until they’re due for their overnight feed or to wake up in the morning (if they’re no longer feeding overnight). Your baby will most likely cry (hence the name ‘cry it out method’), meaning it can be really hard for parents. 

Does the cry is out method work, and is the cry it out method good for babies? Well, it’s vital to flag that there’s an ongoing debate around it. Some parties say it’s harmful to babies (specifically to their development and relationships with others). Others note that it’s perhaps beneficial (particularly for learning skills like self-control and self-soothing) and that it sees the quickest results when it comes to your little one falling asleep and staying asleep independently.

It’s also necessary to remember that crying is your baby’s primary way of communicating. So, if trying the cry it out method (and any other sleep training, for that matter), it’s recommended you do so only if your baby’s needs are met (e.g., they’re fed, changed, and comfortable) and they’re well.

Ferber method

The Ferber method is another form of sleep training. How to do Ferber method sleep training? First, you check your baby’s needs are met and that they’re well, then you place them in their crib when they’re tired but awake and say goodnight. If (when) your little one begins to cry, you start a timer – usually for two or three minutes. If they’re still crying when the timer rings, you go back into their room to soothe them with as minimal intervention as possible – you might say a few calming words (like “I love you, it’s ok to go to sleep”), or if this isn’t working, you might pick them up for a cuddle. Then, when they’re calm, you put them back in their crib (if you picked them up), and you leave the room again. You repeat this process until your little one is asleep, but you gradually increase the duration of time between check-ins – as a general Ferber sleep method guide, you might set your timer for two to three minutes, then five minutes, then eight minutes, then ten minutes (with the latter being the maximum amount of time you should leave your babe crying). 

Ferber method sleep training is a gentler technique than cry it out, but it can still involve a few tears (and a lot of stalking your little one via the baby monitor, wondering if and when they’ll fall asleep).

Pick up put down method

The pick up put down method of sleep training is an even softer approach to sleep training. 

Here’s the pick up put down method explained: first you check your baby’s needs are met and that they’re well, then you place them in their crib when they’re tired but awake, and you say goodnight. From here, if your baby is calm, you leave the room. If they cry, you pick them up to soothe them; then, you place them back in their crib once they’re calm. You repeat this process – picking your baby up, calming them, and putting them back down in their crib – until your little one is asleep. You can leave their room while your little one isn’t crying, but you do re-enter when they cry. 

The pick up put down method takes patience and time and is quite hands-on, but it can be easier on your nerves (and your heart).

Chair method

If trying the chair method of sleep training, you ensure your baby’s needs are met and that they’re well, and you place them in their crib when they’re tired but awake and say goodnight. Then, you sit your butt down in a chair (or on a cushion on the floor) next to your little one’s crib. If they cry, you might say a calming ‘shh’ from where you’re sitting or give them a quick pat on the back, but you usually aim for as little physical interference as possible. You stay in your baby’s room and repeat this process until they fall asleep. Once they’re sleeping, you leave; but you re-enter and start the process over again if they start to cry. You also move the chair or cushion further away from their crib every couple of days until you’re out of the room. 

It’s certainly a softer approach than other sleep training methods, but it’s quite a significant commitment for parents.

A few final thoughts 

If you decide to sleep train your baby, you might use one method religiously or a combination of approaches. You may decide you’re comfortable letting your baby cry or that you prefer not to let them cry at all.

The key to sleep training your baby is to manage your expectations and definition of success. Instead of trying to find a one-stop formula, find what helps your baby fall asleep and back to sleep on their own. Know too that sleep training your baby isn’t instant. Depending on the method you use and your baby’s temperament, you might see changes to your babe’s sleep in just a few days. Or, it might take a few weeks. 

Ultimately, the choice of how you help your baby sleep is up to you. And, in the end, remember that how your baby sleeps at night isn’t a measure of your parenting because you’re a kickass- f*cking-awesome-boss-mom no matter what.

The information in this article does not replace individualized medical advice. If you are concerned about your little one’s sleep, speak to your pediatrician or primary care doctor.

Read next: How to set up a safe sleep environment for your baby

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