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During the early days of life with a newborn, you’re focused on what’s best for the baby, so sleepless nights seem like a small price to pay. Until about week six, that is, when waking up every few hours should start to get old. If your baby is 6 months or older and is still a night owl, it’s time to get some tips to get your baby to sleep, and consider a baby sleep training program. And even if you have a young infant, it’s never too early to teach smart sleep skills.
What is Sleep Training?
Sleep training is the process of helping a baby learn to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night.
When Can I start Sleep Training?
Most experts recommend starting sleep training when your baby is between 4 and 6 months old. By about 4 months, babies have typically started to develop a regular sleep-wake cycle and dropped most of their night feedings. These are signs they may be ready to start sleep training. Of course, every baby is different: Some may not be ready for sleep training until they’re a bit older. Some babies sleep seven hours or longer at an early age, while others won’t until much later. If you’re not sure whether your baby is ready for sleep training, ask his doctor.
How to Prepare for Sleep Training?
Set the stage for successful sleep training with these suggestions:
- Prepare a good sleeping environment. Make sure the crib* and room is all about sleep. Also be sure that the room is dark, the temperature is just right (68-72 degrees Fahrenheit), and that white noise is playing. This is to ensure that your baby will fall asleep and stay asleep. Also dress your baby in footed pajamas* to maintain extra comfort at an ideal temperature.
- Introduce a bedtime routine. You can start when your baby is as young as 6 weeks, but don’t worry if your baby is older – it’s never too late. A routine can include a warm bath, a book, and a lullaby before putting her to bed.
- Pick a consistent bedtime. Experts recommend between 7 and 8 o’clock so your baby isn’t overtired and fighting sleep.
- Follow a predictable daytime schedule. Try to get your baby up around the same time every morning, and feed her and put her down for naps at about the same times during the day. This predictability helps her relax and feel secure, and a relaxed baby settles down to sleep more easily.
- Make sure your baby doesn’t have a medical condition that could affect her sleep. An underlying condition, such as sleep apnea, needs to be addressed by your baby’s doctor before you consider a sleep training program.
Some Sleep Training Approaches
Some babies do this quickly and easily. But many others have trouble settling down to sleep – or getting back to sleep when they’ve wakened – and they need help along the way. We describe below the three main approaches to sleep training: cry it out, no tears, and fading.
1. The Cry it out approach
Proponents of these sleep training methods say it’s okay for your child to cry when you put him to bed and leave the room, although they don’t advocate letting a baby cry indefinitely. Typically, these methods suggest putting your baby to bed when he’s still awake and allowing short periods of crying punctuated by comforting (but not picking up) your child.
2. The No tears approach
Sleep training advocates in this category encourage a more gradual approach – soothing the baby to sleep and offering comfort right away when the child cries. Pediatrician William Sears, author of The Baby Sleep Book*, is a leading proponent. Parent educator Elizabeth Pantley outlines a step-by-step no tears approach in her book The No-Cry Sleep Solution*.
3. The Fading approach
Fading, also known as adult fading or camping out, falls in the middle of the sleep training spectrum. In fading, parents gradually diminish their bedtime role by sitting near the baby until he falls asleep and gradually moving the chair further away from the crib each night. Another fading approach is to check on the baby and reassure him (without picking him up) every five minutes until he falls asleep.
4. Other approaches
Some experts suggest techniques that are slightly different than these methods. Perhaps the best known is pediatrician Harvey Karp, author of The Happiest Baby on the Block*. His method suggests a very specific routine involving the so-called five S’s: swaddling, the side or stomach position (for calming your baby, not for sleeping), shushing, swinging, and sucking.
That being said, some children are naturally good sleepers, and before too long they fall into a sleep pattern that everyone’s happy with. Others are naturally fussy or wakeful and may need more structure – or more nurturing – to help them sleep well. You don’t have to follow any method strictly. You might find just one aspect of a particular method effective for your child. Feel free to take what you can use. Sometimes common sense is the best “method.” Families often develop their own ways of getting their kids into good sleep habits. If it works, keep going.