Let’s talk sleep training methods. What actually works?
I love my sleep. My husband loves his sleep. We’re basically koalas. So naturally, I assumed our offspring would be equally predisposed towards to near-comas. I never imagined that my lovely, adorable son would keep me up every single night for a whole year, waking multiple times a night until, suddenly, he decided to sleep through. After ageing me ten years and causing a sleep deficit that I’m still paying off.
I never really thought I’d have to look into sleep training methods. I read a lot, but never about sleep. And once my son was born, I was too flat-out exhausted to keep my eyes open long enough to read sleep training books (or any parenting books, for that matter). Instead, I frantically bought white noise machines and any number of unnecessary baby items, so desperate was I to sleep more than three hours in a row. Seriously. Charlie was trying to kill me.
If anyone is just about to pop and they’re attempting to be a little bit more prepared than me, I’ve gone ahead and done the homework for you. Below are the most common sleep training methods — along with what worked for us.
Before We Get Started — What is Sleep Training?
Sleep training is all about teaching your baby how to sleep independently. Many people look at sleeping as a skill to be learned like any other. To develop healthy sleeping habits, they need to be taught and helped. They need a routine, they need a calm environment and they need to learn how to go to sleep themselves, without the help of an aid.
When it comes down to it, it’s all about sleep associations. With sleep training, we’re trying to avoid negative sleep associations (like feeding or rocking them to sleep) and encourage positive sleep associations (like a special teddy bear, or singing themselves to sleep).
Do I Really Need to Sleep Train My Baby?
I’ve learned that life really isn’t fair — some parents get babies who seem to sleep through the night from the moment they’re born. I know other parents with toddlers who still aren’t sleeping through. So whether or not you need (or want) to sleep train your baby depends entirely on you and your family. Many experts recommend sleep training as a way of encouraging healthy sleep habits and combating sleep issues … but many babies don’t just don’t seem to have any sleep issues at all.
What Age Should You Start Sleep Training?
Sleep training newborns isn’t a great idea. Their tummies are too small, they need to have milk frequently and they don’t have the ability to self-soothe. If you’re going to try sleep training, you will want to wait until they’re around six months old. By that time, their stomachs have grown and your baby will be more aware of routine.
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Popular Sleep Training Methods
1. The Ferber Method
This sleep training method is named after paediatrician Dr Richard Ferber and people often confuse it with the ‘Cry it Out’ method. However, there are differences. You might want to think of it as ‘Cry it Out Lite’. Ferber doesn’t recommend simply leaving babies to cry for long periods of time. Instead, the method aims to avoid unnecessary crying.
The method involves putting your baby in their crib, drowsy but awake. Then you leave the room. If they start crying, wait three minutes before you go in and check on them. Then you wait five minutes, then ten. You begin increasing the increments and the idea is, eventually, your baby learns to settle themselves.
People generally prefer this method over Cry it Out as you are free to go in and reassure your baby. You can give them a gentle rub and tell them you love them, but the method advises against picking the baby up. People who have seen success with this method say that it takes up to a week to work.
2. Cry it Out Sleep (Possibly the Most Controversial Sleep Training Method)
We’ve all heard of this sleep training method. It is a simple method, which involves just leaving babies to cry themselves to sleep. Eventually, they learn to soothe themselves. Supporters of this method say that it encourages independence, but critics say that it can negatively impact a baby’s sense of security and cause psychological damage. While this method isn’t popular these days, if you do choose to use Cry it Out, you shouldn’t have to worry about long-term effects. According to a recent study, this method does not have negative effects on a baby’s attachment to its mother, or on the child’s future behaviour.
3. The Pick Up Put Down Sleep Training Method (PUPD)
The Pick Up Put Down technique involves putting babies down to sleep while they’re drowsy. If they start to cry, you can pick them up and comfort them until they’re drowsy again — and then you put them back to bed. You need to make sure they’re awake. Rinse and repeat until your baby falls asleep by themselves once they’re tucked up in their crib. This method appeals to mums and dads who can’t resist helping their babies with a bit of a cuddle, but some babies find the process over-stimulating, gradually becoming more frustrated.
4. The Fading Method
The Fading Method involves sleep coaching where you identify sleep associations and then fade them out. So, for example, if your baby needs to be rocked to sleep, you gradually shorten the amount of time you need to rock your baby to sleep. Over time, your baby is able to put themselves to sleep. This method is popular for people who favour ‘no cry’ baby sleep training methods, but it does take longer and requires a lot of patience and persistence.
5. The Chair Method
This technique involves putting your baby to bed in the crib and then sitting in a nearby chair until they fall asleep. You’re not meant to help, to soothe or calm them down. You’re just there to reassure them that you are there and they’re not alone. Each night, you’re meant to move the chair further and further away from the crib until you’re outside their bedroom door. Eventually, you should no longer need the chair at all. This method is very gradual. In theory, it should take two weeks to work, but only if you are consistent. A lot of parents (me included) find it too hard to be in the same room as your baby, watching them cry, and not tending to them.
6. The Wake-And-Sleep Method
In his book The Happiest Baby on the Block, paediatrician Dr Harvey Karp promotes this sleeping method. This involves creating a calm environment. Turn on the white noise, swaddle your baby, have the lights low. Then do whatever you can to get your baby to sleep. For example, you might nurse them, walk them or rock them. Once they’re asleep, put them in their crib and then wake them up by tickling their feet or fussing their head. By this point, they are drowsy, they have the white noise and the calm lighting. The idea is they should be able to put themselves to sleep at this point. And if they wake up in the middle of the night, they know they can get themselves back to sleep.
What Sleep Training Method Worked For Us
So I was gradually going insane. From the day he was born, Charlie was always a terrible sleeper, and by the time Charlie was eleven months old, I thought I would die. I was exhausted beyond belief and I’d turned into an angry, fire-breathing dragon.
Check out lessons I learned as a first-time mum
I was considering sleep training, but the turning point came when I could no longer breastfeed Charlie to sleep. No matter how long I fed him for, he’d thrash and wriggle and babble. So the time had come to sleep train. I was dreading it.
Thankfully, it was a fairly pain-free process for us, ultimately, and it only took around three days. We decided that my husband would have to take charge of it because if I stayed with Charlie, he’d just want to feed and play.
Ultimately, we didn’t adhere to any real sleep training method. We kind of made up our as we went along. We decided to do our routine as normal — teeth brushing, bath, book, milk. Then I got up, said goodnight, and left. And Charlie wailed for about an hour. The first night was the absolute worst. Si stayed with him, holding him and shushing him and comforting him until, eventually, he fell asleep. Then Si lowered him into his crib and came downstairs, literally sweating and exhausted. But that night he actually slept through the night for the first time in his life.
The next night was a little easier. He cried for about twenty minutes, while his daddy cuddled him. Then he fell fast asleep. The third night, he cried for about ten minutes, and that was the end of it. By the fourth night, it had become routine and he knew what to expect, so he went happily to sleep after a kiss from me and a song (or four) from daddy.
This weird technique worked for us because I couldn’t handle the idea of Charlie crying himself to sleep without having one of us right there with him. Ultimately, he learned positive sleep associations, and to this day, his routine is the same. He went from waking up three times a night one night to sleeping through the night three days later, with no fuss or frustrations. And I was finally able to regain some of my sanity.
This is by no means an exhaustive list — there are plenty more sleep training techniques out there. Which one do you think should have been on this list?