I can’t, in good conscience, title this article a sleep training guide, because in the process of sleep training James, I have become convinced that there cannot possibly be a single ideal way of training “the universal child” how to sleep.
The fact that “sleep” and “training” are even two words that need to appear in the same sentence baffles me. I mean, as an adult, I’d like nothing more than to sleep. Why my baby has seemingly no interest in it, is utterly bewildering to me. When I was pregnant, I could never understand why stay-at-home moms complained of being so busy or tired and getting so little sleep. I mean, according to the National Sleep Foundation, newborns are supposed to sleep for 14-17 hours a day, so, how could moms not be getting enough sleep?… I am now embarrassed by my naivete. What I neglected to understand were the conditions required for a baby to sleep: namely, being held by mom 24/7. Thus, while the baby may sleep, mom does not. Needless to say, this is not a tenable scenario to maintain.
So maybe you’re wondering how to get your baby to sleep at night (not on you), or when should you start sleep training your baby, or when should you stop swaddling your baby? Unfortunately, there are a lot of different options for you and some conflicting opinions. In this article I’ll try to cover some of the basics for sleep training at different stages of infancy and what we choose to do with our baby.
The most important thing to know about baby sleep is that each baby is unique and you should ultimately look at yourself as a partner with your baby and your baby’s pediatrician to come up with a sleep strategy that works for your family. When in doubt, trust your instincts and your doctor’s advice.
Reframing the Idea of Sleep Training
Personally, I think the biggest barrier that parents face when thinking about how to help their babies sleep, regardless of what age they are, is the battle they fight in their own heads. As new parents especially, we want to do right by our children. We want to teach them how to be successful, capable, and confident little people someday, but we also want to make sure they feel safe, secure, and loved.
When the topic of sleep training comes up, a lot of the time it can feel outdated, authoritative, or overly controlling. It can also feel selfish. I really battled with whether my sleep training choices were about what was best for James, or if they were what was best for me.
What helped me was to re-frame my mindset and to think of teaching James how to sleep as my first major moment of parenting. We all know good parents don’t give in to everything their children wants all the time, that children need structure and boundaries to thrive, but figuring out the right time to initiate some of these parenting practices can feel tricky when you’re actually in the moment (especially with babies, who can’t tell you what they’re feeling or why). As we’ll discuss, there is a right and wrong time to “train” your child to sleep, but if and when you decide to start that process, and the method you ultimately choose to do so, is up to you because you’re the parent and that’s what parents do. They parent.
When talking to my cousin, who is much wiser than I, about this topic right before we decided to sleep train James in earnest, she said to think about sleep training as giving your baby “the gift of sleep.” I hadn’t thought about it that way before but found it really helpful. So if you’re reading this and feeling a sense of internal conflict over whether or not you’re a bad mom for considering sleep training, you’re not. The fact that you care enough to think about it and try to do right by your child is evidence that you are a good mom. One of my favorite sleep training specialists on Instagram, (@takingcarababies), likes to remind moms that there is no better mom for your baby than you, and it’s so true. So start by giving yourself a little bit of grace, and let’s get into it.
0-3 Months: Newborn Sleep
The kind of sleep training you think of when you hear the term “sleep training” doesn’t begin at birth. Instead, during your baby’s first few months, you will be focusing on helping your baby learn how to distinguish between daytime and nighttime and how to connect their sleep cycles.
Teaching Your Baby the Difference Between Night and Day
When babies are born, they can’t tell the difference between daytime and nighttime, at least not insomuch as it relates to sleeping; they have to learn. You can help your baby learn to make this distinction by keeping them in an environment with lots of natural light and everyday sounds (the tv, vacuum cleaner, etc.) during the daytime (even for their naps) and in quieter, low-light environments in the evening.
You probably already know that humans go through sleep cycles every night, alternating between lighter and deeper stages of sleep. Adults are able to connect their sleep cycles without waking up, but babies are not born with this ability; they have to learn how. One way you can help babies learn how to connect their sleep cycles is by implementing what Pamela Druckerman, in Bringing Up Bebe, calls “the pause.”
Implementing the pause simply means not responding immediately when your baby wakens, stirs, or cries in the middle of the night. Instead, wait a couple of minutes (literally, a couple, even 2-3) to see if your baby ends up falling back asleep on their own.
Note: If you know your baby is hungry, sick, or wet, those are not good times to use the pause.
Feeding On Demand
One notable exception to any moves toward sleep training for young babies is feeding. Young babies (ages 0-4 months) should be fed on-demand. Ideally, this ends up being every 2-3 hours from the start of one feeding to the start of the subsequent feeding by the time your baby is about a month old, but that’s not always the case. Some babies cluster feed for hours, even at night.
Of course, you do need to get some sleep too, so it’s okay to wait about two hours between feeds and hand the baby off to someone else if you need to get some shut-eye yourself. Don’t neglect your own needs out of a sense of valiancy. I can attest from first-hand experience the toll that insufficient sleep can take on your morale and patience; it can even affect your breast milk supply.
For more on the importance of responsive feeding, check out this resource from KellyMom.
Helping Your Baby Fall Asleep as a Newborn
There are a few things you can do to help your baby fall and stay asleep as a newborn.
- Swaddling. Not every baby likes to be swaddled, but for us, James wouldn’t fall asleep unless he was. Swaddles work by simulating the cocoon effect of the womb. It also inhibits a baby’s natural startle reflex, which can cause them to awaken more easily when being set down or during REM sleep. We found that using a strong, velcro or zipper based Swaddle like Swaddle Me’s Original Swaddle, the Halo Sleepsack Swaddle, or the Sleapea 5-Second Swaddle worked the best.
- Rocking/Bouncing. Some babies like to be rocked, some like to be bounced, but almost all of them like to be in motion. Try rocking your baby in a rocking chair, pacing the halls with them on your shoulder, or bouncing on an exercise ball to help them drift off to dreamland.
- White Noise. White Noise Machines like the Rohm Portable White Noise Machine or the Baby Shusher work by replicating the sounds of the womb, which help lull your baby to sleep. However, you might be surprised by what kinds of natural white noise work best that you already have in your home. James’ favorite place in the house to fall asleep for the first three months was under the A/C intake. Bathroom fans, running showers, and the drier are also natural white noise environments your baby might enjoy.
4 Months: Sleep Training and the Dreaded 4-Month Sleep Regression
Most experts agree that 4 months is the earliest you should consider sleep training your baby. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to start then though. Right around the time James turned 4 months, we transitioned him out of a swaddle, he started teething, we moved him out of a bassinet and into a crib, and we moved from an apartment into our in-laws’ home. He also started working on rolling, sitting, and eating solid foods around the same time. That is a lot of change! So for us, it didn’t make sense to start sleep training then. We waited until James was closer to 5.5 months. However, from a developmental perspective, there is nothing wrong with introducing sleep training at four months old. (Jump to Sleep Training Options).
The 4-Month Sleep Regression
As I mentioned, part of the reason we didn’t begin sleep training at four months was because of all of the changes James was going through during that time. All of those changes–especially ones like learning how to sit up and roll over–signal major developmental growth for your baby. In fact, it is around four months that babies experience one of their first big developmental leaps forward, which often causes a disruption in their sleep patterns–ergo, the 4-month sleep “regression”. I put regression in quotes because although we call it a regression, and indeed sleep does seem to take a downward turn for a bit, it’s helpful to remember that your baby is actually going through so much “progression” in other areas.
Since we didn’t sleep train during this period, we had to develop some other coping methods to deal with James’ erratic sleep patterns. Prior to this point, I had been able to take over most of the night time feeding and coddling responsibilities, but when James started waking up more and more frequently and struggling to fall back asleep, I had to rely on Brad more to help hold and rock James to sleep. I think more than anything else, asking your partner to help shoulder the responsibilities of nighttime wakings and confronting the challenge as a team is critically important (if for no other reason than maintaining sanity). Rest assured, your baby will sleep again, and so will you. It just takes time.
Transitioning from a Swaddle to a Sleep Sac
Right around the time James turned four months old, we also had to transition him from a swaddle to a sleep sack. There isn’t one right answer for when to transition your baby out of swaddling, but most sleep experts agree that around 4-5 months, or when your baby starts trying to roll over is an important time to begin making the transition.
We started this transition by leaving one or both of James’ arms out of the swaddle after I fed him in the middle of the night and put him back to bed, which is when he was calmest and most tolerant to change. We tried slowly transitioning him to going to sleep with his arms out at the beginning of the evening but would end up swaddling him if it took too long. Finally, our pediatrician recommended that we just bite the bullet and make the shift. It was a rough few nights, but eventually, he got the hang of sleeping without being swaddled.
We did find that the type of sleep sack affected how easily James would fall asleep. Once we purchased a sleep sack with a higher tog rating, he fell asleep more easily, we think because the lightly weighted feeling was comforting to him.
5-6 Months: No More Mr. Nice Guy
So, what happens when the four-month sleep regression rolls into months five, six, and beyond? If your baby still wakes up every 1-2 hours, is unable to soothe themselves back to sleep, and you and your spouse are starting to feel like you’re at your wit’s end, this might be the place when you start considering sleep training.
Sleep Training Options
If you do decide to start sleep training, there are many options available to you. Some of the more common approaches include:
- Bedtime Fading
- The Chair Method
- The Pick-Up/Put-Down Method
- Graduated Extinction/The Ferber Method
- Total Extinction/Cry It Out
To read more about these methods in full detail, check out this article from What to Expect. Really, the varying sleep training methods are all different versions of the same thing: teaching your baby to sleep by offering varying degrees of soothing via your presence, touch, etc. for varying amounts of time. Some parents never sleep train their babies, some never need to. Our baby did, and only one method worked.
Why We Finally Chose the Extinction Method
When James was born, I was pretty adamant about not letting him cry it out. It felt cruel and I didn’t want him to learn to “self-soothe” by giving up on his mother being there for him. I was certain that if we implemented strategies like the pause from birth, gently nudged him into longer sleep stretches, offered lots of love, cuddles, and reassurances, and even kept him in our room for the first year, certainly, he would be able to sleep on his own without us having to resort to something like the cry it out method. But that’s not what happened. I did all of those things and we still ended up at six months with a baby who wouldn’t sleep for more than two hours at a time or fall asleep anywhere but in mom or dad’s arms while being bounced or nursed to sleep. Honestly, he slept better at one-month-old than he did at five months.
We tried a more gradual approach at first, we tried having a consistent bedtime routine, we tried spacing out feeding and naps differently during the day, but nothing worked. We also tried allowing him to cry for a couple of minutes at a time before going in and soothing him, but that only made things worse.
Finally, we followed the advice of several family members, friends, and our pediatrician and just let him cry it out on his own. And it was brutal. But after a few nights, he started to cry for less and less time before falling asleep.
Our Family’s Rules for Crying It Out
If you decide to go with some kind of cry it out method, you will have to find something that works for you, but if it’s helpful, these are some of the boundaries we set for ourselves when we started implementing a cry it out sleep training strategy, and we’ve been largely happy with the results:
- We keep a consistent bedtime routine and bed time and always make sure James has been fed and changed before putting him down at night.
- We do not go into the room while James is crying himself to sleep unless we think he has gotten himself stuck or something seems wrong.
- If he wakes up and it’s been more than 2 hours, I always feed him and will check his diaper before putting him back to bed. If it’s been less than 2 hours, we let him cry it out again.
Times We Don’t Let Him Cry It Out
- If we know he is teething, sick, or has recently had vaccine shots, we do not make him cry it out if he wakes up more frequently than 2 hours because we know he might be experiencing physical discomfort and may need us.
- If it’s been a long night of crying and it’s within an hour or two of when we’re supposed to wake up, I will sometimes just put him in bed with us and co-sleep until it’s time to get up.
Is It Safe to Let Your Baby Cry It Out?
This is a difficult question to answer because science cannot give us a definitive yes or no in response to this question. There are divided perspectives within the scientific and parent communities on this topic. On the one hand, it is probably quite stressful for the child at the moment, thus the crying. However, does that stress lead to short- and/or long-term consequences for the child? To attempt to isolate those variables is pretty much impossible. In our experience, James is just as smiley and happy to see us when he wakes up from crying it out as he was when he woke up from being rocked to sleep, so the short-term consequences seem minimal. He also doesn’t seem any more or less attached to us than he was before we started letting him cry it out.
And although he isn’t old enough yet for us to evaluate the long-term effects, most of our family members had at least one child for whom they had to resort to a cry it out approach and those children have grown up to be wonderfully loving, capable, and functional adults who have great relationships with their parents despite being left to cry in their cribs as babies, so it seems pretty safe. Ultimately, every family has to evaluate what will work best to meet the needs of their family and their baby. This is working for us, at least for now, but what works for you might be different. Just know that it is an option, and if you choose it, you’re not a bad parent.
Purchasing Some Peace of Mind
From a physical safety perspective, I cannot recommend the Owlet Smart Sock highly enough. It’s a monitor that you strap to your baby’s foot that takes constant readings of their heart rate and oxygen levels and alerts you if the baby’s readings go outside of a normal range. At $300, it’s a pretty darn expensive baby accessory, and I probably never would have bought it for myself, but we were gifted it by my cousin who had a baby about a year before we did. It wasn’t even something we registered for. For the first few months of James’ life, I appreciated the sock because it gave me peace of mind as a new parent, but I still probably wouldn’t say it was worth $300. Now that he’s rolling over, I’d say it’s an essential piece of baby equipment.
On a typical night, we put James to bed on his back after an evening walk, bath, bedtime story, song, and nighttime nursing session. As soon as I set him down, he awakens from his half-slumber and begins crying. I pick him up again and tell him how much I love him and get him to calm down, say a little prayer for him, put him back in the crib, and leave. He then proceeds to roll around his crib crying and thrashing about for about ten minutes before falling asleep on his side or on his tummy. If I didn’t have the sock on, I would be terrified in these moments, but because I know the sock is reading his heart rate and I can see that he is still alive on my phone, I can have peace of mind knowing he’s just a little bit of a ridiculous baby.
I mentioned that in the early hours of the morning, we sometimes resort to short-term co-sleeping, so I wanted to address that topic for a moment. The scientific community is pretty adamant against co-sleeping from a safety perspective. Certainly, a lot can go wrong: the baby can roll off the bed, you could accidentally roll onto the baby and smother him, his face could get buried under a sheet or pillow, etc.
However, after having done it, I can pretty confidently say that if you are a light sleeper (which basically all moms are), you’re not drinking, doing drugs, or taking medications that make you drowsy, and if you don’t cover the baby in the blankets you are using on yourself, it’s probably not that dangerous. There are many countries throughout the world where it is normal for people to co-sleep with their children and the infant death rates from co-sleeping are pretty rare. They do still happen though. If co-sleeping is something you are interested in, I would definitely recommend doing some research and talking to your pediatrician first, to make sure you understand all of the risks and whether or not they outweigh the reward.
James does sleep better when he’s in our bed, but we have chosen not to adopt a co-sleeping method because I do not sleep better (for fear of smothering him) and because we believe that it’s important for Brad and me to have that time as a couple apart from James, especially as he gets older. Again though, that’s a choice we have made as a family. You’ll find what works for you too.
Sleep training is an incredibly difficult and controversial topic in parenting (like so many topics these days). There are many options for sleep training and many different resources that you can look to for advice when trying to decide what is the best option for your family and your baby.
In the beginning few months, sleep training looks a lot different than it does later on. We didn’t intend to resort to a more traditional form of sleep training, but after months of bedtime routines that ended in tears and hours of bounding our baby on an exercise ball at two in the morning, we had to do it, if for no other reason than to maintain our own sanity.
And you know what? We’ve all been okay as a result, and whatever you choose to do for your baby, they’ll probably be okay too. Do you know how I know? Because you cared enough to bother to read this incredibly long article that you began by telling you it probably didn’t have the answers you were looking for. That’s commitment; that’s a sign of a great parent who would do anything for their little one, and that’s what’s going to make the biggest difference in your child’s life–not whether or not you rocked them to sleep, let them cry, or let them sleep in your bed until they were twelve. Good on you, Momma!