When I first moved to New York, I babysat on many a Friday and Saturday night to make ends meet (I love kids, so it was a win-win). I watched many a little one who couldn’t sleep through the night, which I more than expected and was prepared for (it often just meant some soothing or even an extra lullaby). At the time, I actually had no idea about sleep-training methods, so when one baby slept through the night a few weekends in a row, I was intrigued. I just had to ask her parents: How did you do it?
The well-rested parents confided that they had a hired a sleep-training coach and they now let their child “cry it out” for a bit before running into the nursery right away. “Sleep-training is about having your baby learn the skill of independent sleep,” says sleep consultant Traci Gleeson of Dream Team Baby, the team who wrote the book The Dream Sleeper. “[It] also allows your baby the time, space, and opportunity to learn their own positive sleep associations.” Although, let’s be clear: There are tons of different sleep-training methods, and with the right knowledge, you don’t need a coach for them to be effective.
“It’s like talking politics,” says TJ Gold, MD, a pediatrician at Tribeca Pediatrics in New York City. “But there’s no one right way to get your child to sleep through the night. There are a lot of different ways.” Meaning if you’re not a fan of the cry-it-out method, that doesn’t mean that you can’t try a different way to get your tiny one to catch some z’s. And when should you start? The rule of thumb is that you should ideally begin training your little one when they are 4 to 6 months old since that’s when they’re able to soothe themselves when they wake. Keep reading to see five of the top sleep-training methods that actually work so you and baby can get a restful sleep.
Also known as “CIO” or “Extinction,” this is the method that I mentioned above. It revolves around letting your child self-soothe themselves to sleep when they wake (and yes, as you can see by its name, it often results in some tears). While some experts are firmly against it and say it can make your child feel insecure during bedtime, proponents are convinced that it teaches your child to be less dependent on you (and is safe, as long as you check on them). A 2016 study actually found that in the long run, CIO can actually be the least stressful for your child: “The babies in the cry-it-out group—whose parents used gradual extinction—fell asleep faster, slept longer, woke up less, and had lower stress levels overall than the babies in the other two groups after three months and a year.”
Harvey Karp, FAAP, who spoke to us about swaddling recently, is a proponent of the Wake-and-Sleep method. The pediatrician and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block suggests doing all the normal things you would do to get them to sleep—feeding, rocking, swaddling—before putting them in their crib. At this point, the goal is to wake them up slightly so they learn (in your presence) how to calm themselves back to sleep and don’t become overly dependent on your help. This is how Karp describes his technique: “Then you slide them into the crib or bassinet and you wake them up—you tickle their feet or something and you wake them a little bit. They’re drowsy and they’re kind of drunk from the milk a little bit. They’re swaddled, they have the white noise, so they tend to fall back asleep in five to 10 seconds. Or, at most, you jiggle the crib a little bit to get them back to sleep.”
THE CHAIR METHOD
You may also know this technique as the Sleep Lady Shuffle. It involves you going about your regular bedtime routine with your baby. Then you sit down on a chair near the crib and wait for your child to nod off without helping them in any way. Each night, you move the chair a bit further away from the crib. This method worked for one parent, who says it taught their son to sleep through the night. The parent says: “After running through our evening routine—playtime, supper, bath, toothbrushing, book, prayers—I put my child down for bed and sat beside him, not touching or talking to him. Then over the next couple of weeks, I moved my chair progressively further from the crib until I was finally sitting outside a closed door.”
THE FERBER METHOD
This method popularized by pediatrician Richard Ferber, MD, is often confused with CIO. But his method is a bit different: First put your child in their crib asleep but tired and leave the room. If they start to cry, wait about three minutes before going into the room to settle them without picking them up—patting and verbal soothing is okay. The next time it happens, wait five minutes, then 10 (see where this is going?). As the week goes on, the intervals become longer and you are gradually teaching your child to self-soothe. “We did Ferber once my son was 8 months old,” says one mother. “He got the hang of it pretty quickly and has been sleeping on his own for 10 to 12 hours ever since.”
THE FADING METHOD
This sleep-training technique is a little less specific than the rest. It allows you to choose the bedtime habit you do with your child that you will gradually phase out. An example of this is rocking—over a period of time, you will slowly decrease the amount of time you rock your child before leaving the room until you are no longer doing it. “Fading is a gradual reduction in parental intervention,” explains Kim West, aka The Sleep Lady. “The basic goal with fading is to help minimize the crying and frustration your child experiences while allowing him to learn to fall asleep on his own.”
So now that you know about five of the top sleep-training methods out there, they may be worth considering. And remember: If one technique doesn’t work for you, you can always go a different route—your pediatrician will likely have an idea of what may work best for your family.