Within the first few months of having a baby, most parents learn about sleep training. Your introduction to baby sleep training might have been in a mom’s group, baby swim class or 3 am desperate Google session.
As a baby sleep consultant who has helped thousands of families get better sleep, I know how confusing and overwhelming sleep training can seem. Some of your friends might claim that it saved their sanities (and marriages.) While other friends believe it to be harmful for babies.
Let’s separate fact from fiction! This article will give you a clear summary of what sleep training is (and isn’t) and help you decide whether it’s something that could benefit your baby, and you.
What is sleep training?
Sleep training is the process of helping your baby learn to sleep independently.
If your baby is used to being rocked, held or fed to sleep at bedtime, she will need you to also help her fall back to sleep each time she wakes during the night. But when your baby can fall asleep independently, she won’t need you to resettle her during the night when she wakes. She’s able to do it on her own, just like she did at bedtime!
A baby who is able to sleep independently will only wake if they are hungry, need a diaper change, or are experiencing discomfort (like teething pain or sickness.) Sleep training is the process of helping your baby learn to sleep long, restful stretches. Trust me, your little one will still wake and let you know if she needs something!
Common misconceptions about sleep training
Unfortunately, sleep training has become a controversial topic in parenting circles. I believe that’s because many people have limited experience or inaccurate views on what sleep training really is. So let’s discuss these now.
The two most common misconceptions about sleep training are:
This is simply not true.
Sleep training does not equate abandoning your child every night at bedtime. In fact, there are a variety of sleep training methods you can choose based on your child’s personality and your parenting style. I offer three step-by-step methods where you stay with your little one as you sleep train in my sleep training program.
These methods involve various levels of hands-on and verbal support, however all have the same goal: to get your child to sleep independently at bedtime. That is, to not be rocked, held or fed to sleep.
Whether you want to do a pick-up/put-down method, sit next to your baby’s crib and hold their hand, or pop in and out of the room periodically - it’s up to you! As long as you have a clear plan of what to do and can be consistent, you can find success with sleep training. We all get to independent sleep in the end, we just take different paths to get there.
To be fair, some crying is to be expected with sleep training. This is completely normal. You are changing your baby’s sleep habits, and they might not be too happy with these changes! Just like when you take a dangerous object away from your baby or don’t let them play in the dog’s bowl- some protest crying or fussing might happen. But just remember that short episodes of crying are healthy and natural for young children. (It’s called “positive stress response” according to Harvard).
This is another common misconception.
The goal of sleep training isn’t always to get your little one sleeping through the night with no night wakings. In fact, young babies need to eat during the night. As an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, I recommend holding on to night feeds until close to 9 months old. (Or older if your pediatrician recommends or you prefer to.)
The goal of sleep training is to help your baby sleep so independently that he will only wake when he’s truly hungry, rather than waking out of habit.
The path to independent sleep varies for each child. Appropriately planned and researched sleep training methods should never result in hours of crying nor only focus on completely eliminating night wakings.
What can I expect from sleep training?
It’s important to have realistic expectations of your child when sleep training. Your baby’s age and growth/weight gain patterns help you identify when they are ready for independent sleep.
Here are general expectations that parents can have when sleep training:
- Babies 5 months (and older) are ready to be sleep trained. At this age we know that babies have the ability to learn to self-settle, which is required with sleep training.
- Fewer night wakings and longer sleep stretches. As your baby learns to fall asleep independently, she will be able to resettle back to sleep during the night. Don’t worry, your little one will still call out in the night if she’s hungry!
- Longer sleep stretches both day and night. An independently sleeping baby can connect sleep cycles and will not need to be resettled every 45-50 minutes. Every parent’s dream!
- Baby falls asleep with less fuss at bedtime and for naps. As your baby gets used to settling himself to sleep, long periods of crying or fighting sleep disappear. Sleep trained babies go into their cribs happy and awake, and fall asleep easily on their own. It’s pure magic!
What are the signs that my baby is ready for sleep training?
Here are 3 signs that your baby is ready:
- Your child is 5 months or older. At this age babies have the ability to learn to settle to sleep on their own.
- You’re both up all night. Your baby is waking and needing help falling back to sleep 3 or more times each night. And your instinct tells you that they don’t need to feed so often at night.
- Exhaustion. Waking up all night long exhausts both parents and babies. A proper night’s sleep improves your baby’s moods, appetites and learning. It also improves parents’ emotional health, physical energy and relationships.
Do all babies need to be sleep trained?
No. If you, your baby (and the whole family) are happy and thriving, and you’re not interested in sleep training, there’s no need to change anything.
Sleep training is meant for families that are struggling physically and emotionally with broken sleep, night after night.
If you’re worried about sleep training being unsafe or harming your bond with your baby you’ll be pleased to know that multiple research studies have shown sleep training to be safe and beneficial for both infants and parents. And also to reduce stress long-term and help prevent maternal depression (Hiscock et al, 2008).
How can I find out more?
I offer a variety of sleep training methods, which accommodate for baby personalities, ages and parenting style. Using a combination of scientific research, and years of experience helping thousands of families, the programs at BSMS are carefully thought out and adapted to fit each family.
Jilly Blankenship is a Neonatal Nurse, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, mom of two, and founder of Baby Sleep Made Simple. She offers sleep training solutions based on your baby’s age, temperament and your parenting style.