I don’t like “extinction” sleep training. Have you heard of this? It’s where you place your baby in the crib awake at bedtime and don’t return until morning, leaving your baby to figure out how to fall asleep on their own. I understand that some parents use this as a last resort, but it saddens me to hear parents who think extinction is their only option.
I’ve helped thousands of families get their babies sleeping through the night. And very early on I learned that sleep training can be catered to suit a family’s needs and individualities.
In fact, sleep training goes best when parents are able to choose a method that fits well with their baby’s age, personality, energy levels and unique situation. It’s what my sleep training program is all about.
Some parents need to start sleeping through the night quickly, for their own emotional health or because their baby is struggling. While other parents are ok taking a few weeks to help their little one learn to sleep better.
Education is essential! So I made this guide to explain a few of my favorite sleep training methods for babies and toddlers. It describes the details of the Ferber method, Chair method, Pick up / put down and gentle sleep training. And helps you pick the right sleep training method for your little one!
What is sleep training?
Sleep training is the process of teaching your baby independent sleep habits. It’s teaching your baby to fall asleep without any outside help and self-settle during the night.
The reason why independent sleep is important is because the way that your baby falls asleep at bedtime is the way they need to fall back to sleep each time they wake at night.
We all wake throughout the night, even adults. Sometimes we fully wake up, have a sip of water, fix our pillow and fall back asleep. Other times we only half-wake, change positions and never remember it. It’s completely normal for everyone to wake throughout the night.
If your baby is nursed, rocked, bounced, held or patted to sleep at bedtime, they’re going to need your direct help each time they wake at night. As you know, this becomes exhausting for everyone.
Here’s an example: At bedtime, you feed your baby to sleep in a rocking chair. Once he’s asleep, you place him in the crib and tiptoe out of the room. Your baby fell asleep in your arms, nursing in his bedroom.
A few hours later, your baby wakes and his mental alarm bells start going off. He’s now in the crib, which is a different space from where he fell asleep. You are nowhere in sight, so that’s different too. And he doesn’t know how to fall back asleep without feeding. So he cries out for you. When you help your baby fall asleep, it becomes the only way they know how to fall asleep.
Please know that you haven’t done anything wrong! Most of us parents have helped our babies fall asleep. It’s perfectly natural, especially in the early months. Helping your baby fall asleep isn’t a problem until it’s a problem. It only becomes an issue when your baby is waking every hour or two all night long and needing your direct help to fall back asleep, which exhausts everyone.
Here’s another example: At bedtime you feed your baby, read a book together, place him in the crib awake, give him a kiss, turn off the light and walk out the door. He spends the next few minutes happily looking around before his eyelids get heavy and he falls asleep.
Two hours later, he wakes and realizes he’s in the exact same environment that he was at bedtime. No mental alarm bells go off because nothing has changed. Plus, he knows how to fall back asleep on his own. He did it at bedtime.
The way that your baby falls asleep at bedtime is the way they need to fall back asleep every time they wake at night.
If your baby wakes throughout the night, and you’re both exhausted, the best thing to do is teach them how to settle themself to sleep. When your baby learns this skill, they’ll automatically start sleeping long stretches and only wake at night when truly hungry.
The concept is simple. But if you’ve never heard this before, it’s pretty eye-opening. And once you implement it, it’s truly life-changing.
When can I sleep train my baby?
Independent sleep is possible from 5 months old (20 weeks from baby’s due date.) Some experts say as early as 4 months old. The reason why I prefer to wait is that babies go through a big development in their fourth month. (It’s what the 4 month sleep regression is all about.) Sleep patterns change at this age, so it’s best to wait to ensure your little one is past this development (and regression) before beginning sleep training.
If your baby is younger than 5 months it’s never too early to get them on a healthy sleep routine. (Find your baby’s age in the top menu to get an age-appropriate sleep guide.)
What you should do before sleep training your baby
Before you begin sleep training your baby or toddler, you should take a few days to introduce healthy sleep habits. Sleep training goes much easier when your little one is well-rested and has a relaxing bedtime routine.
Well-rested babies sleep better, day and night. And routines have been proven to help babies fall asleep quicker and sleep longer at night.
My Exhausted Mom’s Starter Kit walks you through each step of setting your baby or toddler up to sleep great at night. It has simple “baby steps” you can begin tonight.
Doing the steps from my Exhausted Mom’s Starter Kit, for a few days, will improve your baby’s sleep. Many parents tell me their baby’s night wakings decrease or they nap longer!
To get babies sleeping through the night, though, we typically have to do more.
Specifically, to ensure that your 5+ month old settles easily at bedtime and sleeps all night, they need to learn to sleep independently.
It sounds pretty simple, right? You just place your baby in the crib awake and let them fall asleep on their own.
“But… what if my baby cries?!”
This is the question on every parent’s mind. No parent walks into sleep training like “Alright, let’s cry it out!”
Instead, most parents (myself included) want to avoid crying or stressing their babies. The truth is that most babies will fuss, cry or resist sleep training, because it’s a change from their typical routine.
How much they fuss, cry or resist depends on a few things like their temperament, the sleep training method, and parental consistency.
Sleep training methods explained
That’s the background of why sleep training works.
A question many parents have is how they can get their baby happily falling asleep on their own in the crib every night.
Maybe you’ve tried placing your baby in the crib awake and they cried, screamed or even vomited. So you quickly picked them up and helped them fall asleep. It probably felt too upsetting or stressful to try again. That makes perfect sense.
We’d all love for our little ones to sleep through the night every night, but we’re not sure if we want to sacrifice tears to achieve this.
What I’ve found through my years of working with families is that there are many ways to teach babies to sleep well.
- Some babies adapt easily to the Ferber method (or controlled crying.) It works well for their temperament or specific situation.
- Other babies need a parent to stay in the room in order to be calm enough to fall asleep in a new way.
- And there are little ones who need a slow entry to sleep training, with lots of hands-on help, in order to learn a new way of falling asleep.
Here’s a sleep training truth I’ve learned over the years
Sleep training is most effective when suited to your baby’s age and temperament.
And here’s another one:
As long as parents stay committed and consistent, their babies will adapt and learn to sleep beautifully.
Here’s a guide that shows you a few popular and effective sleep training methods. It also helps you pick the best sleep training method for your baby or toddler.
Ferber or “Controlled Crying”
This method is popular, effective and sometimes controversial. Dr. Richard Ferber literally “wrote the book” on this method explaining that leaving your baby for short periods of time helps them learn to fall asleep on their own.
With the Ferber method of sleep training, you typically remove all sleep props at once. If your baby is used to nursing to sleep, taking a pacifier or being rocked, you would stop all sleep props on the first night. After a relaxing bedtime routine, you place your baby in the crib awake, give them a kiss and leave the room.
Parents can go in to quickly check on their baby every few minutes. Picking baby up or helping them fall asleep isn’t allowed.
As you may imagine, this method usually involves crying. It’s normal for babies to cry in protest when changing their sleep habits. They don’t understand this new routine and they’re not happy with not being helped to sleep.
This sleep training method is “controversial” because some parents don’t believe in leaving a baby on their own to cry in order to learn independent sleep habits. Other parents praise this method with getting their baby sleeping through the night in a matter of days and crying less in the long-term.
In my experience, I’ve found the Ferber or “controlled crying” method of sleep training to be highly effective. Especially when used with “easy going,” energetic or strong-willed babies and toddlers.
Do you feel anxious or scared about the thought of your baby crying during sleep training?
Or do you worry that sleep training might harm your baby?
Here are some high-quality research studies that explored this exact topic and found that sleep training does NO HARM to babies both short-term and long-term.
Camping out / Chair method sleep training
Sleep training using the chair method involves parents “camping out” in their little one’s bedroom. Rather than leaving baby’s bedroom, parents sit in a chair quietly while their baby learns a new way of falling asleep.
In its truest form, it’s a hands-off method. Parents are meant to sit quietly and not pick baby up or help them fall asleep. Singing or shushing is ok for a few days.
What’s imperative for making the chair method successful is you have to move your chair away from baby’s crib. Each night you move a few feet closer to the bedroom door. Once you’re there, you spend a few nights popping out of baby’s bedroom for them to fall asleep on their own.
Parents love this method because they get to stay with their baby or toddler during sleep training. Listening to your little one cry and not being able to soothe them can be upsetting, so this method isn’t for everyone.
I’ve found chair method to be especially effective for toddlers going through separation anxiety or babies who are sensitive or overly affectionate.
Some babies need a few nights to warm up to this method with hands-on help. This is something I help parents with in my sleep training program, 21 Days to Peace & Quiet.
Pick up / put down method
The pick up / put down sleep training method is very hands-on. Its name gives it away. You pick your baby up when they’re upset and place them back in the crib once they’re calm. Sounds easy enough, but I’ve found that the details are what matters with this method. (This is a sleep training method I help parents with in my sleep training program.)
Over the course of 1-2 weeks, you pick your baby up less so they learn to fall asleep on their own in the crib.
I’ve found that this method is not suited well to toddlers or high energy babies. Too much hands-on help excites them, and they think it’s a game. Or they get very frustrated not being helped to sleep in their usual way.
Pick up / put down is great for babies younger than 9 months or very sensitive / affectionate babies.
Gentle sleep training
With gentle sleep training, you go slowly and remove one sleep prop at a time.
Let’s say you normally rock and feed your baby to sleep. First, you might choose to stop feeding to sleep but continue rocking. Once baby is used to that, you would stop rocking to sleep and instead hold baby until they fall asleep. Next, you would get your little one used to falling asleep in the crib. You might use hands-on help for a few days to ease this adjustment.
The idea behind gentle sleep training is that you slowly change your baby’s sleep habits so that they resist or cry less. This works well for little ones who don’t adapt to change very easily.
The method I created in my sleep training program is called ‘Minimal Tears.’ I call it this because I can’t promise “no cry” sleep training. It’s normal for babies to fuss, whimper or push back when changing sleep habits. But, what I help parents do is move slowly, so their baby has time to adapt.
Most parents love the idea of gentle sleep training. I can get my baby sleeping through the night without tears? Let’s do it! But it’s not for the faint of heart. Patience and dedication are critical for gentle sleep training to work.
Gentle sleep training takes several weeks to see big improvements. For many parents, this is too long.
If you feel like you’re at your wit’s end and need your baby to start sleeping better in a few days, gentle sleep training isn’t your best option. And that’s ok, mama! We all start at different places.
That’s why I offer a range of sleep training methods. Parents are more likely to stay consistent and dedicated when they get to choose a method best suited for their baby and their situation.
To recap, sleep training is the process of teaching your baby independent sleep habits. Once your baby learns to fall asleep on their own and resettle back to sleep during the night, you’ll join the “sleeping through the night” club! In my opinion, parenting becomes a whole lot easier when the family is sleeping well.
The Ferber method works great for many babies and toddlers, but not all. Other little ones do best when parents stay nearby, like in the chair method or pick up / put down.
There’s no one right way to sleep train babies. Instead, the best sleep training method for your baby depends on their age, temperament and your parenting style.
I’d love to walk you through it all and help you and your little one learn to sleep well. Here’s info on my popular sleep training program. If you have any questions, you can post them in the comments below.