How to Sleep Train Your Baby
Contributing Expert: Irene Freeman, MD
This post is part of our newborn health and wellness series. For more information from our pediatric experts, visit our Newborn Resources page.
Is it time to sleep train your baby? What does sleep training even look like?
Sleep training can feel like a controversial topic, but it doesn’t have to be. Lurie Children’s pediatricians explain how sleep training can help parents and babies achieve a very worthwhile goal: Getting a good night’s sleep.
What Is Sleep Training for a Baby?
Sleep training is helping your baby figure out how to fall asleep with less support. In other words, without being held and rocked to sleep, or nursed and rocked back to sleep after they no longer need to wake to feed.
Eventually, a baby needs to fall asleep without parents doing all the soothing work. This can be a hard transition, for both babies and parents. But ultimately, it helps the whole family to get a better night's sleep, which is good for everybody's health.
When to start sleep training should be a conversation between you and your pediatrician. Generally, pediatricians give the okay when the baby is three or four months old. Sleep training is about both falling asleep and getting back to sleep when waking.
A baby who is four months old should be able to fall asleep on their own (while drowsy) and sleep for a stretch of six or seven hours. Keep in mind that “should be able” simply means they are capable of it physically at this stage of development. It doesn’t mean you are doing something wrong if they haven’t quite met this milestone! In fact, this is the very thing sleep training was designed for.
Sleep Training Methods
There are two basic methods for sleep training. Both involve letting your baby cry, which can be an excruciating experience for parents.
Remember, you should think about what works for you and your family. No one can tell you what the right method is. The point is that you have options, and once your baby has reached a certain age, it is okay to let them cry when they don’t need anything else except sleep.
Option 1: The Gradual Method
In this method, you put your baby down when they are drowsy and leave the room. If they cry, you wait a little bit longer each night before you go in to soothe them. Over the course of several days or weeks, your baby develops the skills to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own.
The same is true for tending to them if they wake shortly after falling asleep. You don’t soothe them right away; rather, you wait longer each night.
Option 2: The Cold Turkey Method
This method is often more emotionally fraught for parents. You pick a night, put your baby down for bed and you leave the room. And no matter how long they cry, you don’t rock them or nurse them back to sleep.
You follow the same method if they wake shortly after falling asleep. You can check on them to make sure they are okay, but you don’t soothe. It may take a few nights, but this method is generally quicker.
If this sounds barbaric, keep in mind that it’s far easier at four or five months old than it is later. At 12 months old, for example, your baby may be able to stand up in the crib and even call out “mama” or “dada.”
Some parents do a combination of the gradual method and the cold turkey method, depending on if it’s naptime, bedtime or the middle of the night. You might tend to them and change their diaper if needed, but let them fall back to sleep on their own.
Sleep Training by Creating New Sleep Associations
If neither method sounds appealing to you, consider other things you can do to help nudge the baby along. For example, make sure that nighttime sleep and daytime sleep both happen in the same place, and keep it really dark in the room where the child sleeps.
Moving your baby into their own room, especially for breastfeeding parents, can also be helpful. Babies can sense your proximity, and if you’re not right there, a baby is more likely to go back to sleep on their own.
Just like you probably sleep terribly the first few nights of vacation because you’re in an unfamiliar bed, babies need time to adjust to what’s unfamiliar to them. In the first weeks of life, as they transition from womb to world, they learn new sleep associations, like swaddling and being rocked and held. Gradually, they need to learn yet another set of sleep associations, like being alone in a bed and getting themselves back to sleep.
Remember the goal: to get your baby to sleep in their own sleeping place, in their own room. Work to move towards that — either little by little or all at once, depending on your baby’s temperament and what you can tolerate.
Just like the adult who's sleeping in a weird hotel bed, the more time the baby spends sleeping in their new place on their own, the sooner the baby gets used to it. And that’s a happy night for everyone.
In addition to expert specialty care, Lurie Children’s offers several primary care locations around the Chicago area for your child's healthcare needs — from infancy through childhood and adolescence. Learn more about our primary care services.
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