at what age should i start sleep training my baby

At What Age Should I Start Sleep Training My Baby?

While some parents worry that some methods might harm a baby's health or create attachment-related issues, research shows that sleep training doesn’t increase the risk of behavioural or emotional problems later in childhood.

Many experts say that sleep training is safe, but it’s also healthy and important for babies' development.

Experts recommend beginning sleep training when babies are 4 to 6 months old. This age range is the sweet spot since babies are old enough to physically make it for six to eight hours overnight without needing to eat but aren’t quite where the comforting you provide has become a sleep association.

Baby Nursery FAQs

Even though it does take some work, the results are well worthwhile. The best time to start sleep training is soon after your baby is two months old. Most children will sleep their longest stretches during the night hours by this age.

But, experts recommend waiting until the baby is around three or four months before diving into the tricky but effective realms of sleep training and schedules.

While Tribeca Pediatrics encourages all of their patients to sleep train their babies between 8-12 weeks before developmental leaps and teething begin, most pediatricians are vague and recommend starting anywhere between 3-6 months – or whenever the parents can't take it anymore.

about 90 minutes

At three months old, your baby can stay awake for about 90 minutes between naps. This hour-and-a-half is usually the sweet spot for babies from about 11 to 14. As your baby reaches 16 weeks, you'll extend your baby's awake times again to line up with a 4-month old wake window of closer to two hours.

Here's how to do the pick-up / put down sleep training method: In pick up/put down (or fading), play a strong white noise in the room and sit quietly next to the crib or bed, responding to your tot's cries by picking him up and cuddling—but only until he calms. Please stay in the room until he falls deeply asleep.

Most Popular Baby Sleep-Training Methods Explained

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Sleep training is a loaded phrase and one that is often used synonymously with letting your baby self-soothe or "cry it out," but that's not the whole picture, a certified sleep consultant and the founder of Good Night Sleep Site. 

It's more about being able to teach your baby that they are capable of falling asleep independently; you want your baby to be able to nod off on their own—ideally without nursing, rocking or using a pacifier—because whatever tools they use to fall asleep at bedtime are the same things they're going to wake up looking for during the night.

Yes, this can feel unloving and even downright cruel. You'll find experts on both sides of the issue: Breastfeeding advocates say it's normal for babies of all ages to wake up multiple times to nurse. Even the sleep coaches interviewed for this article disagree with how much crying and distress are acceptable.

Recent research has shown that, at least in babies older than six months, sleep training with controlled crying and bedtime fading (both described below) improved babies' sleep and didn't lead to increased cortisol levels. This reassures that a little bit of crying—if it leads to better sleep—likely won't harm your baby.

I don't think there's any evidence to suggest that it's psychologically damaging to let your baby cry, but I think people need to be reasonable. Letting your baby cry is five to 10 minutes for most of us.

There's also no need to institute a controlled cry-it-out plan if what you're currently doing is working for your family. But good sleep habits never hurt, and being able to fall asleep on one's own is a necessary life skill. So if you sleep-train at a developmentally appropriate time for your baby and with the basic ingredients of healthy sleep in place, you can minimize the amount of crying your baby (and, let's face it, you) will do.

What's The Right Age For Sleep Training?

Most sleep coaches say the ideal time to start sleep training (or promote independent sleep, not necessarily using the cry-it-out method) is based on your baby's development but is usually somewhere between four and six months when your baby hasn't had much time to get used to nursing or rocking to sleep.

At this stage, most babies are also developmentally ready to learn the skill of falling asleep on their own, explains Jennifer Garden, an occupational therapist who runs Sleepdreams in Vancouver. 

Around four months of age, some babies go through a sleep regression because their sleep cycles change, and there are longer periods of lighter sleep per cycle. It's a great time to work on independent sleep skills. 

Other babies' slumber derails around this time because they are working on new skills, like moving around and rolling. Some parents choose to wait until things settle down before embarking on a sleep-training method, but you don't have to.

If your baby is older than six months, don't worry: It's never too late to develop good sleep habits. However, nine months will be a sweet spot for parents to get babies to sleep through the night. They are at a good age for understanding routines and don't need to eat at night.

Your baby's age might determine what kind of sleep-training method you choose, though. For example, you could try a gentle shush-pat technique with a five-month-old, but you'll likely have to leave a one-year-old in the crib as they protest (cry or scream) about the new bedtime arrangement. 

Don't attempt a formal sleep-training method before four months until your baby can go longer in between feeds and their circadian rhythm starts to develop. (Many babies this age still feed at night—contrary to popular thinking, sleep training isn't synonymous with night weaning.) 

Many four-month-old babies are biologically able to go through the night without a feed, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't respond and feed them if other calming methods aren't working. Since every situation is different, we recommend checking with your doctor before withholding your baby's nighttime feeds.

Before Getting Started

Before you even think about "training" your baby to fall asleep on their own, make sure you're following a regular schedule and putting them to bed at a consistent time each night (hint: early is usually better, typically around 7 or 8 p.m.). 

Starting at about two months old, it's a good idea to put them down drowsy but awake whenever you can, to get them (and you) used to it, even if they fuss a bit. Make sure that they've been awake for an appropriate amount of time before bed (an over-or under-tired baby will have trouble falling asleep), and establish a calming and consistent bedtime routine, like a feed, bath or massage followed by pyjamas and stories or songs. 

Some experts recommend feeding at the beginning of the routine to avoid having the baby associate the feeding with falling asleep. Ideally, your baby won't have started to nod off during your bedtime routine. 

You want to make sure your baby is primed for sleep. Be conscious, too, of filling their daytime awake periods with enough activity and stimulation. Kids need to be moving in all sorts of ways when they are awake, not just sitting in a bouncy chair.

Once you've got all the ingredients of a good night's sleep in place and ready to let your baby learn how to fall asleep on their own, here are six common methods to consider.

Check And Console (Also Known As The Ferber Method, Graduated Extinction, Progressive Waiting Or The Interval Method)

There are many variations on the check-and-console method, but the general principles are the same: You want to continue to check on your baby at preset intervals but never feed or rock them to sleep, as that would mean they aren't falling asleep on their own.

After going through your bedtime routine, put your baby in their crib, leave the room and wait a specific amount of time (say, a minute). Then go reassure your baby with words like "Mommy loves you" or touches, such as a rub or pat. McGinn says it's preferable not to pick the baby up. 

On the other hand, this method is for babies seven months and older. (younger babies require a parental presence to know they haven't been abandoned, especially if they've worked themselves up into a frenzy.)

Continue to leave and then check on them, increasing the time between visits until you've reached about 10 or 15 minutes, and then keep at it until they fall asleep. Then, when they wake up, you start the check-and-console intervals all over again.

This technique could take up to a week to work, but you should start seeing some progress after a few nights. Many experts recommend keeping a sleep-training log to help reassure yourself. 

Some parents find that going into the room aggravates the baby even more and might consider a more direct method, like full extinction.

Extinction, Or Cry It Out (Cio)

The idea behind extinction (or full extinction to differentiate it from graduated extinction) is that you want to extinguish the behaviour (crying) by not responding. 

As with the check-and-console method, go through your bedtime routine, put them in their crib awake, say good night and walk out. 

This is certainly the most controversial sleep-training method, and even experts disagree on what you should do next—it all depends on what stage your baby is at developmentally and what works for the parents.

For example, leaving your baby until the morning unless you've predetermined that they still need a feed at night. That first night can be rough. They could be up every hour crying.

Mitelman, on the other hand, recommends that parents wait for at least one or two wake-ups before going back into the room. Then, if the baby wakes up after midnight, she believes it's OK to go back in, comfort your baby for a few minutes, and leave again. She also supports scheduling regular nighttime feeds if your baby still needs them.

Parents are often hesitant to go this route, worried about how much crying will be involved. But, while she doesn't deny it can be not easy at first, she finds parents are often surprised by how quickly it works. 

Yes, there is a lot of crying, but it's short term. You might get a lot of crying for two to three nights, but every night is less and less. You should see significant improvement with this method by night three or four but it adds that it's important to try it for a week before determining it's not working.

Chair Method

This is a very gradual sleep-training method and requires a lot of discipline on the part of the parents. Again, you prep your baby for bed, but you sit in a chair next to the crib instead of leaving the room. 

When they fall asleep, leave the room, but every time they wake up, sit back down in the chair until they fall back asleep. Every few nights, move the chair further and further away until you're out of the room.

The pro of this method is that mom or dad is present. But the con is, there will likely still be some crying, and now the baby is watching you watch them cry. It can be really hard to be consistent with this method.

We do not recommend this method to her clients because having a parent in the room but not responding to the baby is confusing and may also be too much stimulation, depending on the baby's age and developmental stage. They can get so escalated that they can't calm themselves down.

Pick Up, Put Down And Shush-Pat.

For babies younger than seven months, an approach where you stay in the room without giving them too much help to fall asleep. For example, you could stand over their crib and shush them, pat their tummy or apply pressure to calm and reassure them.

Another option is to let them fuss for a bit, but when they start to escalate, pick them up to soothe them and put them back down before falling asleep. Our job is to help calm the child, and their job is to fall asleep.

While these methods can work well for younger babies, after six or seven months, your presence might make your baby more upset, and picking them up and putting them back down will likely be too much stimulation.

Bedtime-Routine Fading

With the fading technique, continue with whatever method you were using to help your baby fall asleep (such as rocking or nursing), but decrease the amount of time you spend doing it until, in theory, you don't have to do it at all. 

This is a great technique for minimising crying, but unfortunately, many parents find it difficult to sustain. There has to be an end in sight. For example, we'll meet this need for five to seven days, and then we'll pull back a little bit.

But if you're willing to stick to the plan and get your baby to the end goal of going to bed without your assistance, it's worth trying. Whichever way the child can get to sleep independently is fine because that's the key ingredient to sleeping through the night.

Bedtime-Hour Fading

Not to be confused with the bedtime-routine fading technique described above, bedtime-hour fading involves putting your baby into the crib when they are usually dozing off and making that their new bedtime for a couple of nights, and then gradually moving it to an earlier time. 

For example, say you always put your baby down for the night at 7:30 p.m., but they tend to fuss or cry in the crib for 20 minutes or more until they finally nod off around eight. This means 7:50 to 8 p.m. is their "natural bedtime," even though you'd like it to be earlier. 

To figure out when your baby naturally falls asleep, keep a diary for a few nights to track when they finally settle for the night. (Using a video monitor can help with this.) A few nights later, move the whole routine 15 minutes earlier.

Continue moving the bedtime by 15 minutes each night (if needed) until your baby has shifted their old habits to nod off at the desired time instead of the later one.

The trick with any training routine is to be very consistent and commit to moving the bedtime earlier. It's easy to become inconsistent with things or give up, and then the child has a late bedtime.

Sleep Training Tips

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No matter what method you try, sleep training takes practice and patience. These tips can help you, and your baby makes the transition. Here's what to keep in mind:

  • Some methods won't work for you – and that's OK. It might take some trial and error to figure out a method that you, your partner and your baby are comfortable with. Don't be afraid to bail on a method if it's a total nightmare, and remember to combine if needed. No one method works for everyone, and there's no right or wrong way. However, once you find a method you are comfortable with, be consistent for at least one week to give your baby a chance to learn this new skill.
  • It comes down to the parent or caregiver to make sleep training work. Dr Schwartz says sleep training has more to do with the parent and less with the baby. Caregivers should know their personality and limits when they begin sleep training. They should also commit to a consistent sleep training schedule. It will never work if one partner breaks from the routine every night. That being said, always trust your intuition – you know your baby best.    
  • Establish a bedtime routine. Getting your baby ready for bed is just as important as sleep training itself. Newborns (and even toddlers) have no concept of time, but when you develop a bedtime routine, it starts to get them in the mindset of recognizing what is about to happen. Try bathing, feeding and reading a book. You can also try feeding your baby in a different room or setting to help decrease their sleep-onset association. Kids will start to associate this routine with learning to relax and winding down for the night. Often, a bedtime routine transfers over into the ability to self-soothe for many babies and toddlers.  
  • The time is right. Look for your baby's sleep cues like yawning or rubbing their eyes. All sleep methods recommend starting when your baby is tired but not asleep yet.
  • Don't respond to every little cry or noise. As long as your baby is sleeping in a safe place, there is no reason to panic over every cry or fuss. No matter what sleep training method you use, there is likely to be some crying or fussing. It's important to give your baby the space to learn this important new skill. Your future self will thank you when you've made it to the other side of sleep training! 
  • Be confident in yourself! Your baby will pick up on your emotions. If you feel confident throughout this process, your baby will feel that way.

Never hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician for any advice or help regarding sleep training or any other question or concern you might have.

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