When you have a new baby, people often tell you to sleep when the baby sleeps, but what happens if the baby is up all night? New parents learn pretty quickly that sleep is elusive, which is why so many turn to sleep training. There are a few sleep training methods out there, but competing information and anecdotal evidence make it difficult to choose the right approach for each baby's temperament and different parenting styles.
For sleep training to be successful, you have to wait until the baby is old enough. Most newborns eat every three to four hours for the first few weeks, and sleep regressions are common throughout infancy. It helps to look for trends in behavior. The ideal time to begin sleep training depends on the baby, but around six months is common. Most experts do not recommend starting before three months.
Perhaps the most controversial sleep training approach is the cry it out method. There are two styles of this method. Some experts recommend a gradual approach, where parents let the baby cry for a certain length of time before checking on him or her. They gradually increase this interval, attempting to encourage the baby to self-soothe. Others believe in a cold-turkey approach: the parents do not check in on the infant at all and instead let the baby cry. Which method is successful, if either, depends on the temperament of the child.
One of the downsides to cry it out is that it can be very hard on both the baby and the parents. It's not easy listening to your baby wail, and, to make up for it, some people spoil their child in other ways. Some experts believe that the cry it out method causes long-term damage, though there is also lots of evidence that infants who sleep trained with this method grew into loving children with close relationships with their parents.
One of the most well-known approaches to cry it out is the Ferber Method, which involves putting the baby in his crib when still awake and leaving the room. If the baby starts to cry, parents are instructed to let him go for a predetermined length of time, and then go back in for a minute to reassure him, before leaving again. The second time, the parent is to stay out of the room for a little longer, before again going in to reassure the baby. Each time, the interval gets longer, continuing until the baby falls asleep. Middle-of-the-night wakeups follow the same approach. Dr. Ferber estimated that this method should take between three and seven nights to work.
Another method of sleep training is fading, which is slightly gentler than cry it out. This method focuses on trying to teach the baby to soothe herself rather than leaving her to it on her own. There are two ways to do this. Option one is to "camp out" or sit next to the crib until the baby falls asleep. Each night, the parent moves the chair farther away from the crib until they are eventually able to leave the room. The second option is timed check-ins. The parent puts the baby to bed and leaves the room, returning every five minutes or so to briefly reassure her.
Some parents cannot go through with cry it out and want a calmer approach with less crying. One of the most famous advocates of this alternative is Dr. William Sears, who believed in a child-centered approach that includes rocking and nursing your baby to sleep and even co-sleeping. Dr. Sears believes that physical closeness creates positive associations with sleep and can lead to better sleep habits as the child grows.
No matter what sleep training method you choose, be prepared to dedicate several nights to it; none of these approaches are going to work after one night. If you try for one or two weeks and do not see any progress, take a break or try another method. If you're very concerned, speak with your pediatrician. Sometimes, a sleep training consultant can help, and doctors can usually offer other alternatives, as well.
As with all child-rearing options, every child is different, even within the same family. Some are naturally good sleepers, while others are more alert and may need more encouragement. The most applicable method also changes depending on how many people are in the household. Cry it out may work for two parents and a newborn, but is less likely to suit a family of four or more.
It is up for debate whether one method of sleep training is better than another. Research indicates that all of these approaches have the potential to work equally well. The biggest challenge to sleep training is remaining consistent. The best results come when parents find the method that works best for their baby's temperament, their family dynamic, and parenting style.
Regardless of what method you're using, a consistent bedtime routine is important to facilitate good sleep because this helps children learn exactly what to expect. Experts suggest coming up with a plan and sticking to it for at least seven days before moving on to something else. Emotionally plan for any difficulties you may face, especially if you're trying the cry it out method. Often, your own sleep will be greatly affected by this process, as well.
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