Sleep Training Doesn't Always Mean Crying It Out; Here Are 4 Other MD-Approved Methods
Parents with a brand-new bundle of joy know there's nothing as precious as a good night's sleep. As eight hours of uninterrupted snooze time is essentially unheard of during the first few months of your baby's life, sleep training offers a nugget of hope.
While sleep training may be considered controversial to some — the cry-it-out method (CIO) in particular — teaching babies as young as 4 months old when and how to snooze can be mutually beneficial for children and parents. According to Cleveland Clinic, there is no evidence that sleep training is harmful, either physically or psychologically. Instead, it improves the baby's quality of sleep and increases a secure attachment to their parents.
"Sleep training, to me, means creating a routine and schedule and following it with the goal of getting the child to sleep through the night without waking for a feed and falling asleep independently when it's developmentally appropriate," says Nilong Vyas, MD, pediatrician with Sleepless in NOLA and sleep expert for Sleep Foundation. "If the parent has started from the get-go with a good schedule and routine, sleep training, in the traditional sense, may not even be necessary."
However, for parents who are struggling to get their little ones to sleep on a consistent schedule, Lauren Wolf, a certified infant and child sleep consultant with Lolo Lullaby, advises they set aside time for sleep training. "I make sure that they block out two weeks of uninterrupted time to sleep train," she says. "So no travel, no dining out, no going to Grandma and Grandpa's. We have them be really strict for two weeks, so that we can give the child the best chance to fall into a solid schedule and start sleeping through the night."
While many parents think sleep training is limited to forms of the cry-it-out method, there are other alternatives when it comes to sleep training. Ahead, find out some of the most common methods families have used to get their babies into a solid routine.
— Additional reporting by Melanie Whyte
1. The Chair Sleep-Training Method
Fairly straightforward, the chair sleep-training method requires parents to sit in a chair next to their baby's crib until the child falls asleep. Considered to be a gradual sleep-training approach, parents are instructed to leave the room once the baby begins to snooze. When the child wakes up, a parent should return to the chair and sit with their little one — without giving them any direct attention — until the baby falls back asleep again. Every few days, the caregiver should move the chair a few inches away until they're completely out of the room. Although the chair method takes a lot of self-control on the parent's part, their infant should be sleep trained in two weeks, according to Georgina Wysiecki, MSW, MBA, BBSci, registered social worker and infant sleep consultant.
"It can work very well so it is a popular technique, especially for parents that want to remain with their child during the change process but want change to happen quickly and effectively," Wysiecki adds.
Pro: Parents can feel like they're doing something by being present in the room.
Con: It takes longer than other methods to be effective. Typically up to two weeks, per Wysiecki.
2. The Wake-and-Sleep Sleep-Training Method
The wake-and-sleep method was developed by Dr. Harvey Karp, founder of Happiest Baby and creator of the Snoo. This method is a gentle way to get your little one acclimated to bedtime. After swaddling, burping, and feeding your child, turn on a white-noise machine and let them fall asleep in your arms. Gently put the infant in their crib, and touch their neck or tickle their toes until their eyes briefly open. Those few seconds of drowsy waking will teach your baby to self-soothe as they drift back into a deeper sleep. If they have trouble doing so and begin to cry, Happiest Baby suggests turning up the white noise and rocking the bassinet. If crying persists, try feeding them or picking them up and soothing them to sleep again. Once they fall asleep, place them back in the bassinet and repeat the wake-and-sleep steps, gently touching or tickling their body until their eyes slightly open, and watch them soothe themselves back to sleep.
Pro: A gentler form of sleep training.
Con: Takes longer to be effective. Typically around a week, Wysiecki says.
3. The Fading Sleep-Training Method
Just like its name implies, the fading method of sleep training encourages parents to "fade out" or decrease your baby's time spent awake and make bedtime earlier. This method can be particularly useful for babies who take a long time to fall sleep. The goal is to move bedtime in 15-minute increments every couple of nights and follow the same routine until you arrive at the ideal bedtime.
Pro: Minimal to no stress for the baby or parents.
Con: According to Wysiecki, this method can take weeks to be effective, so it takes dedication, consistency, and patience.
4. The Ferber Sleep-Training Method
The Ferber method was invented by Dr. Richard Ferber, and while it involves crying, it is often confused with the cry-it-out method that allows the child to cry indefinitely. Rather than allowing babies to cry until they fall asleep, the Ferber method encourages parents to let their child cry for periods of time before intervening, gradually increasing those time periods. Caregivers should start by putting their baby in their bed while drowsy, but not fully asleep, and leaving the room. If they begin to cry, Dr. Ferber suggested parents wait three minutes to respond and gradually increase the time between checking if their baby is crying. Over the course of a week, parents should continue to gradually delay the time it takes for them to tend to the infant, going from three minutes to five minutes to 10 minutes and so on.
Pro: It works relatively quickly (around one week, per Wysiecki) when applied consistently. And it's easier on parents because they can go in and soothe.
Con: Takes longer than the CIO method.
5. Extinction (aka "Cry It Out") Method
This is the most controversial of the sleep-training methods, and it involves just letting your baby cry until they fall asleep. The idea is to teach them how to self-soothe. Some mental health professionals have voiced concern on the impact this method can have on the baby's attachment style. But a recent study by The Journal of Pediatrics shows that this method doesn't affect the bond between parent and child. In fact, research found that babies who cried it out slept better and longer — with an equivalent of an extra night of sleep per month — compared to babies who aren't sleep trained.
"Sleep training can be frustrating for babies, and they tell us they are frustrated by crying," says Natalie Barnett, PhD, vice president of clinical research at Nanit Lab and coauthor of the study. "It's OK for a baby to be frustrated when they are learning a new skill. It is not torture. If done well, sleep training is very efficient and short and will not mean babies cry for prolonged periods endlessly."
Pro: It's the fastest method. Usually only takes three to four days, per Wysiecki.
Con: Harder on the parents because they have to listen to their baby cry.