When seeing the words “sleep training,” many people envision their baby crying alone in a room for hours. This thought can lead to heart-tugging sympathy for babies who haven’t yet mastered the art of sleeping independently. For a lot of parents, this can feel outside of their comfort zone.
This isn’t the only way to sleep train—in fact, there is a wide spectrum for gentle sleep training, in which you can train your infant while still supporting and caring for them in a way that feels natural. As caregivers, we naturally want to provide an environment of love and support for our children.
However, multiple mid-night wakings and rocking them to sleep for hours can take a toll on our slumber routines and mental health. We’ve compiled our best slumber training tips, from which you can pick and chose to make the method your own.
Baby and Infant Sleep Training
Common No-Cry Sleep Training Alternatives
If the idea of letting your infant cry themselves to sleep sounds harsh, you’re not alone. While this method has proven benefits and does indeed work for some families, it’s not for everyone. Here are some alternatives.
This approach allows you to implement a bedtime strategy so your entire family can get some zzz’s, without having to listen to your tyke cry it out. If you’re not comfortable with a rigid approach, this allows you to acclimate your munchkin gradually to falling asleep on their own.
What’s great about the Fading approach is that it allows for a lot of flexibility. This is a great option if you room-share or co-sleep yet still want your babe to fall asleep independently. Additionally, while it’s wonderful to have plenty of space in your home, letting your infant cry it out in another room may not be an option if you have limited space.
To do this, you start by staying with your little one in their room until they fall asleep. Next, you start to put them down while they’re drowsy but still awake and sit in a nearby chair until they fall asleep, shushing them for comfort. Every few days, you can gradually adjust the chair further and further away until you’re out of the room completely.
The Fading method works great for little ones who are a bit sensitive and cautious but don’t necessarily have separation anxiety either. It also works for kids who are adaptable, and even works great with older children and toddlers, making it useful for just about any parent struggling to put their tot to bed.
Paternal Presence Strategy
The Paternal Presence Strategy is a gentle approach in which you gradually acclimate your snoozer to rest independently. This approach is often successful with babies who are sensitive or struggle with separation anxiety and require a more gentle approach.
Acclimating them to independence using this method involves gradual changes. First, you might put your baby down to snooze while you’re still present, offering them the comfort and support of knowing you’re present when they close their eyes. Over time, you slowly remove these crutches.
For example, the first night you put your little one to bed, you might lie with them until they fall asleep, soothing them with your touch and voice if they cry. Gradually, you might touch and look down at them less often or sit up in bed rather than lie down, slowly acclimating them to the lack of your presence.
The next step is to sit in a chair near their crib until they fall asleep, moving it further and further away until you’re out of the room. You may come back if they cry, allowing them to trust in your return if needed; however, you should let your child cry a few minutes longer each time with the knowledge you will always be there.
Gradually, you will offer them less and less attention, slowly weaning them off your support until they are capable of soothing themselves to slumber.
Tips on How to Sleep Train a Baby
As you may have noticed already, there is an array of techniques that can be employed when tackling bedtime with your little snoozer. If you take a more authoritarian approach you may want to let your kiddo cry it out, and if you’re more of an attachment-style caregiver, you may prefer co-sleeping. Every family and every child is unique, and you have to do what’s best for you.
Know the Amount of Sleep Children Need by Month and Year
When raising your tot to snooze independently, it’s critical to ensure they are getting an adequate amount of sleep already. Training a child who is sleep deprived or not getting the proper amount of activity or rest will be more challenging, and it could even affect their learning abilities down the line.
Consult With Partner and Pediatrician
Before starting any routine, it’s important to have a plan in place that you and your partner have agreed upon and one your pediatrician recommends. It’s crucial to decide how you want to tackle a bedtime routine ahead of time. This way, when it comes time to implement your strategy, you and your partner are both employing the same one and your little one is practicing a consistent routine.
Keep a Record (Log)
As with any parent, you’re going to get tired, so it’s a good idea to keep a record. After five nights of trying to get your little one to bed with varying success, you may have forgotten how long it has taken each night.
However, if you keep a log of it, you can look back and see that each night your munchkin has taken less and less time to fall asleep. This not only helps you keep track, but is motivating to see your progress!
Create and Maintain a Bedtime Routine
Ask any parent about getting a kid to rest, and they’re likely to report that keeping a routine is crucial for success. As with any adult, we like to know what to expect, and tots are no different, especially as they learn the ways of the world. Sure, surprises are great, but when you’re tired and cranky, not so much. When we are comfortable and familiar, it’s easier to focus on the task at hand.
Carefully Choose When to Start
It may be tempting to sleep train your baby right out the gate for a deep desire to gain back those precious zzz’s. Equally, it can be easy to fall into a bad habit of rocking your infant to relax every night until they’re three years old.
Suddenly, you’re stuck training your kid to go to bed at an age when they can verbally say, “No, thanks.”
You can start teaching your kiddo when they become mobile, can roll over on their own, are no longer being swaddled, and can snooze for at least one four to six hour stretch of time, generally around five months of age.
Prepare the Scene
Creating cues to let your little one know it’s time for bed will help them to associate these with nighttime. Dinner, baths, reading in bed, and singing softly can all prompt your newborn to correlate with bedtime. As a result, they should more readily accept being put down for the night.
Put Baby in Crib While Awake
Putting your infant down while they’re still awake will help strengthen their self-soothing skills. It may be tempting when they’re little to rock them to rest every night, but doing so will limit their ability in learning to self-soothe and rest on their own. Try rocking them until they are drowsy and then setting them down.
Gradually Increase the Distance
Gradually increasing your distance when putting them down for bed can help when teaching them to self-soothe. When placing your tyke in their crib, you can comfort them physically and verbally and then sit in a chair nearby. Slowly, each night, move your chair further and further away until you’re out of the room entirely and they’re dreaming the night away.
Introduce a Sleep Security Item
You may remember having a special blanket or stuffed animal as a child that you were particularly attached to. Giving them a special stuffed bunny or blanket every night when they fall asleep can help them associate it with bedtime and add a bit of extra comfort.
Know When to Abandon Sleep Crutches
After your tot is three or four months old it’s crucial to wean them off their nighttime crutches; this way they’ll learn to self-soothe. Neglecting to wean them off rocking, singing, or shushing to sleep could lead to their reliance on these. If they need a crutch each time they wake up in the middle of the night, it can negatively impact your rest as well as theirs.
Change Sleep Associations Over Time
While it’s quite common, and even encouraged, to bathe your baby or massage them before bedtime as an infant, you’re not going to want to do this night after night for years down the road. While every child is different, they do need to learn independence, and this includes the ability to self-soothe.
I can’t stress this enough; consistency is key. Nobody likes a surprise when they’re tired and cranky. Allowing your tot to recognize routine not only offers comfort but these associations will help them know what to expect, and they’ll be less likely to put up a fight come nighttime when they’re mentally prepared.
No Tears Sleep Training Effectiveness
You may be concerned that these gentler methods won’t work as well and cost you rest in the long run; however, it’s been shown that there is no one best method when it comes to teaching your little one how to self-soothe.
Each child is inevitably unique and will bring new challenges to parents. Don’t let the rigid techniques fool you into thinking they’re superior to another. Sure, they work. However, they all have the potential to produce a good night’s rest when implemented effectively.
Importance of Healthy Sleep by Dr. Marc Weissbluth
Not only is quality rest important in order to perform properly and not be cranky the next day but it’s critical for learning as well. When infants don’t get enough REM sleep, their brains produce more cortisol, the chemical that corresponds to stress.
The release of this hormone leads to frequent wakings during the night and stunted naps. So not only will your newborn be more difficult during the day if they don’t get good sleep, they’ll put you through your paces at night as well.
Tired from reading this? Training your babe might be in the cards, but it can be a struggle for many parents and can include countless sleepless nights until you’ve found what works best.
Choosing your routine may feel daunting, but choosing one at all will be better than none—you can always alter it down the road, and they’ve all been proven methods with a variety of children. These tips can help guide you on your path towards better rest when implemented correctly and consistently. Hang in there; you’ve got this.
Jill Zwarensteyn is the editor for Sleep Advisor and a certified sleep science coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.
Based in Los Angeles, she is an experienced writer and journalist who enjoys spending her free time at the beach, hiking, reading, or exploring new places around town.
She’s also an avid traveler who has a personal goal of being able to successfully sleep on an airplane someday.