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Sleep Training Your Baby: When and How to Get Started

sleep training your baby
Portrait of cute newborn baby sleeping on a pink bed under beige blanket.

Sleep deprivation is a normal, if difficult, part of being a new parent. While it can be challenge for some babies to get on a schedule, utilizing a few sleep training methods can set up a baby for a lifetime of healthy sleep habits.

What is Sleep Training?

Many parents are unclear as to what exactly a sleep training program entails or even when to start sleep training. However, the Baby Center defines sleep training quite simply as "a process of helping a child learn how to fall asleep and to stay asleep all night long." And, according to Dr. Craig Canapari of the Yale Pediatric Sleep Center, sleep training addresses two common behavioral problems in infants and young children: sleep onset association disorder and limit setting disorder (also known as bedtime resistance).

A child with sleep onset association disorder does not have the ability to fall asleep on his/her own and needs a parent to be present if he/she awakens during the night. This usually occurs in children between the ages of six months and three years. However, the limit setting disorder usually occurs later, in children between two and eight years old. When this occurs, a child will be extremely resistant to the idea of going to bed and will struggle, yell or demand parental attention.

The goal of sleep training is to prevent these behaviors from developing in the first place by knowing how to sleep train a baby from an early age.

When Should Sleep Training Begin?

Deciding when to start sleep training can cause parents some anxiety, but suggests that well before sleep training begins, parents should develop a set sleep schedule for their baby. They should put the baby to bed at the same time each night, and get the baby up at the same time every morning. Also, they should encourage the baby to take naps at the same time each day. This process may begin at six weeks of age, though the website recommends that babies should start sleep training between the ages of four and six months.

According to Today's Parent, Jennifer Garden of Sleepdreams notes that babies undergo a change in their sleep cycles at around four months, making this an ideal time to begin developing independent sleeping skills. Dr. Canapari also recommends that sleep training begin at about six months, but certainly no earlier than four months.

An Overview of Sleep Training Methods

Sleep training a baby may seem like an overwhelming task, but there are various proven methods you can utilize to ensure your child is set up for sleeping success. The big question is, how involved should the parent be in the process of falling asleep? Should the parent stay with the baby until he or she goes to sleep? How often should the parent respond (if at all) when the baby cries at night? Some of these questions can't be objectively answered by doctors, but rather as a parent, you must determine what type of sleep onset associations you would like your child to develop... and how much crying you are willing to tolerate. If you are trying to sleep train a baby, here's a few methods you can try during bedtime:

1. The "Cry It Out" Method

One of the most popular and well known techniques for sleep training is the “Cry it Out" technique developed by Richard Ferber, director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children's Hospital in Boston. In this approach, the parent puts the baby to bed when still awake but sleepy. The parent then leaves the baby alone, and returns at increasingly longer intervals to briefly reassure the baby. The hardest part of this technique for the parent is to resist the temptation to rush into the baby's room every time it cries. Eventually, the baby will learn to self-soothe and go back to sleep without the parent present.

2. The "No Tears" Method

While not everyone feels comfortable with this method, the Baby Center reports that many sleep training advocates opt for a more interventionist method, such as the “No Tears" approach advocated by Dr. William Sears. He believes that parents should soothe their baby and offer comfort right away whenever he or she cries at night. While this method may be better for parents that would prefer their child not cry it out, it may also take longer for a child to develop self-soothing skills when this method is employed.

3. The "Fading Approach" Method

Another method, the " Fading Approach" is a third sleep training method which falls somewhere between the other two in terms of technique. It is preferred by Kim West, a licensed clinical social worker who asserts that parents should gradually diminish their bedtime role over time. The parent begins by sitting near the baby until it falls asleep, and each night the parent moves a little further away from the baby's crib. Over time the baby will grow accustomed to not having a parent close by at bedtime.

While sleep training can sound confusing at first, you can try out these methods to see what works best for you and your child. And, while there are many reliable websites to research the best program, the best choice is ultimately what fits your family's needs!

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