If the words “sleep training” get you rolling your eyes and shaking your head, you’d be in the company of thousands of parents who find it easier to just rock the baby to sleep in their arms every night (and many times throughout) instead of adding another thing to their vast parental to-do list.
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However, the benefits of sleep training far outweigh the cons and, contrary to popular belief, it’s nothing to be worried about. The great thing is that there are many different sleep training methods that you can choose from to suit your parenting style.
Video: Watch childcare expert Fi Star-Stone talk about sleep tips for parents
Here, we round up some of the best expert tips, routines and methods to help babies and toddlers sleep well.
10 expert tips for better sleep for you and baby
This Morning’s sleep expert, bestselling author of Baby Secrets and creator of the acclaimed ‘spaced soothing’ sleep technique, Jo Tantum is on hand to share her top tips for better sleep, for you and for baby.
- During the day look for your baby's tired signs, which can be yawning, rubbing eyes and ears, staring into space and, with newborns, rooting for a feed. Then write down the times your baby has a nap, so she won't be overtired.
- Help your baby learn how to fall asleep without a sleep prop, as this will interfere with their sleep. Sleep props can be feeding, rocking, patting, prams and car seats.
- Babies work on a natural sleep cycle of 12 hours of day and 12 hours of night. So make sure your baby is going to bed 12 hours from waking, otherwise they will be overtired.
- Babies who don't have enough naps in the day will wake often in the night and be awake for up to an hour at a time. At three months they need a nap every hour-and-a-half after waking, and at six months every two hours.
- A dream feed can really help a baby to start sleeping longer stretches at night. Babies can only sleep one long stretch per 24 hours so it makes sense if it's when you’re having your long stretch from, say, 11pm to 7am. Lift your baby, change their nappy, feed, then resettle.
- Babies have a light sleep around 5am to 6am, so encourage them to go back to sleep. Treat it as night time. That means no noise, talking, lights, nappy change or feeds. They will soon start sleeping longer.
- Having a good bedtime routine is proven to help babies settle better at night. So for an hour before bedtime, have a quiet time without noisy toys, TV or screens. Then have a nappy off time (aged from six weeks to six months). After that comes a bath, massage and into pyjamas. Make sure the room is dimly-lit, with soothing sounds. Then feed.
- Your baby needs to have several triggers before going to sleep. I suggest blackout, wave sounds, a comforter, swaddle or sleeping bag and a story. Once your baby has these things they will sleep anywhere: on holiday, at their grandparents’ house and with friends.
- From four months old babies love to grab and hold things, because they are just realising that their hands belong to them. So having a comforter can really help them settle for nap times and in the night. I always use a muslin square as this is the lightest material you can get and is breathable. Knot it in the middle, so it's safe. You can also put it down your top before you give it to your baby, so it smells of you, as it will comfort them.
- Use blackout for naps as well as early mornings. Blackouts help a baby to de-stimulate and calm. They don't yet understand that they need to close their eyes to shut out the light like we do. Use blackout for naps in the pram and at home and your baby will sleep better.
5 sleep training methods
Here are 5 of the best tried-and-tested sleep training methods that you could try to help get your baby sleeping through the night (in order of least to most tears).
1) Sleep training no-cry - the fading method
For sleep training without controlled crying, the fading method (a.k.a. gradual retreat), just means doing what you’ve been doing till now, and gradually minimising the contact that you have with your baby at bedtime.
This Morning’s sleep expert and bestselling author of Baby Secrets, Jo Tantum, gives her top tip saying: "help your baby learn how to fall asleep without a sleep prop"
For instance, if you usually put them down to sleep after they’ve gone to sleep, with the fading-it-out method (FIO) you’ll put them down just before they fall asleep.
If they wake up and cry, pick them up again. If you rock them to sleep, gradually try to stop doing this. If they cry when you stop, rock them a little bit again, but keep trying to minimize this.
If your child falls asleep on the boob, try to replace this with a dummy, or get your partner to take the baby to bed instead so they stop associating breast time with bedtime. It’s a very gradual process but can be done.
2) Minimal contact soothing sleep training method
This is also known as the pick-up/put-down method and is another gentler way to sleep train.
This works with the parent staying with the baby till they fall asleep, but trying to minimise the contact, for instance, not having the baby in your arms.
Put them down into bed, pat them, shush them, and try to back away. If they cry, you can pat and shush again. If this doesn’t work, you can pick them up, and when they are quiet again, put them down.
They need to get used to being put down. The whole point is to only pick the baby up for comfort but put them down for sleep.
Try to keep minimizing the contact. At some point, you’ll stop picking them up, and just pat them, till eventually you can put them down at bedtime and let them sleep on their own.
We like this method, and babies do too. It’s tiring for the parent at first and could take longer than the other methods but it’s guilt-free!
3) The sleep training Ferber method
This method, invented by Dr Richard Ferber, is also known as the sleep training cry-it-out method, or the check-and-console method.
Once you’ve put your baby down in bed with their soothing bedtime music or night lights, you leave the room, and if they protest, you come back in and stroke them and soothe them with words, like “there, there,” or “goodnight baby, go to sleep,” or your words of choice, before leaving again.
If they cry or protest, you go back in, again, stroke and soothe them, preferably not picking them up, and leave again till they fall asleep.
If they continue to cry, you stick to the same routine, adding a minute each time before going back into the room.
This takes a while as this can go on for an hour or more, but no one said sleep training was easy!
The point of the Ferber method is to reassure the baby that you are always there, but it’s bedtime now, so it’s time to sleep.
This method is taken from a more extreme version of the Ferber Method, and highly the most controversial, the Extinction Method, which is also known as the sleep training Cry it Out (CIO) method.
This was invented by Marc Weissbluth and entails taking your child to bed, saying goodnight, and leaving them there to cry it out until they go to sleep.
Many experts and parents highly criticize this method and, since there are many other ways to get a child sleeping through the night on their own, deem it unnecessary.
Having said that, a lot of parents turn to this method as a last resort when they are at their absolute wit’s end, with great results.
If you can stomach it, it is a highly effective and speedy way to get your child to sleep on their own through the night, often within just a few days.
(We haven’t added this method to this list because we believe that with a little patience and persistence, you can get great results with the other 5 methods we’ve selected.)
4) The sleep training chair method
The chair method is a way to let your child know that you are there, but it’s still bedtime.
A milder version of the Ferber method, you prepare your child for bed and put them down using the same routine every night, grab a chair and sit down next to them till they fall asleep.
This method may take longer than other methods because if your child feels you there, they may want your attention, but you’ll have to resist.
If they cry, you can comfort them every few minutes till they settle down.
Try not to make eye contact because it will be hard on both of you if you’re watching the baby cry and not responding. It’s not fun watching a baby cry and not doing anything about it, and the child will be wondering the same thing.
Once you’ve mastered them falling asleep while you’re sitting next to them, the next step is moving the chair further and further away, till you’re out of the room completely.
5) The hybrid sleep training method
Here at Mother&Baby we believe that there is no one size fits all. Some babies respond to dummies, while others may not.
Some may like being swaddled, some may not. There is no right and wrong way, and each parent must choose what is right for them and their baby.
There are no specific hybrid sleep training method rules. It’s about going with your instincts. With this hybrid method, you choose what is good for you.
Maybe you’ll choose the soothe and comfort method for 20 minutes, and then move onto the chair method for another 20, before going on to the Ferber method.
Remember that children go through phases and even a great sleeper may have sleep regression so you may have to go through sleep training all over again at certain times.
If you want to make changes to their bedtime routine, make them gradually and ease the baby into it. With whatever works for you, the key is consistency.
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Baby sleep routines: find the right one for you
1) Routine: No crying/No tears
- Principles: Babies shouldn’t be left to cry in bed for more than a few minutes, because crying creates a negative sleep association.
- How to do it: Use whatever soothing method works best for you, such as nursing or rocking.
- Benefits: It’s a baby-centric approach that minimises upset to parents and baby.
- Pitfalls: Constantly having to respond to your baby the second he cries can be exhausting.
- Read: The No-Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley.
2) Routine: Gina Ford
- Principles: By creating routines that match a baby’s natural rhythms, Gina claims to prevent the hunger, overtiredness and colic that can lead to excessive crying.
- How to do it: Follow the nine different routines, as outlined in the book, from birth to 12 months. The routines include minute-by-minute guidance on nap times, feeds and bedtime rituals.
- Benefits: You should have a baby who sleeps through by eight to 10 weeks.
- Pitfalls: The routines are very strict and your ability to leave the house is limited.
- Read: The New Contented Little Baby Book by Gina Ford.
3) Routine: Controlled crying
- Principles: Dr Richard Ferber proposed ‘controlled crying’ back in the 80s to teach a baby to fall asleep on his own, but it isn’t advised for babies under six months.
- How to do it: Put your baby in his cot awake and leave the room. Return after a few minutes to comfort him with words or touch, but without looking at him or picking him up. Leave the room and wait longer between visits to comfort him.
- Benefits: It’s fast – you could see improvements within a week.
- Pitfalls: Some research suggests crying for long periods could cause emotional distress, although other studies disagree. It can be heartbreaking for you, too.
- Read: Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems by Dr Richard Ferber.
4) Routine: EASY
- Principles: Devised by Tracy Hogg, EASY stands for an Eat, Activity, Sleep, your structured routine.
- How to do it: It’s a recurring three-hour routine that involves food, play, then a nap. While he sleeps, you rest or get things done.
- Benefits: Tracy emphasises the importance of a proper schedule – something nearly every sleep expert swears by.
- Pitfalls: If your baby simply refuses to sleep when you want, it can be tricky to implement.
- Read: Secrets Of The Baby Whisperer by Tracy Hogg.
Baby sleep training FAQ's:
Is sleep training cruel?
Sleep training has a bad rap with some considering it an unkind way to treat a baby. Sleep training doesn’t mean plonking a baby in a bed and leaving it there till the next morning.
In fact, most experts advise against letting a baby cry for more than 15 minutes, and none of the sleep methods we review below condone this.
There are many other ways to get your baby to sleep through the night. Sleep training doesn’t have to be synonymous with crying, it’s not cruel, and it will immensely help both you and your baby.
Why sleep train your child?
Just like we teach our children to eat, drink, walk, and talk–all necessary parts of the daily life of a human, so must we teach them to be able to sleep.
Sleep is an important part of life. Even as adults, if our nightly sleep is disturbed and we have trouble falling back to sleep, it could make us tired, grumpy, and disturbed during the day too.
A healthy sleep programme is something that will serve a child well in their everyday lives as they grow, too.
Sleep training might take a little while to get the hang of, and requires time, patience, and effort, but it will be worth it in the long run.
Benefits of sleep training
- Gets a baby used to, and enjoying, sleeping on their own
- Teaches them independence
- Teaches children to fall asleep again on their own after waking during the night
- Gives parents a break and a much-needed full night’s sleep
- Small progress in sleep as a baby can have advantages as an adult
Cons of sleep training
- It might take a while to do and can cause some frustration in both baby and parents in the beginning
- Parents may feel guilty for leaving the child alone even if it’s only for a few minutes
The most important thing in relation to sleep is routine. Babies and children thrive on routine and the familiar, so if there is a particular place or certain music or toy they have in order to sleep, this should be with them every night.
This way, if they wake up in the middle of the night, they are in their sleep environment and surrounded by their familiar sleep stuff which will help them fall back to sleep alone.
For instance, if they are used to being fed or rocked to sleep, it’s only logical that if they wake up in the middle of the night, they’ll need to be fed and rocked to sleep again.
However, if they associate their bedroom with sleep, and they need their special teddy bear and/or music for going to sleep, if they wake up in the night, they’ll just need to grab their teddy bear in order to send themselves off to sleep again.
(If they cry for their familiar bedtime lullaby, this musical sheep senses when the child is fussing and awake and the music starts up again on its own, or you can opt for a baby monitor which will let you know when your child is awake and enable you to remotely start the music).
Of course, there are other reasons your baby might be crying in the night.
If they are crying more than usual, they could have a soiled nappy, their teeth might be playing up, or they might just need you a little extra that night.
As with any method of parenting, trust your instincts and you won’t go far wrong.
Tips for all sleep training methods
Advanced sleep practitioner Lee Chambers says there are a lot of factors to consider when sleep training and there are "definitely positives to each sleep training method."
He said: "While you can control a lot of what your baby does, such as movement and nutrition, sleep is one of the few things we can’t control, and while routines are powerful, there has become an expectation that sleep can be perfected and this can cause frustration. You can't have too many expectations, and sometimes we have to reframe the situation to see that there's already a good level of consistency."
Lee advices that "screen time should be controlled, as should the later afternoon naps in toddlers, modern life has evolved quickly and now smartphones and tablets are frequently used. It's also good to use light sources with low levels or blackout curtains."
Use light sources with low levels of blue light in the babies room, and blackout curtains/blinds so darkness can be simulated even in the midst of summer.
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