Sleep training: When to start and methods explained

sleeping baby

by Samantha Ball |

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. A healthy sleep programme is something that will serve a child well in their everyday lives as they grow, too. 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.

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 and it's nothing to be daunted by. The great thing is that there are many different sleep training methods that you can choose from to suit your parenting style.

When to start sleep training baby

You shouldn't start trying to sleep train until your child is at least 4-6 months old. This is because up until this point they will need feeding during the night. Don’t attempt a formal sleep-training method before four months, until your baby is able to go longer in between feeds and their circadian rhythm starts to develop.

As it is also recommended that baby sleeps in the same room with you until 6 months, this is a good time to start sleep training as you may also be transitioning your toddler to their own room.

How to start sleep training

Before you start implementing a training method - a variety of these are explained below - it's important that you first establish a bedtime routine. So, make sure that your little one is going to sleep at the same time each night, with quiet time before bedtime so that they can become drowsy.

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.

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.

Related: Tips and advice for sleep training your toddler

In the below video, childcare expert Fi Star-Stone discusses some sleep FAQs and shares sleep tips for parents:

Sleep training toddler - 5 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 advises 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."

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.

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 minimise 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 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


There is no one size fits all when it comes to babies - 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.

How long does sleep training take?

Depending on the method and on your child, sleep training usually takes 3-7 days to work. If you don't notice any improvement in your child's sleep with the method you are using over the 7 day mark it's worth trying a different method instead, or getting in touch with your pediatrician.

Sleep training has a bad rap with some considering it an unkind way to treat a baby, but 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 recommend 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.

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

Best sleep training books

Here is a selection of the best sleep training method books that are available to help you get your toddler sleeping through the night.

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