Sleep Training Your Baby: Tips and Advice

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No one can function on too little sleep. Not even an adult. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that your child needs the right amount of sleep to grow, develop, and thrive in a healthy way.

Sleep training is an important part of helping them learn how to get the sleep they need when they need it. It can help them understand how to self soothe, help them develop a healthy relationship with sleep, and give you the rest you need, too.

Effectively sleep training your baby means understanding how much sleep they need and when they need it. It also involves knowing what methods work to sooth your child, which means you’re the best person for the job, no matter how ill prepared you may feel.

On that note, I’m here to give you some more information about your baby’s sleep, different sleep training methods, and some tips to get you through what can be a very challenging phase for some parents.

Amount of Sleep Needed by Age

Every child is different, and you may find that your child sleeps more or less than others. However, there are some recommendations set forth by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine that can help you determine how much your child should be sleeping.

There’s an optimal amount of sleep to help your child reap the benefits. Otherwise, you may experience increased night wakings, behavioral issues, and even increased postpartum depression.

Although you’re likely not quite there yet, teenagers still need as much as 10 hours of sleep every night. They’re bodies are growing and going through puberty. They simply can’t play multiple sports, join the marching band, and serve as president of the student council, all while getting enough sleep to do well in school.

The same goes for children of all ages. Sleep is important even if your child isn’t in school yet. Because they’re growing so rapidly and learning so much at a time, younger children need even more sleep.

Your child’s sleep needs to happen at the right time, be the right length, and be free of disturbances. Many times, the start of school or daycare will dictate bedtime, and unfortunately, the amount of rest your child gets at daycare is often outside of your control.

sleeping newborn baby

Birth – 4 months

At birth, infants will sleep off and on throughout the day as needed. In fact, newborns sleep quite a bit, although it may not feel like it for new parents. There’s no sleep training needed here because newborns will wake as needed to feed, and should be given food when they’re hungry.

4 – 12 months

At 3 or 4 months, you will begin to notice a more regular schedule developing. It may be a good time to start sleep training, because many babies will be able to self soothe or even sleep through the night by this time.

Children this age need between 12 and 16 hours of sleep every day, including naps. It shakes out to be around 10 to 12 hours at night and 2 to 4 hours during the day. The sleeping hours at night could include a few wakings to feed and the hours during the day will be spread out among several different naps.

1 – 2 years

By one year, your child may have reduced the number of hours they’re sleeping to about 11 to 14 total per day. They’ll sleep most of those hours at night with only 1 to 3 hours of sleep during the day. Those hours during the day may be split between 2 naps or taken all at once.

3 – 5 years

By now, your child is sleeping about 10 to 13 hours total and may have dropped their daytime nap altogether. If they’re still taking a nap during the day, they’re likely only taking one, and it ranges from 1 to 3 hours.

6 – 12 years

Your child is in school now and rarely takes a nap anymore. The 9 to 12 hours of sleep they need are all taken at night, with the exception of a periodic nap on a weekend or when they’re sick.

13 – 18 years

Your child has settled into a more adult schedule and still needs between 8 and 10 hours of sleep, but it likely happens all at night now. Rarely do they nap, but sleep is still incredibly important for those growing bodies and minds.

Effects of Poor Sleep

There are a lot of negative effects of lack of sleep. Some studies have even demonstrated a link between less REM sleep and shorter attention spans. The bodies of children who don’t sleep enough will compensate for lack of sleep by releasing more cortisol, which can cause shortened naps and frequent night wakings, leading to even more lack of sleep.

Sleeping fewer than the recommended number of hours can also lead to learning problems and increases your child’s risk of injury, accidents, obesity, depression, and hypertension. Combating these negative effects starts with sleep training early.

You may also need to tackle underlying medical conditions that can affect sleep, such as allergies, sleep apnea, or acid reflux. Give them some relief from things that wake them up at night in order to have a successful sleep training regime.

newborn baby sleeping with parents

What is Sleep Training?

Sleep is a learned skill. It doesn’t come naturally. New parents are so exhausted that they can fall asleep the second their head hits the pillow, but babies don’t know how to do this yet. It takes time and effort to teach them.

The phrase “sleep training” can often leave a sour taste in your mouth, because you associate it with things that don’t sound like too much fun. Letting your child cry it out is one such method that doesn’t work for everyone.

But sleep training can be whatever you want it to be. There are dozens of methods, and some of the most popular ones involve attending to your child when they need you as well as feeding them when they’re hungry, even if it is in the middle of the night.

Sleep training is simply teaching your child to sleep without help from you. It doesn’t have to involve crying it out, neglecting your baby, denying food, or getting on a schedule. It’s about teaching them to sleep.

When to Start Sleep Training

Much like everything else, this answer is different for everyone. There’s no “right age” to start sleep training, but you can watch for signs that both you and your baby are ready to begin. It’s important that you’re ready, just as much as your baby.

Don’t try to start sleep training when you have a big vacation coming up or anything else that might disrupt the schedule you’ve set up for sleep training. You need to start when your schedule is free and you can dedicate yourself to the routine.

Before sleep training, make sure you talk to your partner and get on the same page about how you’re going to do it. Do some research on the method you want to use, and prepare for it mentally and logistically.

You may have to make some changes to your schedule or the nursery to ensure that you’re equipped to handle the next 2 to 4 weeks of sleep training.

Once you’re ready to sleep train, make sure your baby is, too. It’s important that your child is healthy and free of any medical concerns that could interfere with their ability to sleep well. These include sleep apnea or acid reflux.

Next, consider your child’s age. Most babies won’t be ready for sleep training until 4 or 5 months old. You can always establish healthy habits at birth, like bedtime routines, to get your child used to the idea of sleep.

If you begin a sleep training routine and it just doesn’t work, try again in a few weeks. As babies age, their sleep cycles change, so if they’re not ready now, they will be soon.

In fact, it’s never too late to sleep train. Even if you wait until your child is 6 months old or older, you can still use the same sleep training methods to help cure them of being a poor sleeper.

Many parents wonder if their baby actually needs sleep training. The truth is – every baby needs it at some point. However, you can look for these signs to tell you if your baby needs it right now:

  • Persistent fussiness caused by being overtired
  • A change in eating habits
  • Restless sleeping either at night or during naptime
  • Waking too early

Sleep Training Methods

There are a lot of different ways to go about sleep training. Some will work for you and some won’t. There’s no wrong way, as long as you measure your comfort level and focus on what’s right for your family.

1. Cry it out

Also known as the extinction method or the Ferber method, this is one of the most controversial sleep training methods. Many parents don’t agree with letting your child cry it out at all, while others say it’s fine as long as they’re a little bit older first.

The point of this method is to extinguish the crying by refusing to respond to it. For some, this works really well. The baby may cry for 10 or 15 minutes and then fall asleep on their own. For others, it’s agonizing to listen to your baby cry for up to an hour or more.

After going through your bedtime routine, put your baby in their crib while they’re still awake, say good night, and leave. What you do next depends on your baby’s developmental stage and what works for you.

You can leave your baby until the morning, unless you’ve set up a predetermined time they need to feed in the middle of the night. Another option is to wait for one or two wake ups before checking on them again.

If your baby wakes up again after midnight, some experts say you can go back in and offer comfort for a few minutes before leaving again.

It may give you pause to choose this method, because the amount of crying involved is scary and intimidating. It may even feel wrong. Sleep training doesn’t have to be this way. However, if you do feel this is the right method for you, you may be surprised by how quickly you’ll be done.

There’s a lot of crying at first, but once you get through the first few nights, it should be less and less every night. You’ll see some significant improvement using this method by night four, but it’s important to try it for a week before you decide it doesn’t work.

2. Check and console

This method is also known as the graduated extinction method. Some people still refer to it as the Ferber method, and you could also call it the interval method or progressive waiting. There are several variations to this method, but the general principles are the same.

Using the check and console method, check on your baby at regular intervals, but don’t feed them or rock them to sleep, because that prevents them from learning to fall asleep on their own.

Go through your normal bedtime routine, put your baby in their crib awake, and leave the room. Predetermine the interval at which you want to go back in to check on them. One minute is good to start. Gradually increase this interval until you work up to 10 or 15 minutes.

Don’t pick them up unless they’ve worked themselves up to a point at which you don’t feel comfortable. Continue to check on them every 10 to 15 minutes until they fall asleep.

It could take up to a week for this to work, and some experts suggest saving this method for babies who are 7 months or older. However, some parents may find that this method doesn’t work at all because the constant reappearance of a parent aggravates their baby even more.

If your child is having trouble with constantly seeing you come in and leave before falling asleep, a more direct method like crying it out may work better.

3. Pick up, put down, shush/pat

Some experts say that it’s your job to soothe and calm your baby and it’s your baby’s job to fall asleep. Using this method, you’re there to soothe them until they fall asleep, as long as you put them down before they do.

This is suggested for babies younger than 7 months who may have a harder time self soothing or with you leaving the room. You can stand over their crib and pat them, rub them, shush them, or apply pressure to reassure them.

You can also let them fuss for a bit, but if they start to escalate, pick them up to soothe them before putting them back down awake. After 7 months, the constant picking up, putting down, and patting could cause too much stimulation for them to fall asleep and this method will cease to work.

4. Chair method

This is a gradual sleep training method that takes a lot of patience and discipline. Go through your normal bedtime routine, put your baby down awake, and then sit in a chair next to the crib until they fall asleep.

When they fall asleep, you can leave. Every time they wake up, sit in the chair again until they fall asleep. Don’t talk to them, touch them, or interact with them at all. Simply sit next to them.

Every few nights, move the chair further from the crib and closer to the door, until eventually, you’re outside the room.

The benefit to using this method is that you’re there. For some parents, this method is even harder because when there’s crying, you have to watch them cry. It’s hard to be consistent, so you have to be sure this is the best method for you before beginning.

5. Bedtime fading

This technique involves moving your child’s bedtime to when they normally end up falling asleep. If you’re putting your child to bed at 8pm and they normally fuss for about half an hour, their “natural bedtime” is 8:30pm.

Make this your baby’s new bedtime for a few nights, gradually moving it up about 15 minutes earlier each time. It may help track when your baby naturally falls asleep by keeping a diary or using a video monitor.

By continuing to move the bedtime up by 15 minutes every few nights, you’ll eventually reach your desired bedtime. It could take a week or more to get there, and it’s tough to be consistent, because you may be exhausted from staying up later than normal.

6. Routine fading

Much like bedtime fading, this one involves gradually reducing the amount of time you spend with the bedtime routine rather than pushing back bedtime. Whatever method you use to put your child to sleep (rocking, shushing, patting), do it for shorter periods of time every few nights.

Eventually, you won’t have to do these things at all when you put them down and you can just leave. It can minimize crying, but still be difficult to sustain for some.

baby sleeping in basket

Other Tips

No matter which method you use, there are some extra tips that may help you through it. Try some of these things to help you determine which method might be right for you as well as when to start:

  • Keep a sleep log to bring sleep patterns to light. It will help you figure out their ideal bedtime, especially if you see they’re getting fussy every night at 7:30pm. You may also realize that they’re not waking as frequently in the night as you thought.
  • Stick to a bedtime routine to get your baby used to what going to sleep feels like. This is important from day one. Soothing things like baths, books, and singing are great, but stay away from stimulating things like watching TV or playing.
  • Set up the environment to work for you. Make sure the nursery is a comfortable temperature and consider installing black out shades to minimize light. Turn on some white noise to decrease distractions, especially if you have older children who stay up later.
  • Don’t use sleep crutches like rocking or nursing to sleep while trying to sleep train. The point is to get them to fall asleep on their own, and as hard as it is to let go of these comforts, it’s important to begin around 3 or 4 months old to get them ready for sleep training.
  • Offer consistency so your child can get used to it. No matter which method you choose, stick with it for at least a week to give it a fair shot. Constantly changing things up will just confuse your baby and make it worse.

Final Thoughts

While sleep training may be hard on everyone, if you stick with the method that works for you, it will go relatively quickly. There are a lot of factors to consider, but you know your child better than anyone. Nights of crying can be heartbreaking, but it may be necessary.

If you’re considering sleep training, it’s likely that what drove you to that point was a system that’s currently not working for you. While it may not be time right now, it will be soon. The good news is, learning to fall asleep is like learning to ride a bike. Your child may experience regression every now and then, but they’ll never have to relearn the skill. You’re setting them up now for a lifetime of good sleeping habits, which means you’ll all be a lot less exhausted!

Sarah is a full-time freelance writer and mother of 4. She loves Jesus, cars, and coffee.