Perhaps no one understands how crucial a good night’s sleep is better than a parent with a new baby. Newborns are synonymous with bleary-eyed parents who are desperate to catch a few more winks. So, when can you expect your little one to sleep for longer stretches at night? And how can you help them develop a consistent sleep routine that doesn’t require you to rock or feed them to sleep?
First, it’s important to understand that “sleeping through the night” for an infant means sleeping for six hours in a row (sorry, the 12-hour stretch you were hoping for occurs closer to a year). When babies are between 4 and 6 months of age, they can start to go six hours between feedings during the night. Prior to this, your baby should be waking every 2-4 hours to feed. Talk to your child’s pediatrician about when it’s appropriate to night-wean your baby.
Sleep training is teaching your baby to fall asleep without help from you, whether that’s at the beginning of the night or when they wake up in the middle of the night. Ultimately, you are helping your baby develop self-soothing skills.
You can begin this process around 4 months. At this age, your baby may already be night weaning. This age also coincides with when their sleep cycles begin to mature, and they start to develop a more regular circadian rhythm (the hormonal cycle which regulates our sleep-wake cycles).
There's no one-size-fits-all approach to sleep training, and what works for one family may not work for another. Familiarize yourself with various sleep training methods and choose one that aligns with your parenting philosophy. Some popular methods include:
Letting your baby “cry it out” is often what parents think of when it comes to sleep training. This method involves putting your baby to bed while they are tired but still awake, and then not going in the room or taking them out of their crib until morning, or until their next scheduled feed — even if they cry.
For many parents, not going to their baby when they are crying goes against their natural instincts, making CIO tough for parents and baby.
The Ferber method was developed by Richard Ferber, MD, director of The Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Boston Children's Hospital. This variation of CIO involves parents allowing their baby to cry for short periods while gradually increasing the time between when you enter the room to offer comfort. Another term for this method is “check and console.” You can say a few words to your baby and give them a pat on the back, but like the CIO method, it’s important not to pick your baby up out of the crib. The intent of the Ferber method is to reassure your baby that they are safe, and you are there for them. However, some babies can become more upset seeing their parents come and go.
In this approach, parents put their baby in the crib awake, but sleepy, and then sit in a chair nearby until the baby falls asleep on their own. If the baby wakes up and begins to cry, the parent comes back in the room and sits in the chair. Again, you can offer words of encouragement or comforting touch, but don’t pick up your baby. Every few nights you will move the chair further away from the baby’s crib and closer to the door until you are out of the room.
This method, otherwise known as the “no tears” method, avoids prolonged periods of crying by responding promptly and providing direct physical comfort. If your baby cries when you put them in their crib, then you would pick up your baby, soothe them, and put them back in the crib and leave the room. It’s important that you don’t linger and keep your actions subdued so your baby knows it’s time to sleep.
The effectiveness of each method will vary from baby to baby so it’s important to be patient and adjust your approach based on your baby’s response.
Regardless of which sleep training method you choose, there are several things you can do to set yourself (and your baby) up for success.
Create a 30-45 minute bedtime routine that you follow every night so your baby can begin to associate those activities with sleep. This can include a bath, book and feeding. Watch your baby for sleep cues like yawning or eye rubbing, and then start your routine 30 minutes before that. If your baby has been falling asleep while eating, then switch up the order of your routine so that you can put the baby to bed while sleepy but awake.
Keep your baby’s room dark and at a comfortable temperature. Consider swaddling your infant for sleep to help them feel comforted and contained. Blackout curtains may be helpful to block out external light. In addition, you may want to utilize a white noise machine to block out household sounds.
Even if you’re not following a CIO method, wait a beat before responding to your baby. Like adults, babies go through sleep cycles and may seem like they’re “waking up” when really they’re transitioning from one sleep cycle to another. If you respond too soon, you can hinder the development of your baby’s self-soothing skills.
When you do respond to your baby in the night, don’t be entertaining. Quickly and quietly attend to your baby’s needs, whether it be changing a diaper, feeding or providing comfort. You don’t want your baby to get the message that nighttime is party time.
Consistency and repetition in sleep training is crucial and it’s important that all caregivers agree with the method chosen. You will want to give it a shot for a full two weeks before switching to a new method.
It’s normal for your baby to experience sleep regression due to developmental milestones, illness or changes in routine. Therefore, even if you and your baby have a great routine established, don’t be thrown if your baby suddenly resists.
It’s a good idea to check in with your child’s pediatrician before you start a sleep training method. They can offer guidance and tips based on your baby’s personality and your parenting style. You also can check in with your doctor if you’ve been consistently trying a method for two weeks and aren’t seeing any successes. It could be a sign that your baby is sick or that you should try a new approach.
Sleep training is a lot of work for you and your baby, so be ready with loads of patience and persistence. And don’t forget to celebrate the small victories along the way!