Should you begin sleep training during a sleep regression? If so, when do you start, and what’s the best approach? I get asked these questions frequently so I thought I would elaborate on this topic and share some wisdom from years of sleep training babies in their homes.
The importance of sleep training for babies and toddlers
Occasionally you may hear of a magical baby who sleeps through the night without any sleep training. This does happen rarely, but if it does, it usually starts around 8 weeks, and then it all falls apart with either the 4- or 8-month sleep regression. Then your happily sleeping baby will start waking up more frequently at night, naps shorten, and it’s harder to get them down for all periods of sleep. The reason is that they don’t know how to self-soothe. Until a baby learns how to self-soothe, they’ll always need your help to fall asleep – and fall back asleep – throughout the night and after one sleep cycle for naps. Through proper sleep training (by this I mean teaching your baby to fall asleep independently for naps and at bedtime and go back to sleep throughout the night), your baby will learn to self-soothe at the beginning of the night, which will help them learn to fall back to sleep in the middle of the night and give them the skills to sleep for longer than one sleep cycle during naps. At Mommywise, we focus on teaching all the sleep skills for bedtime, the middle of the night, and for naps, over a 3-5 night period. By the end of our work together, your baby will be sleeping through the night and napping more consistently.
Factors to consider with sleep training: Age, development, and health
When we guide families about when to start sleep training their baby, we look at the baby’s age, developmental stage, and overall health. All of these factors must be considered when we start sleep training, helping to drive our sleep training strategy.
Most baby sleep consultants won’t work with you unless your baby is 4+ months old. At Mommywise, we help babies with sleep training from about 12 weeks and/or 12 pounds. (There’s no right or wrong age to sleep train your baby, but you can read more about when is the right time to sleep train your baby right here.)
At about 11-12 weeks, babies are more alert and coming out of the newborn stage but haven’t started going through the 4-month sleep regression, teething, and huge developmental leaps yet. They want to suck on their hands, kick their legs, and may start to roll from belly to back. They may still have some of their sleepy newborn tendencies, or they may suddenly seem more alert. (If your baby is 12+ weeks and suddenly more alert, harder to get down, and naps start getting shorter, this could be the beginning of the 4-month sleep regression.) That’s why this 3-4 month window is a great opportunity to sleep train your baby. Afterward, when teething and bigger developmental leaps start to occur, sleep training can be more challenging – especially when your baby is older, sitting or standing up, and more set in their ways.
Health is vital to begin sleep training, so if your baby has been diagnosed with reflux or eczema, you’ll want to get those treated before sleep training. You also want to plan ahead for sleep training, so they’re not teething when you begin – or at least not in obvious pain from teething. This becomes more tricky as they get older, as teething usually starts interfering with sleep between 6-8 months old through 2 years old.
Should you sleep train your baby during a sleep regression?
If your baby isn’t already sleep trained (meaning going to sleep independently from a wide awake state night and day, and has the ability to go back to sleep through the night), then your baby will go through some sleep regressions. When a baby is going through a sleep regression, it’s your baby’s way of telling you that something isn’t working for them and they need you to make some changes. If bedtime is a long drawn-out ordeal or your baby starts breaking out of the swaddle, trying to roll, or waking up more frequently at night, your baby is likely going through a sleep regression. However, this is a perfect opportunity to help them learn independent sleep skills. They’re struggling with sleep just like you are, and they can sleep 10-12 hours at night if you change up what you’re doing and give them the space to learn to sleep without feeding, rocking, patting, and bouncing to sleep!
Types of sleep training methods
There are many types of sleep training methods that you’ll read about, but I’ll be honest. Most of the methods you read about online simply don’t work. Or they’ll work for the beginning of the night, but not for the middle of the night or naps. The most common sleep training methods that you’ve surely heard about include Taking Cara Babies, Ferber’s theory of intermittent checks, the “extinction method”, and the controversial “cry it out” sleep training method. There’s also the “chair method”, and the “shuffle” which are utilized by some online sleep consultants who brand themselves as “gentle” sleep coaches. Cry it Out has a reputation for being harsh, but some pediatricians actually recommend leaving your baby for 12 hours from 7pm-7am without any check-ins. This is probably what you think about when you think of crying it out, but there’s a lot more to cry it out sleep training. What most people don’t know is that ALL sleep training methods include crying. There’s simply no way of avoiding tears because it’s your baby’s only means of communicating if they’re feeling tired, frustrated, uncomfortable, or simply objecting to something new. But here’s something you may not know: the so-called “gentle” sleep training methods yield far more crying than straight “cry it out” or the extinction method, especially for babies going through a sleep regression.
Gentle sleep training methods
When you hear of gentle sleep training methods, you probably think this is how you want to sleep train your baby. Of course, “gentle” sounds much better than “cry it out” – I would definitely pick the “gentle” brand if I were shopping for a sleep training method! But here’s the thing that nobody talks about. The so-called gentle sleep training methods lead to an unreasonable amount of crying because the sleep consultants who employ this method will advise you to stay in your baby’s room, go in and out of the room, pick your baby up, put them down, walk away, then repeat ad infinitum until your baby falls asleep. Then you have to do this in the middle of the night and for naps. This method teaches your baby to be thoroughly confused about when you’re coming in and out of the room, and when you’ll pick them up and feed them. What I hear day after day from clients who’ve tried various “gentle” methods is that their baby cried so long and hard (harder every time they went in and out of the room), that they eventually gave up. Or they managed to get bedtime down, but the middle of the night and naps never worked out. So be careful when considering these methods – the word “gentle” is branding, and it is not gentle at all. The crying will be too much to bear, and you will probably give up after a couple of weeks!
Cry it out method: Exploring the controversy and potential benefits
The “cry it out” sleep training method is controversial but the problem I see the most is that it’s misunderstood. All sleep training includes some crying. When you put your baby down wide awake for the first time, of course, your baby’s going to cry. But what do you do? Should you go in and out of the room for timed checks, or stay in the room patting your baby’s bottom? Should you let your baby cry all night and wait to go into the room until morning? These are all forms of “cry it out” sleep training. Even the “gentle” sleep training method is “cry it out”, it just involves you in and out of your baby’s room, doing various things to “help” your baby. We at Mommywise know that helping your baby when they’re trying to learn to self-soothe is confusing, but we don’t just leave babies to cry for hours by themselves. Instead, we observe babies with our years of experience. We listen to their voices and help parents understand when they should intervene or check on their baby, and when to stand back and let their baby learn to get comfortable by themselves. Our goal is to always make sleep training as easy as possible for the baby so we look at safety first (by ensuring that the crib is empty of blankets and pillows, with a tightly fitted sheet, not surrounded by wires and curtains), and then how we can make it as easy as possible. From there, we consider if all the baby’s genuine needs are met. If crying sounds too intense or like a painful cry, we guide parents to check on their babies. If we hear breaks in the crying and see evidence that the baby is working really hard at self-soothing, we’ll recommend that parents hold back and not confuse their baby by going in and out of the room just to make themselves feel better. The benefit of the Mommywise sleep training method is that we factor all things into a holistic plan – including the baby’s age, personality, and health, as well as when to time feedings and night weaning, how to maintain a breastfeeding relationship through sleep training, and much more! Plus, we tailor the initial plan based on what we observe your baby is doing in real-time. Yes, there will be crying but far far less overall crying than with any other method. You can read much more about our position on cry it out sleep training in this piece.
Sleep training tools and techniques: From bedtime routines to sleep associations
Before you begin sleep training, we recommend implementing a short, predictable routine that your baby will learn comes before sleep. It doesn’t have to include a bath every night but should begin after the bath up until you put your baby in the crib. Maybe you give your baby a little massage before you dress them in PJs, then you can dim the lights, feed, and read a couple of books before you put them down. You don’t have to do it in this order but for sleep training, you will want to separate feeds and rocking from falling asleep so that your baby learns to self-soothe and drift off to sleep independently.
Sleep associations are key when it comes to sleep training. If your baby is used to falling asleep at the breast or bottle, in your arms, or with a pacifier and rocking, then those are your baby’s sleep associations. Because they have these sleep associations, they will need your help every time they wake up in the night (or from a short nap) to go back to sleep. Think of it this way: you go to sleep with a pillow and blankets in your bed. What if you woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t find your pillow? You need your pillow to go back to sleep so you would probably fully wake up to find your pillow so that you can go back to sleep.
Now think of this from your baby’s perspective. What are their sleep associations? What are they looking for when they wake up in the night? In order for them to learn to put themselves back to sleep throughout the night (because even sleep-trained babies wake up during the night – just like you do!), they must learn to put themselves to sleep in the beginning of the night. That means no rocking, feeding to sleep, not “drowsy” (which is usually really half-asleep), but putting your baby down wide awake so they can learn how to find their hands, roll around and get comfortable, and drift off to sleep just like you do!
Seeking professional help: Consulting sleep experts or pediatricians
We love pediatricians when it comes to baby’s health and growth, but they’re not so helpful when it comes to sleep training. They’ll probably tell you to use the Ferber method, or just leave your baby for 12 hours until the morning. That’s not so helpful when you’re overwhelmed with all the information online. When looking for professional help with sleep training, consider that 99.9% of the sleep consultants out there only offer virtual support and they follow a similar methodology (timed checks) that you must follow religiously for weeks or months, with lots of crying. 99.9% of the sleep consultants out there have no experience sleep training babies in real-time in their homes. They don’t get to know you or your baby personally, they just give you a plan that you need to implement on your own. They’re not with you at 3am when the plan isn’t working.
Personalizing the approach: Tailoring sleep training methods to your child’s needs
The reason we only offer in-home support with sleep training is because we know that it’s fast, safe, sustainable, decreases overall crying, and helps you build your confidence with everything from feeding to night weaning to simply being able to read your baby’s cues. We would never tell any parent how to sleep train their baby over the phone because we know it’s so much harder for babies and parents. It can also be unsafe if we’re not observing what’s happening in real-time.
If you’re ready to get tailored help with sleep training, reach out to us today. We would love to tailor sleep training for your whole family, so you can all get the sleep you need to thrive as a whole family!
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