We talk a lot about sleep training on this blog… A LOT. And over the years, we’ve come to learn that while many of our readers are generally interested in sleep training, they are specifically interested in gentle sleep training. This makes sense, if you think about it. No parent is eager to hear their child cry. If it’s possible to build healthy sleep habits in a gentle way that involves minimal fussing, many of us would greatly prefer that to the cry it out alternatives.
But gentle sleep training can be confusing. Other sleep training methods can seem more straightforward, but gentle sleep training? That’s a whole spectrum that involves a number of approaches and methods.
What Is “Gentle” Exactly, and What’s Not?
First, when we talk about gentle sleep training, it’s important to address what “gentle” includes, and what it doesn’t. The good news here is that “gentle” can mean basically whatever you want it to mean. It’s a very subjective sort of word when applied to sleep training! Some parents view gentle sleep training as sleep training that involves almost zero tears. Other parents consider Ferberizing (check and console) methods gentle because they allow for periodic comforting. So be aware that the spectrum of gentle sleep training is large and will vary from one family to the next.
In general, though, we’ve learned that many families consider gentle sleep training methods to be those that involve minimal tears and allow for mom and dad to remain in the room during sleep training, very close to baby’s sleeping area. Additionally, some co-sleeping families want gentle methods that allow for continued bed-sharing. So, for the purposes of this article, we’ll call gentle sleep training an approach that minimizes crying and allows for lots of parental involvement and closeness.
Is Gentle Sleep Training Really Sleep Training?
Yes indeed! While some families consider the term “sleep training” synonymous with “leave your baby in a room alone to cry all night long”, that’s not true at all. Simply put, sleep training – also known as sleep coaching – is the process of weaning your child away from sleep associations, and helping her learn how to fall asleep without help. A child who can fall asleep independently is a child who can fall BACK to sleep when she wakes between sleep cycles at night, or during a nap, and who sleeps through the night and takes long, consistent, restorative naps.
The good news about sleep training is that HOW you help your child learn to fall asleep independently is up to you. There are so many ways to approach this process, and many of them can be customized and tailored to be incredibly gentle.
5 Ways To Gently Sleep Train Your Baby
In truth, you can make most sleep coaching methods gentle (or at least gentler). That said, there are some sleep training methods and approaches that produce results without much (if any) fussing. Here’s a quick look at 5 ways you can gently help your child learn to sleep better:
1. Make schedule and feeding changes.
It might seem strange to start here but believe me. Making a few careful adjustments to your baby or toddler’s sleep and feeding schedule can sometimes make a huge difference in sleep. Schedule and feeding changes can be a gentle and non-invasive way to make great progress. If your child is waking too early, for instance, you may need to adjust bedtime. Naptime drama may indicate that your child is ready for a nap transition. Night waking may point to a need for more daytime feedings. However you shift your child’s schedule, remember that a few schedule changes can greatly improve your child’s overall sleep.
2. Create or strengthen your bedtime and nap time routines.
One of the easiest and gentlest ways to help your child sleep is to create a strong pre-sleep routine. Both your bedtime routine and your nap time routines should help to relax and calm your child. This signals that it’s time to fall asleep. There are no hard-and-fast rules as to what makes a great bedtime or nap time routine. As a general rule, keep routines short for young babies and longer for toddlers and preschoolers. Lastly, be sure that you have a definitive ending to your routine.
3. Substitute one sleep association for another.
This might seem strange, but it’s true. Substituting your child’s preferred sleep association for another can actually help sleep. Here’s how it works: you start by swapping in a different sleep association at bedtime and nap time. For instance, if your child prefers to be nursed to sleep, you may choose to swap in rocking to sleep. You work on that until your child falls asleep when rocked. Then, at that point, you gradually wean away from rocking. The idea here is that it’s easier (and gentler) to wean away from a weaker, less habitual sleep association (in this case, rocking) than it is from a stronger, more preferred sleep association (in this case, nursing).
4. Fade out sleep associations gradually.
Fading requires a lot of patience, but it is a great way to gently sleep train. Fading sleep training works just the way it sounds. You simply fade out your child’s sleep association gradually, and by degrees, until your child can fall asleep without it. If you nurse to sleep, for instance, you would gradually work towards getting to the point where you nurse until your child is drowsy, but not fully asleep. Or if you are fading out rocking, you may work to get to the point where your child falls asleep in your arms, but without the rocking movement.
5. Try the pick-up-put-down method.
Once you are actually ready to have your child work on falling asleep independently in his sleep space, you can use the PUPD method. Simply put, PUPD means you lay your child down awake in his sleeping area. Then pick him up and offer comfort when he fusses. You repeat this process until your child eventually falls asleep. This is a gentle method because it allows constant soothing and minimizes fussing.
Does Gentle Sleep Training Actually Work?
Gentle sleep training can absolutely be effective. Be advised, however, that gentle methods require lots of patience. They can take a while to actually produce meaningful results. Gentler methods may take weeks before you see signs of improvement, but the process is often more enjoyable for everyone! Provided you are committed to your sleep training plan and are willing to put in the time and energy needed to reach your goals, gentle sleep training can be an effective and low-fuss way to finally get your baby or toddler sleeping through the night.
For more information designed to help you sleep train gently AND effectively, check out these VIP Members Area resources:
- No-Cry and Limited-Cry Sleep Coaching Techniques audio course with Nicole
- Sleep Training and Co-Sleeping Strategies
- No-Cry Method Case Study
- Sleep Plan Workbook (use this to create your gentle sleep training plan)
- The 3-Step System To Help Your Baby Sleep e-Book (with gentle sleep training guidelines and tips)