We, here at The Baby Sleep Site®, say it often…we wish we had a crystal ball and could tell you before you begin EXACTLY what sleep training will look like for your baby! But the experience is literally different for every family. So much of how sleep coaching plays out depends on your baby’s temperament and on your parenting style (which we ask you to detail when you fill out a sleep history, if you purchase a Personalized Sleep Plan™.) Some adaptable babies calmly sail along with the flow while other babies are persistent and seem set in their ways (yes, already!). And, one of the biggest variables in the sleep coaching equation is your baby’s age when you begin. To help you learn a bit more about how age can affect sleep coaching, we polled our staff of experienced sleep consultants and asked them to share their 20+ years of collective wisdom about what the process might look like at a variety of different ages. Read on to learn How Your Baby’s Age Impacts Sleep Training.
Sleep Training – 0-4 Months
Make no mistake: Our sleep consultants DO develop Personalized Sleep Plans® for parents of newborns with one big caveat: We must keep our expectations realistic for 0-4 month olds. Newborns go through a lot of development in the early days and certain hormones and physical abilities have not developed yet. Progress may come in fits and spurts, in the beginning, and we generally stick to very gentle sleep coaching. We fully expect newborns to need help from you to relax and soothe to sleep.
From my experience as a sleep consultant and postpartum doula, I know that newborns have only been earth-side for a few weeks and are processing all kinds of new stimuli and building body systems and brain connections at a rapid rate. At this age it is the very rare baby who does not need some help to fall asleep because they have little to little to no ability to self-soothe. Asking your baby to sleep train much before 5 months would be a bit like expecting him to walk by 9 months old (which is rare). Just as he needs to develop muscles, balance and coordination to walk, he must reach a certain developmental stage to learn how to sleep in longer stretches.
Then, what are the exhausted and sleep-deprived newest parents to do? In addition to relying on one of our newborn resources, you should also consider working directly with us with one our consulting packages where you can give us detailed information about your baby and parenting preferences and we can develop a plan that suits your needs. While you won’t be formally “sleep training,” a plan for newborns and early infancy helps parents set realistic expectations about sleep needs. It includes information about feeding patterns and how a typical day might look during the first few months. Newborn plans include tips for soothing and options for creating a good sleep environment and a clear path to follow on how to build a great sleep foundation.
How will you know at what age YOUR baby might first be receptive to learning how to sleep more independently? Look for these clues: She can roll over in at least one direction and shows very little or no startle reflex (or at least not while laying flat) and so does not “need” a swaddle to sleep. It helps too if your baby has enough head control to re-position his face should he roll over. It’s also sometimes helpful to wait until your baby has passed through the very common and normal developmental stage of the 4- month sleep regression.
Before 4 months our sleep experts advise you to concentrate on learning about your baby’s temperament and personality. Offer feedings and an appropriate nap gap that allows your baby to sleep every 60-90 minutes during the day. After the first six weeks or so expect one or two slightly longer sleep stretches to develop in between multiple night feedings.
Sleep Training – 5-11 Months
Improved sleep for the entire family and great results can and do happen at almost any age, but the sweet spot for sleep training, at least according to sleep consultants here at The Baby Sleep Site® is most likely to be 5-12 months.
Generally more cheery and communicative than the newborn stage, and likely past the colic or fussy stages but before separation anxiety have begun, babies in the middle of the first year are the “clients” our consultants report were most quickly and successfully trained.
At about 6 months or so infants are out of the newborn phase, have passed their first regression and not yet completely mobile yet so standing, climbing, cruising and walking don’t yet complicate matters of sleep.
“Six to about ten months is a good age because now it’s typically okay to start consolidating night feeds and it’s easier once naps have the ability to lengthen so parents are not training for four short naps,” points out Nicole Johnson, Founder and Lead Sleep Consultant.
Sleep Training – 12 Months to 3 years old
While we “never say never” to sleep training, the newly verbal and mobile toddler CAN (and very often DOES) present more challenges for sleep training. If you can avoid waiting until this phase of development our sleep consultants were unanimous in suggesting you try to train before toddlerhood begins.
“Younger toddlers especially may not be expert communicators just yet, too, which can make it tough, “ says Daniella Knight, a sleep consultant with years of experience and small children of her own. “And don’t forget this is the age where it is literally your toddler’s job to test boundaries,” she adds.
This is the stage of development where tantrums may start. And because babies are not yet as verbal as they want to be they can easily become frustrated. They may also be going through a peak of separation anxiety. Sleep training is still possible, but it may simply be more difficult at 18 months. If you do decide to wait, we encourage parents to expect training to take a bit longer and possibly to require some extra effort because toddlers are pretty set in their ways and are…well…. TODDLERS! 😉
So, if you do wait until toddlerhood to sleep coach, plan to do so with lots of love and strong limits. Know that at this stage it is most critical to be consistent and set clear boundaries.
Make no mistake – training in toddlerhood has certain advantages too. Toddlers usually no longer require night feedings for calorie intake. And, they can communicate with some words and, more importantly, they understand what we are telling them. For example, when mom is still nursing during the night and starting to night wean at 1-2 years, Daniella recommends incorporating communication into the process since toddlers can understand more. “Now you can talk to them about the importance of sleeping more independently, and not needing to eat during the night because they are a big boy or girl. I often suggest a book called Nursies When The Sun Shines that parents can read to them,“ she offers.
So then — what is the BEST time to sleep train?
The “best” time is not the “right” time for every baby and family. “All babies and families are different and for some babies who are developing a certain way, 6 months could be very difficult, but 12 months works great. Since we don’t have a crystal ball, we never know for sure. But YOU know your baby best and should do it when it feels ‘right’ to you. You can always stop and re-evaluate if it’s not going well,” says Nicole.
“The right time is when you need a change in the way things are currently going. The best time is when you can be consistent to follow through,“ she adds.
No matter at what age you begin, Nicole offers this nugget of wisdom: “Don’t expect to be 100% done within 3 days like too many sources out there. Give both you and your child at least a couple of weeks to a month to make new habits. Adults don’t change our habits very quickly; so don’t expect babies or toddlers to either.“
In the end, we encourage parents to trust their gut and judgment on when to train. Danielle Summerville, sleep consultant and mom, reminds: “YOU are the expert on YOUR baby. We just know a bit more about sleep! Therefore we make a really great team when we work together with our clients.”