Sleep training your baby is not the first thing parents want to do. But, when your baby won’t sleep, or your baby fights sleep then sleep training may solve your baby sleep problems. Spending hours putting babies to sleep can be frustrating and exhausting! Learn the ins and outs of sleep training with this ultimate guide based on my experience of 15+ years being an expert sleep consultant.
What is Sleep Training?
The term “sleep training” used to be associated with the cry it out method, but that’s an old definition, now. Most new parents these days understand there are a lot of different ways we can teach babies healthy sleep habits. There isn’t just one way. Many people do hate the word “train” since babies are not dogs after all so another term we use is “sleep coaching.” But, what is sleep training or sleep coaching anyway?
Just like we teach our children to use a spoon, walk, talk, how to wash hands and other hygiene, proper study habits, etc. we sometimes have to also teach them healthy sleep habits. But, healthy sleep habits often don’t come naturally to all babies and toddlers. Sometimes it’s because we start habits that we don’t realize will become a problem. For example, I used to rock my son to sleep and didn’t realize I was setting his expectations. So, in a way, your baby won’t sleep and it’s your fault. That’s NOT a bad thing. At all. You love your baby and you do what it takes… especially in the newborn days.
So, in a nutshell, sleep training is the act of teaching your baby healthy sleep habits according to their current age that they will be able to use for the rest of their lives. What “success” looks like will vary from baby to baby, and from family to family.
Do You Have to Do Sleep Training?
First, let’s talk about whether you really even need to do sleep training with your baby. Contrary to what some people may believe, not every family needs to do sleep training. Of course, there are some babies who are naturally good sleepers, and if you have one of these types of babies you’re probably not even reading this. Babies who are naturally good sleepers do not need sleep training, though that sometimes changes as they grow into toddlers. Toddlers seem to come with an entirely new set of sleep problems, unfortunately, even if they were perfect sleepers as a baby.
Next, if you are happy with your sleep situation and your baby is growing, developing, and thriving, there’s no reason to make any changes. After all, there may not be a “sleep problem” to solve. If you are co-sleeping, for example, and you love doing it, please don’t stop because of societal or family pressure, or because you are worried your 7-year-old will be sleeping in your bed. I promise I have helped families with children of all ages, including school-age, move their children to their own sleep spaces. Similarly, if you rock or feed your baby to sleep and then they sleep through the night and take long naps, that doesn’t sound so bad.
Only YOU can decide whether your current sleep habits are manageable and everyone is thriving. If you are struggling to meet daily demands, however, then sleep training could help your entire family. If you’d like an expert opinion, consider a free sleep assessment or sleep training services.
When To Do Sleep Training
If your baby is waking a lot at night, taking short naps, is not growing, developing, or thriving with their present sleep habits, it’s likely time to make a change and try sleep training your baby.
If you are suffering from sleep deprivation such that you can hardly function during the day, drive a car safely, or you are feeling depressed, that’s not good for your baby, either, even if they are doing just fine. We have a lot of parents who ask Is Sleep Training Selfish? and the answer is yes and no. Yes, we need to also be concerned about our own physical and mental health. But, no, we are not trying to get baby to sleep through the night so we can go to parties. In many cases, we are trying to get more sleep simply to function the next day or not get fired from our jobs!
It’s quite simple really. If you feel there is a “sleep problem” it may be time to try to fix it, assuming you have realistic expectations. You can start sleep training around 8 weeks old using gentle techniques and there is no age that’s “too old.” It’s never too early, or too late, to teach good sleep habits.
What Age to Start Sleep Training
The age to start sleep training varies from family to family. The age of your baby, the more your baby wakes at night, the more your family is suffering, the more depressed or frustrated you feel, and the more you’re ready to make a change all factor into your decision about when to start.
Keep in mind that newborns who are just a few weeks old have limited self-soothing capabilities and the first several weeks should be focused on bonding such as massaging your newborn. After about 8 weeks old, though, depending on how disrupted and severe your sleep problems, you can consider starting VERY gentle sleep training (AKA sleep coaching). This doesn’t mean your baby may be a proficient sleeper in just a few days, but there are some things you can start very early to set the stage for sleep.
There isn’t really a “right” or “wrong” age to start sleep training, but when you feel it’s the right time for your family. After all, no one else has to live with the sleep deprivation you may be feeling day in and day out nor does everyone have support at home from a spouse or extended family. Some of us don’t have much of a “village” at home, which is why we try to become a part of your extended village here at The Baby Sleep Site®.
Why Don’t Parents Sleep Train Their Babies?
Many parents feel “wrong” for sleep training because they feel they are selfish or pushing their baby to do something they may not be ready for. This could be true if you have unrealistic expectations about what your baby may be capable of at their age. Other families feel like we shouldn’t “train” babies at all. They will sleep when they are ready.
You need to feel right about your decision to sleep train. It’s not wrong to teach your child new skills and establish healthy habits if done in a loving way. Read on for more information about sleep training your baby to see if you can find a way to do it that you can feel good about.
5 Things to Do Before Sleep Training
Here are 5 things we recommend you consider doing before starting sleep training:
- Catch up on sleep yourself (if possible!)
- Develop bedtime and naptime routines.
- Make a trip to the doctor to rule out a medical issue and get clearance it’s okay to start sleep training.
- Make a plan you can follow.
- Clear your calendar as much as possible for at least 2-3 weeks.
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Sleep Training Methods – From Gentle Sleep Coaching to Cry-It-Out
There are a variety of sleep training methods you can use, from gentle sleep coaching to cry-it-out to in-between, and we have written on this topic several times. The most common sleep training methods are The Fading Method, Pick-Up-Put-Down, The Chair Method, Graduated Extinction/Controlled Crying/Ferber, and Cry-It-Out. Of course, there are many variations of these methods. With some of them, you leave the room while for others, you can stay in the room. The amount of time each takes will depend on the baby. Here are a few of our most popular posts:
- 5 Common Sleep Training Methods in detail.
- The Ferber Method Explained – Age to Use, Separation Anxiety, and Is It Harmful?
- Gentle Sleep Training Explained + 5 Strategies
- 11 Cry It Out Dos and Don’ts (Plus How Your Baby’s Temperament Affects Cry It Out Sleep Training)
And, if you are a VIP member of our site, here are a few more premium resources you may be interested in:
- 5 Steps to Gentle, Low-Cry (or No-Cry) Sleep Coaching
- Audio courses about sleep training, including all methods
- How Fixed and Fluid Schedules Can Help You night-wean your baby
- QUIZ: Which sleep coaching method fits?
- How to Handle Teething During Sleep Training
- How to Handle Illness During Sleep Training
- Case studies of other families who have gone through sleep training
And, now let’s look at specific age groups to find some of the challenges you may face.
Sleep Training Infants
Infant sleep training is when you help your baby learn a new way to sleep and, usually, more independently. This doesn’t mean your baby will not EVER need you! They are babies after all, but you attempt to teach your baby how to sleep with less help from you.
Sleep Training a Newborn
With newborns, they clearly need a lot of comfort and attention. If you are thinking about sleep training your newborn baby, I do NOT recommend any method that involves crying. Most of the time, you are doing foundational steps like setting your newborn’s schedule or creating a bedtime routine.
Sleep Training a 2 or 3-month-old
Once your baby is 8 weeks or older, you can start to consider trying to change more than their schedule and bedtime routine. Your baby may still be limited in how much self-soothing they can do, but with some gentle techniques, you can start to move towards more independent sleeping even if success comes in fits and spurts.
Sleep Training a 4-month-old
Your baby will likely go through the dreaded 4-month sleep regression which is when your baby’s sleep will change permanently. This is when many babies who were sleeping through the night start waking up a lot at night again and taking short naps. At 4 months old, it’s also a common time to stop swaddling though some babies aren’t ready until a bit older. We do NOT recommend sleep training your baby while still being swaddled, if possible.
Sleep Training a 5 to 6-month-old
At 5 months old or 6 months old, this is a great time for sleep training, usually. Your baby is no longer a newborn, has gone through the 4-month sleep regression but does not sit up or stand up just yet which can complicate things a bit. Many babies have not yet started teething, either, which is helpful. Anything that can give you confidence to move forward is helpful during the sleep training process. This one of the best times for sleep training.
Sleep Training a 7, 8 or 9-month-old
Sleep training a 7, 8, or 9-month old can be challenging, but not impossible. Your baby may be starting their 8-month old sleep regression (which can last through 9 months and even 10 months old). Different than at 4 months, this regression is temporary and lasts around 3 to 6 weeks on and off. During this age, many babies are becoming a lot more mobile and their minds are very busy. This makes it harder to sleep and, thus, harder to sleep train. You may not get perfect sleep, but if everyone is miserable we still see many families improve sleep with sleep training in this age group.
Sleep Training a 10 to 11-month-old
If your 10-month old breastfed baby is still waking more than once a night for a feeding or at all for a feeding being formula-fed, it’s likely time to start to sleep training, unless there is a medical issue. Be sure to check out our Baby Night Feedings By Age Chart before you begin.
If your 10- or 11-month old is still taking short naps, it’s also probably well past time to start sleep training. With babies this age, the main issue is that they are often standing and cruising by now, so you will need to handle that complication. Typically, we recommend laying your baby down intermittently, not constantly, if they are standing up during the sleep training.
Sleep Training Toddlers
Sleep training your toddler is when you help your toddler become a more independent sleeper. At this point, they may or may not be able to fall asleep on their own, but most parents are tackling challenges such as needing a parent in the room, waking up a lot at night, taking short naps, not being able to sleep alone, or climbing out of the crib. There are many toddlers who are still sleeping like an infant who hasn’t been yet gone through sleep training, waking every 1-3 hours all.night.long and these parents are clearly exhausted!
Sleep Training a 1-year-old
Your 1-year-old isn’t too different than an 11-month-old, but after you cross the one-year mark, there are a couple of things to keep in mind:
First, not all 12-month-olds transition to one nap, so don’t jump the gun. If you transition your 12-month old too early, you could end up with quite a mess of more sleep problems. That said, there are many daycares who transition to one nap at this age and many toddlers will do just fine. However, in my experience, not all are truly ready.
Also, your baby may be transitioning to cow’s milk and you should keep in mind that animal milk is more of a beverage with a meal than a meal itself. It does not have the same nutrition as breast milk or formula, so be sure to offer 3 meals and 2-3 snacks each day to ensure your toddler doesn’t wake at night due to hunger.
Sleep Training a 13 to 17-month-old
In this age group, your 15-month old is likely transitioning to one nap, though some don’t do it until later through 18-months-old. If your baby was a great sleeper, has started waking a lot at night (or waking too early in the morning), and still takes two naps, it may solve your problems simply by transitioning to one nap.
Sleep Training an 18-month-old
The biggest thing about sleep training your 18-month-old is that there is the 18-month sleep regression to have to tackle at the same time (yes ANOTHER sleep regression!). During this regression, toddlers wake at night or start to skip some naps. Take heart that they do go back to napping until 3-4 years old, on average.
Aside from that, the other thing to keep in mind is that we sometimes start to see hunger strike in the middle of the night, again. These toddlers are super active and are growing a lot, so take a look at your daytime schedule and consider adding in another meal or snack.
Sleep training a 19-month-old to 2-year-old
Sleep training an older toddler has its challenges simply due to those dreaded tantrums! Toddlers are becoming very independent and want to make a lot of decisions on their own, including when to go to bed and where to sleep.
Toddler sleep training can also be more challenging now that your baby is likely saying a few words such as “mama” and “dada.” If you thought to hear your baby cry was hard before, hearing them say “mama” or “dada” over and over again is quite heartbreaking. That’s why we often use different sleep training techniques with toddlers, depending on the sleep problem. With toddlers being more mobile, sleep training is often a bit more challenging than infants, but again, we do this every day and it’s not too late to sleep train! Have no fear, it’s still possible to sleep train your older toddler, but you will need patience, resolve, consistency, and follow-through.
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And, now a few frequently asked questions:
What If You’re Co-sleeping?
Can you sleep train if you’re co-sleeping and want to keep co-sleeping? Yes! Remember, you’re simply teaching your baby to sleep in a new way, not necessarily a new place, to sleep. Of course, if you want to transition from co-sleeping to crib that is also an option.
Need step-by-step instructions from transitioning from co-sleeping? Check out our premium resource, our day-by-day co-sleeping transition plan.
Naptime Sleep Training – Is it different?
Naps can be a bit different in that a different part of your baby’s brain handles day and night sleep. The drive to sleep is weaker during the day, so nap training is often (but not always) harder than nighttime sleep training. The main thing we do differently here is breaking the nap training down into smaller steps. Learn more about nap training here.
When Are You Done Sleep Training?
Are you ever done sleep training or will you need to sleep train over and over? As with many things pertaining to your baby or toddler, it will vary depending on the child. Their age, temperament, and personality will impact how the sleep training process goes. For some babies, a little nudging and they become fantastic sleepers for many months or years while others are more sensitive to changes and may struggle with every nap transition or schedule disruption. They do grow and mature, so although it may not feel perfect, being proactive in teaching them healthy sleep habits will “stick” eventually and it’s well worth it to have better sleep even if not “perfect.”
Should You Hire a Sleep Consultant?
Considering I’ve been a sleep consultant for 15+ years, I may be biased, but hiring a sleep consultant can fast-path you to a much smoother and faster sleep journey. In my experience, parents who have a lot of questions, worry about doing it “wrong,” worry their baby may be genuinely hungry or something else is wrong, or those who simply need more support as they go through the process greatly benefit from working with a sleep consultant. You’ll receive a Personalized Sleep Plan, and you can ask all the what-if questions that come to mind, figure out if what you’re experiencing is normal, and have a support system to help you stay consistent, which is crucial to success. You may be interested in reading 7 Reasons Hiring a Baby Sleep Consultant Is a No-Brainer.
Not every parent needs a sleep consultant. Some families like to DIY by reading sleep books, researching on the internet, and ask family and friends, and it works for them! In my experience, those who hire us are tired of the conflicting advice, tired of sorting through the information to apply it to their baby, and often at their wit’s end. And, we hear “I wish I had done this sooner” more times than we can count like Zoe.
The #1 Ingredient to Successful Sleep
And, finally, I end by letting you know the #1 ingredient to help make sleep training successful: CONSISTENCY. You’ve probably read it many times before, but I can’t emphasize enough that mixed messages will ruin the best of plans. If you are having trouble staying consistent, you may not have the right plan, the right sleep coaching method, or the right support system. And, we’d love to help!