What is Baby Sleep Training and How to Decide if it’s Right for You

independent sleep sleep associations sleep training Feb 02, 2022
What is Baby Sleep Training and How to Decide if it’s Right for You

By 6 months old, many babies are developmentally able to sleep through the night [1]. While sleep is biological [2], and if we’re tired enough we’ll just fall asleep, sleeping well can (and often must) be learned. In fact, many adults don’t have healthy sleep habits or know how to sleep well! They may need medication to help them fall asleep, the TV on, a fan going, etc. 

Similarly, if babies don’t learn how to fall asleep on their own, they are not guaranteed to begin sleeping well one day, simply because they’re older. When babies don’t know how to sleep (or sleep well), they can carry those habits into childhood; then often morph into different habits or issues into adulthood. Does this mean if your baby doesn’t sleep well now, they definitely never will? Absolutely not! There are also many babies who do learn to sleep well on their own over time; there's just not a way to predict whether it will or won't happen. Though, there are lots of simple ways we can help our children learn healthy sleep habits that can last a lifetime, so many parents opt to proactively work on sleep!

Not every baby needs to be sleep trained; it is a personal choice! However, if baby sleep is causing you stress, anxiety, or sleep deprivation, a behavioral sleep intervention like sleep training can be a great option for you. Keep reading to learn more about it and to decide whether it's right for you!  

Baby Sleep Training and Building Independent Sleep Skills

An ideal sleep environment, a bedtime routine, and teaching your child good sleep habits are all part of healthy sleep hygiene and go a long way in teaching your baby to sleep well. To some, this may be considered a form of gentle sleep training, though this opinion varies depending on who you ask. My opinion is that the behaviors listed above are just as I stated, developing healthy sleep hygiene and are gentle enough to begin practicing with your newborn as soon as you feel up to it (the earlier, the better!). 

The key to baby sleep training is building independent sleep skills [3]! And while the overall goal of implementing the gentle tactics above is also to help your baby learn independent sleep skills slowly over time, there are also tools you can implement in a more structured fashion, which are referred to as “sleep training.” Sleep training programs can be implemented once a baby is developmentally ready (around 4 months, or older), and is centered around developing independent sleep skills more quickly. More on this later…

Independent sleep skills are the ways all of us as individuals fall asleep. Babies learn to do this by building their own “self-soothing” techniques. This may involve rolling around in their crib, trying different ways to get comfortable, sucking their thumb, or holding a lovey, but the bottom line here is that they are learning how to fall asleep without outside help. Self-soothing is not something that can be taught and babies will develop their own ways. The key here is giving your baby the opportunity to figure out those techniques. If we are always rocking, feeding, bouncing, and patting our babies to sleep, they don’t have the opportunity to learn to fall asleep without help. 

All babies (and adults!) have natural wakings throughout the night. When babies don’t know how to fall asleep on their own and rely on outside sleep associations (like rocking, feeding to sleep, etc.), they’re more likely to wake up fully during these natural night wakings between sleep cycles [4]; as they’ll likely need that same sleep association to get back to sleep after they wake. Babies who know how to fall asleep without outside help are able to seamlessly transition back to sleep in between cycles. Though keep in mind, some babies who are rocked or fed to sleep are naturally able to get back to sleep between sleep cycles in the night (which is great!), so it's up to you to decide the best course of action based on your child's sleep skills. 

6 Baby Sleep Training Facts

There are many common questions surrounding baby sleep training:

How will it affect my attachment with my baby?

Will I have to use the “cry it out” method?

At what age can I start sleep training? 

These are all normal concerns to have. Here are 5 facts to help you better understand exactly what sleep training is and when (and if) it is the right time to start. 

Fact #1: You can still cuddle, comfort, and hold your baby.

How sleep training affects attachment is a big concern among parents. It’s important to remember though that attachment doesn’t only happen at nighttime! It's happening throughout the day while meeting your baby’s basic needs. This doesn’t mean though that sleep training involves putting your child into their room and forgetting about them until morning without love, comfort, or being able to hold them. Snuggling your baby is a non-negotiable and no one is trying to tell you that you shouldn’t! You can rock, hold, and snuggle your baby during their bedtime routine before putting them down awake. In addition, most sleep training programs are responsive and allow for comfort and physical touch during the process. For a wealth of information on the science of attachment in relation to sleep training, watch this IGTV episode. My guest, Dr. Jenna Elgin of “Helping Families Thrive” is an expert on Attachment Theory and dives into this subject matter. 

Fact #2: Waiting until at least 4 months to formally sleep train is best.

While some parents may want to sleep train their baby from day 1, I don’t recommend sleep training until your baby is at least 4 months old. Developmentally, babies are not able to learn the skills necessary to accomplish being sleep trained as a newborn. However, there are A LOT of tips and important sleep basics that you can implement from day 1 that can help you either avoid sleep training altogether or help it go as smoothly as possible because your baby will already have the foundation for building independent sleep skills! If you’re pregnant or have a baby that is under 4 months, check out my newborn sleep guide for some support on navigating sleep throughout the newborn stage. 

Fact #3: Sleep training does not always mean “cry it out.”

“Cry it out” is one of the most misrepresented terms in baby sleep. It means something different depending on who you ask and is frequently (and incorrectly) used interchangeably with all “sleep training.” Cry it Out is most closely related to the “extinction method.” Some people still use and recommend this method, though it’s much more common now to use methods that are updated and responsive. My sleep training guide provides multiple options for the sleep training process and you will not be asked to leave your child alone to cry, without comfort, or for an extended period of time. My guide includes a 'leave and check" method (similar to the Ferber Method, but not the same) and an option to stay in the room with your child during the whole process to provide support through your presence. However, crying is inevitable and can occur during sleep training. Crying is how babies communicate, especially when they are exhausted and learning a new skill. So remember, crying during sleep training is no worse or more impactful than a baby who is crying during tummy time or while you’re driving because they don’t like their car seat. It is always important to respond to your baby's needs, whether that's hunger, discomfort, or yes: even sleep.

Fact #4: Your baby is not expected to sleep through the night without waking.

Everyone (babies, adults, and even animals!) wakes up during the night. Sleep training does not mean that your child will not wake up in the middle of the night between sleep cycles. It also doesn’t mean that your child shouldn’t be fed during the night if they are hungry and need to eat (as opposed to needing a feed to get back to sleep). The most important question here is whether your baby has the ability to get back to sleep between sleep cycles without outside help. Sleep training also does not mean that your child will stop “signaling” their needs because they have learned that no one will respond to their needs (this is something that I see on social media accounts pop up often). Sleep trained babies will still cry if they need something (whether that’s hunger, discomfort, illness, etc.); and in fact, it’s easier to understand what your sleep-trained baby might need during a wake-up since you can be sure your baby knows how to fall asleep without your help! 

Fact #5: You can room-share while sleep training.

Many people don’t realize that you can absolutely still be room-sharing with your baby while sleep training. There are several ways to make this process go more smoothly, but know that you can still sleep train your baby, even if you’re not ready to move your baby into their own room! 

Fact #6: Not every baby should automatically be sleep trained. 

Sleep training is not the answer for everyone, and no one should feel pressured to sleep train if they don’t want to or don’t need to, but it is the best answer for many. Some babies are naturally great sleepers and don’t need to be sleep-trained. Some babies have awesome sleep habits from early on and don’t need to be sleep-trained. Some families just know that sleep training is not right for them and it’s not something they want to do. Those are all great reasons NOT to sleep train! If you or your baby are suffering from exhaustion (especially leading to anxiety or depression), then sleep training MAY be the right answer for your family. Some families know from day 1 that sleep training is the right path for them and they want their child to develop those independent sleep skills early on. There is no right or wrong when it comes to whether you should sleep train your baby - it’s a completely personal decision. You know your baby best and it’s important to do what’s best for yourself and your baby!

When to Consider Baby Sleep Training

Since sleep training is not for everyone, when might someone want to consider helping their baby learn independent sleep skills? Usually, the most common reasons for starting baby sleep training is when a parent is physically and emotionally exhausted or touched out, a parent is heading back to work, what was once working to get a baby sleep is no longer working (sleep associations have become disruptive or unsustainable instead of helpful), or parents want to teach their child healthy sleep hygiene and skills that will last a lifetime. 

A few other reasons for sleep training:

  • Baby is over 4 months old and you’d like to encourage independent sleep skills
  • Baby will only sleep on or with a caregiver (and it is no longer working for you)
  • Baby is over 6 months old, only takes short naps, and can’t connect sleep cycles (short naps are developmentally normal until at least 5 or 6 months!).
  • Baby can’t fall asleep on their own and requires a sleep association (pacifier, rocking, etc.) and that’s no longer working for you
  • Baby has been bed-sharing and parents want to transition to their own sleep space 

Sleep training takes time, commitment, and above all, complete consistency. If you do decide that sleep training is the best thing for you and your baby, wait to begin when you feel completely ready to be 100% consistent. This is important, as inconsistent behavior (like feeding or rocking to sleep sometimes, then other times letting them cry) is confusing for your baby and actually reinforces more crying during the process. It’s best to decide what works for both of you, come up with a plan, and do your best to stick to it if you plan to complete the whole process. 

If you’re looking for step-by-step instructions on what tools to practice from day 1 to instill healthy habits in your newborn or infant, plus all the sleep training guidance you need through toddlerhood, check out my Ultimate Baby Sleep Bundle. If your baby is already over 4 months old and you want step-by-step instructions on how to sleep train, make sure to check out my Mastering Baby Sleep 101 guide. And if your child is over 18 months old and you need help with sleep training, make sure to visit my Rocking Toddler Sleep Together guide! 



[1] [3] [4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7940085/ 

[2] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jsr.12918 

Need help transforming your child's sleep? Check out my sleep offerings for children 0-3 years old!


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