Research suggests that not sleeping through the night is common among babies for the first year or two. These frequent awakenings may help to protect against sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Typically, newborns awaken more often during the night than older babies do, but this can vary according to their developmental stage. For example, at age 6 to 9 months, many babies experience major changes in their abilities (sitting, crawling, and so on), so settling into sleep can be a challenge. Although sleep habits typically return to “normal” once these milestones are achieved, this is often a time when parents consider a form of sleep training.
What does the evidence show about sleep training?
Sleep training—teaching your child to “self-soothe” and sleep alone for longer periods of time—is controversial. Experts disagree on its value. And little or no evidence exists showing that babies need it to develop good sleep habits.
If I choose sleep training, when should it start?
Generally, no method of sleep training should be considered before age 6 months. Sleep training has been shown to be ineffective when implemented sooner and equally as important, babies need to awaken to eat. Nighttime feedings can provide as much as one-third of a baby’s daily intake, making them just as important as daytime feedings. To get the calories needed to grow, all newborns (whether breastfed or formula-fed) need to eat every 1–3 hours, or 8–12 times per 24-hour period.
- Be consistent with baby’s schedule. You don’t need to plan your baby’s day down to the minute but try to be consistent with meal, nap and bed times.
- Don’t skip naps. If a baby doesn’t nap well during the day, chances are he’ll be overtired and overstimulated before bedtime, making it hard to fall asleep. At 6 months, your baby should still be napping twice a day for 1.5-2 hours. Ideally, it’s best for babies to nap in their cribs versus in a car seat or stroller.
- Follow a bedtime routine. Develop a simple bedtime routine that helps your baby wind down and get ready for bed. No matter what your routine includes, try to do it in the same order every night since babies respond well to consistent routines and schedules.
- Watch for sleep signals. If you notice your baby’s fussy and rubbing her eyes around 6:30 p.m. each night, start your bedtime routine at 6 p.m. While your baby’s bedtime may seem early to you, the key is to have her in bed before she becomes so tired that tears and tantrums start.
- Encourage your baby to fall asleep on her own. In order to sleep through the night, your baby must learn to fall asleep on her own. This will take some practice so be patient. Try placing her in the crib before she nods off in your arms. If she cries, the next move is up to you, but give her a few minutes to see if she’s having a hard time or is just fussing a bit before settling herself down to sleep.
- Keep the mood mellow in baby’s room at night. When feeding or taking care of your baby’s needs at night, be sure to keep the lights dim, speak in a quiet voice, and move about in a calm, relaxed manner. This will help remind your baby that it’s time to sleep not play.
What are some sleep-training methods?
Like most aspects of parenting, there is no one size fits all approach when it comes to sleep training. Here are some popular techniques:
- The Fading-Sleep Method: Help your baby fall asleep by rocking or feeding her. Over time, you gradually do less and less rocking or feeding. For example, you might shorten the amount of time you rock each night until you are rocking for only a few minutes.
- The Pick-Up-Put-Down Method: When it’s time to sleep and your baby is fussing, pick him up and comfort him until he’s calm and drowsy. Then put him back in his crib, repeating until your baby is asleep.
- The Chair Method: After doing your normal bedtime routine, put a chair very near the crib and sit on it while your baby falls asleep. Try not to give her attention—you are there simply to reassure her. Each night you move the chair further away from the crib until you are right outside the door.
- The “Ferberizing” Method: Allow your baby to cry while checking on him at intervals. When you check in, you don’t pick him up or engage him but reassure him using your voice and a loving pat. As the nights pass, gradually increase the amount of time between your check-ins.
- Cry It Out: Put your baby to bed awake and then leave the room without returning for checks. If your baby cries, don’t go in to check on her—instead, you let her “cry it out” on her own. (Note: Because crying may signify that the baby is experiencing stress, opponents consider this method harsh and potentially damaging. They believe effects may include brain changes during a critical growth period due to elevated cortisol levels from stress-induced crying, babies learning to “shut down” in response to distress, and babies learning that they cannot trust their environment and caregivers since their crying is unanswered.)
It’s hard to evaluate the long-term effects of “cry it out” or any other sleep training technique because a host of other factors influence infant and child development, both physically and psychologically. If you’re feeling unsure about which method is best for your baby or debating if sleep training is even necessary, consult your pediatrician. While at times it may feel like your child is never going to sleep through the night, take heart! Good sleep behaviors will come, with time and patience, and a consistent, age-appropriate bedtime routine.
For tips on keeping your baby's sleep environment safe, read this.