Written by: Nicky Barker, Founder of Little Ones & Paediatric Sleep Specialist
Sleep training. Now there's a loaded phrase!
Sleep training has many connotations and for some people, conjures up images linked to crying babies, no thanks to scaremongering "research" that suggests sleep training brain damages infants.
This article is NOT about those (ridiculous) claims (click here for our article that contradicts those falsities). This article is about assessing whether your baby, and you, might be ready to engage in some form of sleep training/sleep coaching/sleep assistance - whatever you want to call it!
What is the purpose of "sleep training"?
Sleep training merely refers, very broadly, to any method that helps guide your baby to the skill of self-settling, or falling asleep independently in their bed, without having to be actively put to sleep by you. Sleep training usually occurs alongside the implementation of a nap routine and, we would hope, after some reading and consultation with a sleep expert of some sort, to work out the approach that best suits your family.
How does sleep training work?
There are dozens of different methods out there, from very cry-based methods (with names like Extinction Sleep Training), to gentle hands on methods. Whatever the method, they are all based around the idea of removing the parental assistance required to get your baby to sleep and letting your baby learn to fall asleep on their own. Sleep training works by teaching your baby the skill of independant sleep.
For us, our sleep training methods rely on you using your baby's existing sleep association (ie, rocking or feeding to sleep) as that's what your baby is used to and what they already associate with going to sleep, but you are gradually reducing your input each time. In a nutshell, you're slowly weaning them off needing to be rocked or patted or fed fully to sleep. In our methods, we encourage you to still soothe your baby using the association they're used to, but just not to do it until they're fully asleep. This style of sleep training is referred to as "gradual withdrawal". It works in our case because your child is reassured that you're still there to soothe them, but that you're also respectful of their sleep development and you're giving them some space to get the hang of a new skill.
We also place a lot of importance on making sure your baby is totally ready to even fall asleep in the first place, by ensuring their naps and awake windows in the day are age-appropriate and spot on for giving your baby the best chance of learning to self-settle. We also look at your baby's sleep environment and suggest things like having a very dark room and white noise to help your baby settle.
Signs your baby might need to start learning to fall asleep independently:
Once your baby's sleep cycles mature, around 4 months, you will notice a difference in their sleep. They can start catnapping more, with more defined sleep cycles during the day and they can also start waking a lot more overnight - approximately ever 2 hours.If your baby is relying on you doing something to get them to sleep, now that they are fully rousing between sleep cycles as a result of the 4 month sleep development, they are needing you to do the same thing to get them back to sleep again. So if your baby's naps and nights have taken a hit, this is a key sign your baby can start learning to fall asleep by themselves; they are well capable of it.
Is my baby too old to sleep train?
Short answer - nope. Even toddlers with deeply ingrained sleep habits can learn to self-settle, it is however, a bit harder the older the child is. A 2 year old isn't going to easily give up their rocked to sleep association, so you would need to carefully consider the method you choose to use with a child this age. And there will be protesting!
If my baby too young to sleep train?
Sleep training is essentially just letting your baby realise they can fall asleep unassisted. This is actually a skill all humans are capable of - it's just that we get so caught up in trying to get our babies to go to sleep in the early days that the way we end up "teaching" them to go to sleep is dependant on the sleep associations we establish. So, technically, a baby of any age is able to fall asleep, if they know how! That said, the ability to self-settle doesn't start affecting a baby's capacity to nap longer or sleep better overnight until they go through the 4 month sleep change/regression. From this point onward is generally when we'd recommend looking at some gradual sleep training with your little one.
How do I start sleep training?
Well, the best place to start is by making sure your baby even needs sleep training! For many babies who are catnapping or 2-hourly night waking, simply adding some structure to their day, or tweaking awake times or working on nap lengths or altering their sleep environment is enough to see massive improvements in their sleep! That is always the first step - ticking all those other boxes first. This also means your baby is in the best possible position to respond positively and quickly to sleep training. Trying to sleep train an overtired or undertired baby is going to be impossible and result in a lot of tears (from them and from you!).
From there, once we can ensure their naps and sleep environment is perfect for their age, we would look at your baby's existing sleep habits and you would chose a method you're comfortable with to start gradually changing those sleep habits. We always suggest teaching self-settling at the start of naps first, rather than overnight, as everything is just so much less confronting in the daytime! We often find that once your baby is self-settling for naps, the nights can just click into place. For older babies, self-settling during the day is the first stage, then we'd look at reducing night wakes once your baby was confidently self-settling in the day and at bedtime.
If you think it's the right time to look at some sleep training with your baby or toddler, or even just some help getting naps happening or setting up a great sleep environment, you can access all our methods (we have the most of any online program anywhere!) by choosing your baby's age here:
Gradisar M, Jackson K, Spurrier N, Gibson J, Whitham J, Williams A.S, Dolby R, Kennaway DJ. Behavioral Interventions for Infant Sleep Problems: A Randomized Controlled Trial
Paul IM, Savage JS, Anzman-Frasca S, Marini ME, Mindell JA, Birch LL. INSIGHT Responsive Parenting Intervention and Infant Sleep. Pediatrics. 2016 Jul;138(1). pii: e20160762. doi: 10.1542/peds.2016-0762. PubMed PMID: 27354460; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4925087.