Written by: Nicky Barker, Founder of Little Ones & Paediatric Sleep Specialist
There is a common misconception that having your baby sleeping well or on a sleep schedule/guide/routine is the same as sleep training and that sleep training can only mean a crying, unhappy, abandoned baby.
In this article we want to outline the difference between using a guide or Program to achieve good sleep and the need for actual "sleep training" and when the two can go hand in hand.
Following a baby sleep guide or program:
This means knowing the perfect awake windows for your baby's age and allowing your baby to nap at optimum times and lengths so they are ready for sleep and will fall asleep easily during the day and sleep well at night. Many babies who follow our Sleep Programs for their day generally won't need proper "sleep training" because they will be given the opportunity to sleep at the best times, learning quickly when sleep time is and they won’t need to be actively settled to sleep like an over or under tired baby would be.
Our goal has always been to set up great sleep habits right across your baby's napping and night time sleep. We never look at your baby's days or nights in isolation. Naps have such a huge impact on your baby's ability to settle and sleep well at night so it is actually the most important thing to get right before addressing any night waking issues.
Having an established and predictable nap pattern also allows feeding to be at the best times so your baby won’t wake hungry from a nap and will feed well during the day so they sleep well at night.
Understanding sleep training:
This is teaching your baby to go to sleep independently, or "self-settle", without parental sleep associations/crutches such as being rocked or patted to sleep. This can be done by using a variety of methods - you will have heard of the common ones such as "cry it out" or "extinction", "verbal reassurance", "pick-up put-down".
We are not in the business of judging parent's sleep training decisions for their children (nor should you be) and we have several methods detailed in our Sleep Programs, which are tailored to your baby's existing sleep association. Our methods are as gradual as you can get, allowing you to comfort and soothe your baby throughout the process.
Where sleep training gained a lot of negative attention is from methods such as extinction/cry-it-out/Ferber, which we don't use, having developed our own more gradual approach.
Sleep training also gets a bad reputation from people not knowing how or when to implement it. It can actually be quite ineffective to sleep train babies who are not also following a nap guide for their day. Many other organisations suggest treating nights separately and don't focus on a baby's daytime sleep - this leads to a baby being sleep trained under an umbrella of circumstances that are not ideal: if the baby is not also following a nap schedule it is likely they are having too much or too little day sleep or napping too early or late in the day and this can massively impact their night sleep and ability to even learn to self-settle (see THIS article). Your baby might simply need their daytime naps to be tweaked rather than needing any actual sleep training. An under or over tired baby being sleep trained in the night will result in a crying, distressed baby and frustrated parents. If you are being advised to look only at your baby's night waking and address that with some form of sleep training, we urge you to also insist on getting your baby's day sleeps in line FIRST.
How self-settling/self-soothing fits into the equation:
The skill of self-settling really kicks in after the 4 month sleep regression. Many people believe that babies under 4 months are not capable of "self-settling", basing their definition of "self-settling" on a crying baby being able to calm themselves without parental soothing. This is not what we mean by self-settling - we simply mean a baby falling asleep when they're ready to, without having to be actively settled every time. In our experience with the sleep patterns of thousands of babies, we find that younger babies are certainly capable of falling asleep unassisted if everything is aligned to encourage them to fall asleep. The "self-settling" though, at this age, is more of a neurological/instinctual reaction to their biological need to sleep and not a cognitive one like it is in an older baby. A baby this age falls asleep, rather than goes to sleep.
Over 16 weeks your baby can definitely start gradually learning to cognitively put themselves to sleep if they are catnapping or 2-hourly night waking once their sleep cycles mature. Giving your baby the chance to nap at the best times for their age, as per a Nap Guide/Program, is a great place to start and we often see babies sleeping better simply by adjusting their nap timings rather than needing proper sleep training.
For other, older babies who have a deeply ingrained sleep association which is causing continued catnapping and/or multiple night waking, some gradual sleep training can be used to wean them off needing as much assistance to fall asleep, but we would only recommend doing so if your baby was first established in a good, age-appropriate nap pattern.
Sleep training is different these days from the traditional regimented methods that have been immortalised in parenting folklore. The key is to look at your baby's day over a 24-hour period and make tweaks and adjustments to help your baby regulate their daytime sleep hours and consolidate their nights. Sleep training, in our books, is no longer simply focusing on your baby's night waking in isolation of anything else - it is working holistically to guide your baby towards independent sleep when they're good and ready.
- M.D. Arthur H. Parmelee Jr. et al, "Sleep patterns of the newborn"; The Journal of Paediatrics, February 1961Volume 58, Issue 2, Pages 241–250
- Goodlin-Jones, B L et al. “Night waking, sleep-wake organization, and self-soothing in the first year of life.” Journal of developmental and behavioral pediatrics : JDBP vol. 22,4 (2001): 226-33.
- 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.