Behavioral Sleep Training: The Complete Guide


Behavioral Sleep Training The Complete Guide

When we first started sleep training, we worried if we were doing it the right way. After looking into scientific studies, we learned that behavioral sleep training is safe and recommended.

But what is behavioral (or behavioral-based) sleep training? Behavioral sleep training methods focus on parental education and gradual changes that improve sleep quality while meeting a child’s physical, emotional, and psychological needs.

Let’s talk more about how, when, and why to implement behavioral sleep training.

Behavioral Sleep Training: What Is It?

Behavioral sleep training helps everyone get more sleep without causing undue family distress or lots of crying. It does this by making gradual changes to help everyone break negative sleep associations, creating healthier sleep habits, and learning better coping mechanisms to get through sleep disruptions (or sleep regressions).

Within behavioral sleep training, there are multiple methodologies that can be used. Behavioral-based sleep training methods include:

Behavioral Sleep TrainingDefinition Or MethodologyAlso Known AsWell Known Examples
Graduated ExtinctionParents gradually delay their response to an infant’s cry.Controlled CryingFerber Method
Bedtime FadingA parent gradually delays an infant’s bedtime over time.Not commonly used
Controlled ComfortingParents physically comfort a crying child, though the length and type of comfort gradually diminish.Pick Up, Put DownHealthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child
Adult FadingA parent gradually stays less and less time with a child after putting them down for bed.Camping Out
Camping OutA parent “camps out” in the room after bedtime. Each night, the parent moves their chair one step further from the crib until the child graduates from needing a parent present to fall asleep.The Chair Method
Pick Up, Put DownEvery time a child cries, the parent picks them up and comforts them until calm. Once calm, the baby is placed back in the crib.Controlled Comforting

Because there are no official regulations on sleep training, some of these terms actually refer to the same (or somewhat similar) sleep training techniques. The overlap is totally normal, though, given how each of these methods teaches parents how to focus on behavioral improvement.

Other popular methods, like those taught by Taking Cara Babies and the Sleep Sense program, combine aspects of each of these methods into an individualized, outlined program.f

No matter the specific program, though, behavioral-based sleep training is extensively studied and has shown to be:

  • safe
  • efficient
  • effective in short-term improvements to sleep disruption and maternal depression
  • beneficial in helping parents develop better parenting techniques (like the authoritative parenting style – you can read that 2012 Australian study’s results here)
  • lacking any long-term effects (either negative or positive)

If you’d like to read the literature on these findings, make sure you read my article on the safety and related scientific literature about sleep training by clicking here.

In any case, these sleep training methods focus on improving sleep-related behaviors. And they do it by teaching us parents some new skills (both sleep-related and general parenting skills) that improve sleep for all of us.

How Long Does Behavioral Sleep Training Take?

Behavioral sleep training methods do not usually see overnight success. On average, they take 2-4 weeks to see lasting results.

However, because there’s so much less stress involved, behavioral sleep training isn’t a chore. Instead, it’s more like just a regular part of the bedtime routine.

Why Use Behavioral Sleep Training?

So why should we use behavioral sleep training, rather than just any old sleep training method?

Well, here’s why: behavioral sleep training methods get results without causing the emotional, physical, or psychological distress commonly associated with general sleep training.

That’s the main reason. A second reason is this: sleep training methods that focus solely on ignoring crying can quickly and accidentally transition from sleep training to an emotional and psychological nightmare (if not abuse).

For example, let’s look at the oft-cited story of Romanian orphans who weren’t responded to when they cried.

The most remarkable thing about the infant room was how quiet it was, probably because the infants had learned that their cries were not responded to.

Dr. Nathan Fox, PhD as reported by the American Psychological Association

Children aren’t just trying to make noise – children who cry are asking for help. Not responding to their tears teaches children to stop asking for help.

Furthermore, studies (like this Australian longitudinal study and this Canadian study) regularly and reliably conclude that letting your children cry without a parental response leads to increased stress (measured via cortisol levels) for everyone involved.

Common sense backs that data up!

When our kids cry, it’s stressful. I’ve surveyed more than 800 parents – very few like using pure extinction (or cry it out) methods to sleep train. In some cases, it is necessary – but it’s only after other methods have been tried or an immediate intervention is absolutely required.

Even then, the parents who use extinction methods are doing so carefully and intentionally. These parents keep active tabs on their children somehow – most often via a monitor or by sitting outside of their child’s door.

So even in those cases, parents are using behavioral-based techniques in combination with extinction to see faster sleep training results while still keeping the stress levels to a minimum.

In other words, it’s best to use behavioral-based sleep training techniques (whether used exclusively or in conjunction with intentional extinction techniques) to see results – without stressing us all out or causing lasting emotional or psychological harm.

Who Should Use Behavioral Sleep Training

Behavioral-based sleep training is beneficial for anyone who is considering sleep training.

Not every child will require sleep training, but if yours does, please consider using a behavioral sleep training method. It’ll be so much less stressful for both you and your baby!

When and Where To Use Behavioral Sleep Training

The great thing about behavioral sleep training is that it can be used anywhere and at any time by anyone. While it will work best when used in a consistent bedtime setting, it can still work when you’re traveling.

It’s universally applicable because it starts by teaching parents to use gradual processes to reach the desired result of a full night’s sleep. This way, a child can grow and develop at a normal pace while also learning appropriate sleeping behavior.

Example: sleep training on vacation isn’t easy. When we go camping, we adjust bedtime to match sunset because we can’t rely on blackout curtains to help our children fall asleep. Similarly, we also build in extra rest and nap time during the day to make up for that potential loss of sleep in the evenings.

So even on vacation, we’re making behavioral adjustments to keep sleep training our children. This way, we’re teaching them to value and enjoy sleep without any of us having to stress about it too much.

So now, let’s get ready to start sleep training!

How Do You Start Sleep Training?

To start using behavioral sleep training, we first have to understand how sleep develops.

Newborns require amazing amounts of sleep – they will cat nap constantly until their brain develops enough to fall into a more adult-like sleep pattern at about 4 months old.

Next, naps will consolidate into a regular pattern. Then nighttime sleep will become longer and less frequently interrupted. Sometime between toddler and preschooler, your child will outgrow the need to nap while also learning to get all of their sleep at night. As they keep growing, they’ll need less sleep at once, although this change is slow.

To help better understand how sleep patterns develop, here’s a handy chart.

AgeNumber of NapsAverage Nap LengthWake Time Between NapsBedtimeNighttime Sleep RequirementsSleep Required Each 24 Hours
Birth to 6 weeks4-815 minutes to 4 hours45 minutes to an hourBetween 9-11 PM8-14 hours14-18 hours
6 weeks to 3 months3-430 minutes to 2 hours1 to 2 hoursBetween 8-11 PM8-13 hours11-15 hours
3-6 months31-2 hoursabout 2 hours8-10 PM9-12 hours12-16 hours
6-9 months31-2 hours2-3 hours8-10 PM9-12 hours12-14 hours
12-18 months1-21-2 hours3 hours7-8 PM10-12 hours12-14 hours
18 months to 3 years11-2 hoursN/A7-8 PM10-12 hours11-14 hours
Preschoolers0N/AN/A7-8 PM10-13 hours10-13 hours
Grade schoolers0N/AN/A7-8 PM9-12 hours9-12 hours
Teenagers0N/AN/A8-10 hours8-10 hours

Once you know what average sleep patterns look like, you can start (at any age) helping your child to practice sleeping within those established patterns.

Now, the exact sleep timing or patterns won’t work for every child – and that’s okay. It’s just a baseline to get us started.

Then, we can start using the behavioral-based sleep training method (of our choice) to help guide our children towards a full night’s sleep. It will take time, practice, patience, and consistency.

But it’s a solid start to sleep training. Then, you just keep using the behavioral sleep training principles to gradually get you to your goals. And in that way, you will see reliable, repeatable results – without the stress.

Seeing Success with Behavioral Sleep Training

Once you’ve started behavioral-based sleep training, you will see results. However, if it’s anything like my experience (and surveying 800+ parents tells me it will be), it’ll be something like this:

  • Make a plan using behavioral sleep training techniques
  • Implement the plan
  • Keep going for several weeks
  • Realize it’s been several months and the problem resolved itself months ago

Seriously. Once we started using behavior-based sleep training, sleep training became second nature. It became easy.

So now when we need it, we pull it out and use it. When we don’t need it? We’re still subconsciously using the parenting techniques and tricks we learned to keep things running smoothly.

Example: we just tried potty training our daughter, which has caused issues with bedtime. In order to help her get back into the bedtime groove, I lay down with her for a few minutes each night. Gradually, the amount of time has diminished. It’s not long, but I still enjoy getting to snuggle her for a few extra moments before kissing her goodnight. She’s still not potty trained, and that’s okay. We’ll try again later – when she’s ready.

And just like that, all of the stress about sleep training was gone. Here’s a final fun fact about sleep training: once the stress is gone – it happens so much easier.

So go try behavioral-based sleep training – and enjoy seeing success with it.

Related Questions

How Do You Do the Ferber Method? The Ferber sleep training method: 1. Use a bedtime routine. 2. Put the baby to bed. 3. When the baby cries, check on them in regular but increasing intervals so they learn to self-soothe.

How Long Should Baby Cry It Out? When a newborn cries, they should be attended to immediately. Older babies may be allowed to cry for a few minutes.

At What Age Can You Let a Baby Cry It Out? A crying baby should always be checked on to make sure their physical, emotional, and psychological needs are met.

Kimberly C. Starr, RN BSN

I’m a ginger-haired nurse (RN, BSN) who loves getting enough sleep to be a functional parent to my four wonderful kids - who are even more wonderful when they’ve gotten enough sleep, too. To read more about me, click here.

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