When you’re researching sleep training, it’s easy to get confused – especially because every method touts its own “how-to” recipe for success. Based on extensive research and experience sleep training, here is how to sleep train your baby – a recipe for sleep training success that will work with any and every sleep training method.
- Decide if sleep training is right for your family.
- Research sleep training.
- Choose a sleep training method that appeals to your parenting style and will meet your family’s needs.
- Create, implement, and evaluate your sleep training plan.
- Make changes as needed.
- Stick with it; it may take anywhere from a few days up to 6 weeks to see success.
Let’s make sure you’ve got every step laid out for you so that there aren’t any questions – and you can reach sleep training success. Keep reading for more details.
How to Sleep Train Your Baby – Important Background Information
Before we dive into the steps, I want to give you a quick background on how these steps came to be – so that you can see exactly how valuable this recipe is.
Because knowing how to sleep train isn’t something that we’re taught in a class at school. It’s something that some generations, cultures, and countries see as basic parenting skills that ought to just be known. However, it’s something that does need to be learned and practiced.
It’s something that I had to learn by doing extensive research, trial and error, and lots of practice. Then, as other parents began asking me for advice on how to sleep train, I did even more research so I could offer the best insights possible.
And because of my experience as a pediatric Emergency Department nurse, my focus has been on providing this information free of charge – and explained as simply and efficiently as possible. That way, everyone can sleep better – and get on to making amazing memories with their families.
So over time, I’ve developed this recipe on how to successfully navigate sleep training children – and I’ve helped thousands of parents worldwide who have given me feedback on how this works.
Thus, this recipe for sleep training success has been successfully tested and refined – with help of hundreds and thousands of parents. All of whom picked their own, different sleep training methods.
So, let’s give you the sleep training recipe for success already.
Step 1: Decide to Sleep Train
The very first step of any successful path is deciding to take it – and the same can be said for sleep training. You’ve got to really commit to sleep training in order for it to work.
But before you commit to doing any sleep training, let’s make sure it’s the right path for you and your family. That way, you’ll be able to take the first step with confidence. And you’ll know that you’ll be able to reach your goal. So, let’s start by asking (and answering) a few basic questions.
How to Know if You Need to Sleep Train
First, let’s make sure you need to sleep train. We do that by answering two easy questions.
- Is the current sleep situation working for your child?
- Is it working for you?
If things are working for everyone, there’s no real need to sleep train. Save yourself some time, worry, and heartache and don’t worry about things until there’s a problem.
If the sleep situation is hunky-dory for one of you (but not both of you), then sleep training is worth considering.
But if nobody is sleeping well, sleep training needs to be on your radar. Sleep training is the tool you’ll need to use to get everyone from your current status (of not sleeping well or waking every few hours) to get a better night’s sleep.
If those two questions alone don’t convince you to try sleep training, there are 3 other questions to ask yourself. You can see them, along with what their answers mean, in my other post (called “Is Sleep Training Necessary?”) by clicking here.
Next, let’s talk about the timing of sleep training.
On Deciding When to Sleep Train
Timing is another important factor you need to consider when thinking about sleep training. This is for several reasons.
When to start sleep training will depend on your exact situation, your child, and your family’s sleep needs. Families can skip dedicated sleep training by practicing healthy sleep habits, while others will need focused sleep training to see more immediate improvements.
One of the most important aspects of timing will have to do with your child’s age.
Please note that prematurely born babies will need to use their adjusted or developmental age, rather than their actual birthdate when we talk about age.
Because of how our natural sleep patterns develop and how often newborns need to eat, children less than 4-6 months old are generally unable to formally sleep train.
This isn’t to say that you can’t sleep train babies less than 4-6 months. Rather, it’s important to know that sleep training a newborn is more like practice. It can be harder and take longer than does sleep training babies who are older than 4-6 months old.
To see my article on when to start sleep training (with a month-by-month guide that includes age-appropriate recommendations on sleep training methods), click here.
There is one other timing factor to consider in regard to sleep training: when to start sleep training.
Generally speaking, start sleep training on a Friday – either an actual Friday or your personal Friday. That way, you’ve got a weekend to focus on sleep training – and to take naps if/when things don’t go as well at night as you’d have hoped.
So go ahead and circle a start date on your calendar – like your next available Friday with a free weekend. And then keep reading so you’ll be ready to dive in with your research already done and your plan in place.
Step 2: Do Your Research
Now it’s time to get your research done and as many of your questions answered as possible. Ideally, you’d get every question answered, of course!
Your research will depend on what questions you have, how much reading you want to do on the different methods, and what sources you reference.
In your research, you’ll use sites like this one, SleepRegression.com, the Baby Sleep Site, and dozens of personal blogs that detail personal stories with sleep training. To read my personal experiences and stories with sleep training our four kids, be sure to check out my blog at KimberlyCStarr.com.
You may also want to use Google Scholar to read what the studies and scientific literature have to say about sleep training. Just be warned – most studies aren’t exactly thrilling reading. They’re full of data and facts – and are written for the academic field. They’re also kind of light on anecdotes.
You may also want to borrow sleep training books from your local library – or buy eBook versions for the ones that aren’t available to check out.
All of the research you can do before you start sleep training is great – it will give you the knowledge and confidence you need to proceed and see success.
But sometimes you won’t be able to articulate a question until you’ve started sleep training. So be sure to bookmark your favorite sleep training websites (like this one!) and the best sleep training books for reference.
To see which sleep training books I use and recommend having in a family library, click here.
Step 3: Pick a Sleep Training Method
Once you’ve done your research, it will be time to pick the sleep training method that best suits your personality, your family, and your child.
Depending on your research style, you’ll already have researched several methods – and even chosen one. If so, that’s fantastic. If not, that’s fine, too. For now, we’re just picking the method. In our later steps, we’ll be fine-tuning it to be a custom plan for your family.
Here are some of the most popular methods – along with a short description and the optimal age ranges.
|Sleep Training Method||Description||Optimal Age Range|
|Pure Extinction (Cry it Out)||Letting a baby cry themselves to sleep for a few nights to jumpstart sleep training.||6-18 Months|
|Graduated Extinction (Controlled Crying)||Parents physically comfort a crying child, though the length and type of comfort gradually diminish.||6-24 Months|
|Controlled Comforting||Parents physically comfort a crying child, though the length and type of comfort gradually diminish.||Any Age|
|Fading||A parent gradually stays less and less time with a child after putting them down for bed.||All Ages|
|Camping Out (Chair Method)||A 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.||All Ages|
|Pick Up, Put Down||Every time a child cries, the parent picks them up and comforts them until calm. Once calm, the baby is placed back in the crib.||All Ages|
Please note that the age ranges are a guide based on averages – from both research, surveys, and my experience with sleep training. Specific methods may work outside of the given ranges for you and your family.
Before we go on to the next step, let’s look at a few more pertinent details to each of the various age groups when sleep training.
Best Sleep Training Methods for Babies under 4-6 Months of Age
For younger babies (less than 4-6 months old), the gradual, fewer-tears methods can be a great sleep training “practice” that actually helps you see results.
This is because these methods require proactive planning and mindsets. But by having a proactive mindset, you will see more progress, even if it isn’t a dramatic or overnight change. So in that sense, it’s not practice but actual sleep training.
Surveyed parents and research indicate that the best methods for sleep training young babies include:
- Camping out (chair method)
- Pick Up, Put Down
Some families I’ve surveyed have also seen some success with controlled crying, although it does work better the older a baby gets.
We waited to formally sleep train our babies until they were at least 6 months old. However, with our youngest we used a proactive fading “practice” that helped us see progress before we officially sleep trained her after 6 months of age.
Popular Sleep Training Methods for Babies Between 4-18 Months Old
For babies between 4-6 months old and 18 months of age, pretty much any of the sleep training methods can be used. The one used will most likely depend on how fast you need to see results – and how exhausted everyone is.
Severely sleep-deprived families (who need immediate results) usually see better results and success with a method that involves a few tears. Surveyed families were fairly evenly split between pure extinction (done over up to 5-7 days) and a controlled crying method, like Ferber.
On the other hand, families who are less sleep-deprived or who prefer an attachment style parenting will be okay seeing the slower success that comes with gradual methods of sleep training. Surveyed families favored fading and pick-up, put-down methods.
Best Sleep Training Methods for Toddlers
Once children are toddling around, the cry-it-out methods become less popular. However, cry-it-out methods can still be effective for many kids in this age group – and it’s still one of the top methods used among surveyed families.
Other popular methods are fading and camping out. The pick-up, put-down method is much less popular at this age group, probably related to the bigger size of toddlers – at least when compared with a newborn baby.
Sleep Training Methods for Big Kids
For bigger kids, sleep training is still very possible. However, adjustments will need to be made. Here are some of the most important notes on adjustments required for big kids who are sleep training.
- Cry-it-out methods no longer work at this age. Fading or camping out are the top surveyed choices of parents who are sleep training big kids.
- Bigger kids need to be involved in some of the decision-making processes, even if it’s limited to which pair of pajamas they’ll be wearing to bed.
- Bigger kids’ biggest issues that cause sleep problems are related to anxiety, rather than exhaustion. Those fears will need to be addressed.
To read more about making the specific adjustments necessary for big kids while sleep training, read my article on sleep training big kids. Click here to access it now.
Step 4: Plan, Implement and Evaluate Sleep Training
Now that you’re committed to doing sleep training, your research has been done (if only to the extent that you’ve looked up any questions you can think of so far) and you’ve chosen a method that appeals to your style and your family’s specific needs, it’s time to personalize that plan.
The way to personalize it is with an acronym I learned in nursing school – PIE (Plan, Implement, and Evaluate). There’s an unspoken fourth part of this, which is to make adjustments and repeat as needed. But I guess whoever created this methodology acronym couldn’t think of a succinct, short way to say that – let alone add it to a cool acronym like PIE.
The research, choosing a method and reading this website account for about 75% of the planning stage. Let’s walk you through the last 25% or so right now. You’re going to need to consider the following factors and build them into your daily routine and sleep training plan. These aren’t in any specific order – but they’ll all need to be considered.
- Use a daytime routine that’s age and family appropriate.
- Discover your baby’s sleep cues by learning about baby wake times.
- Schedule naptimes, but start naps before your baby becomes overtired. Use those sleep cues and/or wake times as a general guide until you’re confident in knowing when your baby’s ready for a nap.
- Create and use a soothing nap and bedtime routine.
- Focus on daytime feeding – so that nighttime can be for sleeping.
- Know that reverse cycling (eating more at night than during the day) may be an issue for babies too curious to focus on eating during mealtimes – and what to do about it. You can read about sleep training and weaning by clicking here.
- Wait a moment before responding to any and every cry.
- Use early bedtimes as needed.
- Consider using A/B style schedules to manage issues with naps or missed sleep.
- Make daytimes fun and adventurous – so that everyone’s ready for bedtime.
Once you’ve added these factors to your plan, you’re ready. Go ahead and start sleep training.
I recommend starting your sleep training on a Friday (or your Friday equivalent) so that you’ve got a whole weekend to adjust before having to add a work schedule into things. Plus, if there are a few rough nights to start, that’s okay. It’s the weekend – you and your spouse/partner/co-parent can take a nap if needed.
As you implement the plan, regularly evaluate things. Don’t evaluate constantly – or you’ll be making knee-jerk reactions that actually worsen the situation and prevent success. Give things a few days before you make any changes. That way, you’ll have several days’ worth of data that should give you a much clearer picture of what (if any) changes you may need to make to your sleep training plan.
Of course, that’s generally speaking. If there is ever anything that’s dangerous or you know requires an immediate change, go for it. Just keep with your plan. Keep implementing, waiting a few days, evaluating things, and making changes as needed.
For step 5, let’s talk about some specific examples of when changes may be needed.
Step 5: Make Changes as/if Needed
As you plan, implement, and evaluate things, you’re going to see places where your plan could use a few tweaks, improvements, or where you need to add something new altogether.
You may even discover that your Plan A for sleep training has been a spectacular failure – and that’s okay. You’ve not failed – you’ve simply found a method that didn’t work for your child like you thought it would.
For us, I thought I could use a gradual sleep training method for our oldest boy at night – and that I could use a controlled crying method for naps. Turns out, I had things backwards. Once we swapped naps to a fade-it-out method and bedtime to a cry-it-out method, we saw much better results – and everyone got more sleep!
Each of the changes we made took time. And, after some serious trial and error, we found that changing things one at a time was the best way to keep track of what worked (and what didn’t).
In fact, changing too many things at once usually ended in disaster – with sleep regressions, night terrors, and me crying in the corner.
But as we found something that needed changing, we focused on one thing at a time. We focused on bedtimes first – followed by nighttime sleep, the morning nap, then the afternoon nap, and then a solid daily schedule.
Of course, once we’d just gotten set in a schedule, our kid would hit a growth spurt, a nap transition (where they needed fewer naps), or something else that threw things out of whack. Sometimes that was frustrating.
But because we were in the groove of being able to find areas that needed change, we were okay. We simply kept using our plan, implement, and evaluate the process to keep going and seeing success.
Step 6: Keep Going and See Success
Over the course of a couple of weeks, you’ll wonder if things are working. Then, one day you’ll look back and realize that there has been progress. Things may not have reached all of your sleep goals and dreams, but they’ll be much better. And things will be on track to reaching your goals.
And you’ll realize that this all actually works – and that you’ve gained the confidence you need to sleep train. It’ll give you the boost of confidence you need to keep going – and keep seeing incremental, step-by-step successes that will (one day) see your whole family getting the quality and quantity of sleep they need to be happy, functional people.
You may also find that, without realizing it, you’ll have transitioned from a reactionary sleep training style to a proactive one. You’ll be more prepared, patient, and flexible when issues arise. You’ll have the confidence you need and want in this area of parenting. And you’ll realize that proactive parenting is a lot better for everyone’s mental health – especially yours.
You’ll be ready for anything – and ready to transition more aspects of your parenting lifestyle to this proactive, awesomeness that is parenting. And you’ll be doing it while finally getting enough sleep.
So keep going, friend. Keep at it. You’ll get there – just keep planning, implementing, and evaluating things so you reach your sleep goals. Then, give it some time and make changes as needed to reach a full night’s sleep.
What are the Best Sleep Training Books? The best sleep training books are ones that give readers the research, information, and guidelines to approach sleep training confidently. This way, success is far more likely. To see which sleep training books we recommend, click here.
How Long Do You Let a Baby Cry it Out? Surveyed families report that cry-it-out takes between 1-2 hours over several days (up to a week) to see success. Read more about how long to let your baby cry – click here to read our article, which includes 25 things you need to know before doing cry it out.
How Do I Teach My Baby to Fall Asleep on their Own? Via sleep training, your baby will learn to fall asleep on their own, both at bedtime and during the night. This will lead to better sleep for everyone in the family.