What is Gentle Sleep Training (Everything You’ve Wondered)


When you’re looking at gentle sleep training, what does that even mean? Is it a specific type of sleep training – or is it one of several flexible methodologies? And how do you use it to help your child sleep all night?

Gentle sleep training is a group of safe, behavior-based sleep training methods that focus on helping a child learn to sleep with minimal or no crying. Parents are free to comfort their child as much (or little) as desired. Gentle sleep training can be successfully completed within several weeks.

Because gentle sleep training can accommodate any level of parental comforting of a child, there’s a lot to know about this particular sleep training method. So let’s dive in and learn more about all of the options and ways to personalize gentle sleep training.

What are the Gentle Methods of Sleep Training?

Gentle sleep training is a group of behavior-based sleep modification programs that focus on one issue at a time. By focusing on a single issue at a time (and giving your child time to adjust), most children are able to adjust and sleep train without having to cry much – if at all.

Gentle sleep training methods can be used with pretty much any sleep issue, too, making it a fantastic option for sleep training children of any age.

In other words, gentle, no-cry, and no-tears sleep training methods aren’t just a single method – they are a whole group of methods grouped together. They are categorized together by the fact that they don’t require many (if any) tears in order to successfully sleep train your child.

Each method uses slightly different techniques to achieve the same thing. Many families will combine several methods in order to see better, more personalized success.

The most common and popular types of gentle sleep training include the following:

  • Focus on Bedtime – this method simply focuses on bedtime first – knowing that it’s the most important part of sleep training. Focusing on the bedtime routine first may (or may not) resolve other issues.
  • Fading Method – this method uses time and patience to gradually change behaviors by fading out undesirable behaviors and replacing them with desired ones.
  • Controlled Comforting – this method uses comforting on a parent-determined basis to guide sleep training and behaviors in the desired direction.
  • Adult Fading – this method uses an adult’s physical presence in the room to comfort the baby. Gradually, the parent fades themself out of the routine.
  • Camping Out – in this method, an adult “camps out” in the bedroom. Gradually, the parent moves further and further from the child while camping out to complete sleep training.
  • Pick Up, Put Down – this method allows a parent to pick up and comfort a child any time they cry. Once calmed, the baby is put back to sleep in their own bed or space.
  • The Ferber Method* – this method may be considered a more gentle sleep training method if there are fewer tears. The number of tears can still be determined by the parents, especially if they customize this method to allow for physical comforting at the timed check-ins.

We’ll discuss how to do each of these methods later on in the article.

Who Should Use Gentle Sleep Training Methods

Gentler sleep training methods are perfect for families and parents who are:

  • Against using crying as a part of sleep training.
  • Able to spend at least a couple of weeks doing sleep training.

Gentler methods of sleep training work by being slower than those that use crying. In fact, the slower you make sleep training, you can virtually eliminate any tears being required!

So as long as you have the time and patience, gentle sleep methods are perfect for parents who want to avoid any tears or intentional crying as a part of sleep training.

With our oldest son, we first tried a gentler sleep training method. However, we were so sleep deprived and in need of an immediate solution that we had to try something else. We have always tried to come back to gentler methods, though. For our youngest daughter, the gentle method of fading has proven to be amazing.

Gentle sleep methods may not be for you and your family if you need a more immediate solution to sleep disturbances and/or you don’t have between 2-6 weeks to dedicate to seeing a lasting sleep change.

When to Use these Gentler Methods

Gentle sleep training methods are versatile and can be used at almost any age and at virtually any time for any sleep concerns. These methods are great for addressing sleep associations, managing sleep regressions, or just helping your child sleep better.

As such, you can use these methods at pretty much any age, provided you make a few age and developmentally-appropriate adjustments for your child.

We’ll talk about age-specific recommendations and information later on in this article.

How to Do Common Methods of Gentle Sleep Training

The basic premise of each of these no-tears sleep training methods is the same. So we’ll go through the basic formula and then detail the specifics for each type.

  1. Go through your bedtime routine with your child.
  2. Put your child in their bed. Ideally, your child will still be awake but tired or drowsy. This is referred to as the “awake but drowsy” stage.
  3. Let your child self-settle as long as they’re calm.
  4. If your child needs attention or soothing, do so via the predetermined method and/or sleep training choice.
  5. Repeat steps 2-4 as needed until your child falls asleep.

These steps can be used any time your child wakes up during the night and/or at naptime, too.

Steps 3 and 4 are the highly-customizable steps that will be determined by which of the gentle sleep training methods you choose – and then further altered if you make any personalizations to your sleep training plan.

Please note that if a child is overtired or exhausted, the “awake but drowsy” window may quickly pass – and be replaced with screaming. Moving bedtime a little bit earlier can help with this issue.

To read more about using earlier bedtimes to manage issues related to a baby being overtired and exhausted, read my article on it by clicking here.

Now that you know the basic recipe, let’s look at the various no-cry and/or gentle sleep training methods to pick from – that will impact steps 3 and 4 of your sleep training plan.

Focus on Bedtime

This method is one of the simpler ones. It works by simply focuses on bedtime and specifically the bedtime routine.

This method posits that if bedtime isn’t going well, it’s because the routine isn’t right for your child. Adjusting the bedtime routine to be a more basic, simple, and a sleep-readying event can have a major impact in getting your child to sleep.

Example: with our oldest child, we realized that baths were an exciting event, not a calming one. As such, we removed bathtime from the bedtime routine and saw an improvement in our boy’s sleep readiness at bedtime. We used this in conjunction with other sleep training methods.

Focusing on the bedtime routine first may (or may not) resolve other issues. Therefore, this method may need to be used with other sleep training methods. However, because it does help set the stage for everything else, it is a great place to start for any sleep training plan.

This method may take several weeks to implement and evaluate, especially as you make changes to the bedtime routine.

Fading Method

This method uses time and patience to gradually change behaviors by fading out undesirable behaviors and replacing them with desired ones.

This method requires knowing where you’re at, where you want to be, and creating your own steps of how to get there – with regular adjustments as needed. Because babies and children’s progress is measured in weeks (rather than days), this method can take 2-6 or more weeks to work.

In fact, the longer it takes, the fewer tears are required to see success.

Example: we’ve used fading to transition our daughter from cosleeping to sleeping in her own bed by laying next to her as she falls asleep. Gradually, we faded that out – to a sustainable bedtime routine of cuddles and laying by her for a few minutes. All this happened with minimal tears.

This method does take time, but it works well with almost every age group. In fact, it can work well with babies under 4 months of age, provided that you measure progress in weeks and months (rather than days and weeks).

For more specific information on fading, read our in-depth article on how to use fading as a sleep training method.

Controlled Comforting

Controlled comfort methods use comforting (on a parent-determined basis) to guide sleep training and behaviors in the desired direction. Parents can also determine how much crying will be used or tolerated – and it can be anywhere from a no-tears controlled comforting to a few tears allowed.

Controlled comforting can use:

  • physical reassurance (through touch, picking the baby up, or just being near them)
  • emotional comfort (through speaking to your child in a soft, soothing voice while staying near them)
  • or a mix of both emotional and physical comforting.

Some families surveyed report that they use this method with other techniques to slowly reduce the amount of comforting needed over time.

This method can take anywhere from 2-6 or more weeks to see a successful outcome, although progress should be noticed quickly.

Adult Fading

This technique uses an adult’s physical presence in the room to comfort the baby. Over time, the parent fades themself out of the routine.

This can mean staying in the room during and after bedtime, only during bedtime, or any time the child needs reassurance. This method is very flexible and can be done however needed. It can also be used as a no-crying-needed sleep training method because you’re right there with your child – any time they need your presence as a method of reassurance.

This method isn’t one of the popular ones that’s talked about online, but it’s a great one. Depending on how it’s used, it can take several weeks (or longer) to see success.

Camping Out

In this method, one adult will “camp out” in the bedroom with the baby. While camping out, the parent can be anywhere in the room.

If a parent stays right next to the baby, this could be more like adult fading. If a parent sits on a chair next to the baby, then this method has also been called the Chair Method.

In either case, the parent gradually moves further and further from the child to complete sleep training.

Parents can choose to get up and comfort the child as needed or not.

This method can take several weeks (or longer) to succeed.

An important tip on this method: sitting in a dark room for unknown amounts of time on end can get very, very boring. If you need something to do, make sure it’s something that is in line with “dark, boring, and sleep-encouraging.” I use my kindle app, on the dark theme, to read.

Pick Up, Put Down

This method allows a parent to pick up and comfort a child any time they cry. Once the baby has been calmed down sufficiently to be back at the “awake but drowsy” state, they are put back to sleep in their own bed or space.

In most cases, a parent will stay in the room next to the child between pick-up, put-down sessions. However, some parents do opt to leave. Generally speaking, parents who prefer to leave find that some tears do happen. Parents who stay in the room generally report fewer (or no) tears at all.

This method requires a lot of patience and anywhere from 2-6 or more weeks to see lasting success.

The Ferber Method*

The Ferber method, depending on how you customize it, might be considered a gentle and no-tears sleep training method. If you do it exactly as it’s described, it is NOT a tear-free technique.

It is, however, a gentler method than pure extinction (or cry it out). In any case, it’s at least worth mentioning here as a possibility if you’re willing to customize it. When customized, especially if you allow for physical comforting at the timed check-ins, this method can be minimal tears required technique.

And this technique usually sees results faster – in as little as 5 days. Just know that customizing this technique usually adds anywhere from a few extra days to several weeks to the results timeline.

Combining and Customizing Gentle Sleep Training Methods

Gentle sleep training, in my experience and research, works best when you use a combination of several techniques that appeal to your parenting style.

For example: with our daughter’s latest sleep issues (nightmares), we used a combination of fading, camping out, pick-up put-down, and adult fading. That’s the fancy way of saying that we took turns being next to her and holding her while she fell asleep – and we gradually phased that out over time.

That’s one of the best parts of gentle methods of sleep training – you use what appeals to you. See what works. Keep doing that while gradually phasing it out and building towards the desired outcome.

That way, you’re there for your child, practicing solid attachment parenting, and minimizing (or completely eliminating) any need for crying and/or stress with sleep training.

So go ahead and combine methods!

Gentle Sleep Training Information by Age

Depending on your child’s age, some adjustments may need to be made in order to successfully sleep train without any crying or tears. This is because every child has different needs and requirements – but those needs change as they grow.

Gentle Sleep Training Newborns

The first important distinction to make is this: officially, all sleep training should only start after your baby is at least 4-6 months old. That’s because of the more adult-like sleep patterns and organizations emerging at about 4 months of age. It’s also because most babies are at least that old before they can go more than 6-8 hours without needing to eat.

However, that’s more of an issue for sleep training methodologies that involve intentional crying. Because these no-tears sleep training methods do take time and are very gradual, they can still be used as a sort of sleep training “practice” (that’s still proactive sleep training) even with newborns with one major caveat.

Make sure your newborn is getting the nutrition they need – and that they’re eating at night as they need to. This is usually less of a concern with no-crying sleep training, but it’s still important enough that it needs to be mentioned.

There are many families I’ve talked to who have been able to legitimately and proactively sleep train babies (less than 4 months old) simply by focusing on one step at a time, using these gentle, no-cry sleep training methodologies. Each of these families has reported that it did take a lot of time, consistency, and dedicated effort.

So in order to use gentle sleep training methods with newborns, go ahead and start. Focus on one issue at a time – and give your baby weeks and months (instead of days and weeks) to get from where they’re at to where you want them to be.

Just remember that your baby needs you – and that it’s going to take a while (several months) before they can sleep through the night.

Babies and Gentle Sleep Training

Most babies do absolutely fantastic with gentle sleep training – without having to make too many age-related concessions.

In fact, there’s just one main one: make sure your baby is getting enough nutrition during the day before you wean nighttime feeds.

Otherwise, just keep proactively and gently sleep training while giving your baby the time they need to adjust to the sleep schedule goal in mind.

Can Toddlers Use Gentle Sleep Training?

Gentle, no-cry sleep training methods work particularly great for toddlers, provided you make a few minor and age-appropriate adjustments.

The main takeaways are that you need to talk to them and set some expectations, give them choices, and make things fun.

Talking to them doesn’t need to be anything big or dramatic. It can be as simple as, “big kids like you sleep in their own bed,” or whatever goal you’re working on.

But do talk to them and set the expectation. The other big adjustment to make is realizing that your baby is becoming a big kid – so make sure you read this next section – because they’re going to be there sooner than you know.

Giving toddlers choices is a great way to make bedtime easier, too. Letting toddlers choose from one of several parent-selected options is a great way to let them assert their independence – and make bedtime less stressful for everyone. And if you make things fun in an age-appropriate manner? Things will go better overall – even sleep training.

Using Gentler Methods with Big Kids

Any of the gentle sleep training methods (used alone or combined with others) works great with big kids. In fact, they’re my go-to recommendation for big kids. In my experience and research, using any cry-it-out method with bigger kids is just asking for trouble – and a never-ending tantrum.

In any case, you’ll still want to talk to your big kids about what’s happening while also making things fun and giving them a say in matters. You may even want to ask their opinion about how you can make things better – and talk it out together.

To read more about making sleep training adjustments for big kids, click here.

What Studies Say about Gentle Sleep Training

While studies will continue to assess the various sleep training methods, there have been some great ones done already. And in a 2012 study, the American Academy of Pediatrics had this to say:

Parents and health professionals can feel confident using behavioral techniques for managing infant sleep.

Study: Infant Sleep Training is Effective and Safe (AAP, 2012)

In other words, pediatricians and scientists generally agree that gentle sleep training methods are safe and effective to use. In fact, that very same study found that sleep training (both gentle methods and some extinction or cry-it-out techniques) addresses and “reduces the short-to-medium term burden of sleep problems and maternal depression.”

Sleep training with gentle, no-cry techniques can be done safely and with confidence – because studies are showing that it’s safe, effective, and helps the whole family. For more information on what pediatricians have to say on sleep training, read my article on it right here.

Safety and Gentle Sleep Training

Sleep training using any method can be done safely. In order to safely sleep train a baby (with the no-tears sleep training method of your choice), you do need to address several issues.

The first is making sure that your baby’s sleeping space is as safe as possible. This can be done by making sure that there aren’t any strangulation or suffocation hazards (like too many toys or blankets) in their crib. It can also mean making sure you aren’t using those padded crib bumpers, as those can be a smothering issue.

Keeping sleep training physically safe also means making sure that your baby’s physical needs are being met – feeding them when they’re hungry, changing dirty diapers in a timely fashion, and so on.

Next, make sure that your baby is emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually safe. The nice thing is, by using a gentle and attachment parenting style of sleep training, you’re mostly addressing all three of these already.

For specifics on how to make sleep training (of any methodology) safe, make sure you refer to this post on sleep training and safety. It details and explains all aspects of safety, including the 2016 Updated Recommendations for a SafeInfant Sleeping Environment as detailed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

How Long Gentle Sleep Training Takes to See Results

Gentle sleep training techniques and methods are designed to take time. Most of them take at least 2 weeks (or longer) to work. However, many people will start seeing progress within just a few days.

The actual timing of things is going to depend on how many sleep concerns you’re working with.

For example, if you’re only dealing with one issue (like a single, nighttime feeding that you’re wanting to wean), you’ll be able to sleep train a whole lot faster than if you’re dealing with multiple issues (like multiple night feedings, wakings, and a bedtime that is fought every night).

A good rule of thumb is this: expect each separate issue to take about 1-2 weeks to address and resolve separately.

How to Know that Gentle Methods Aren’t Working for You

Gentler, no-cry sleep training methods will not work for everyone. This most likely isn’t due to some failing or flaw on your part; it’s just that it isn’t working.

For our first son, we tried several gentle sleep training methods – and all of them failed. We were too exhausted to function, let alone be consistent. We had to take more drastic measures (and allow for a couple of nights of crying) in order to get enough sleep to be functional people. Then, we were able to recommit to a gentler sleep training philosophy.

In order to know if you need a change (or if gentle sleep training is even working), ask yourself these questions.

  • How long have we been consistently trying our current sleep training plan?
  • What’s working?
  • What’s NOT working?
  • Can we continue on this path for several more weeks – or do we need more immediate results?

If things are working, steadily progressing, and you can stay the course, then your existing gentle sleep training method of choice is working. It just needs more time.

However, if things are to the point that you need a more immediate solution (like we did), it may be time to at least consider trying a different sleep training method.

Gentle Sleep Training Methods Q&A

Now, let’s make sure that you’ve got all of your gentle sleep training related questions answered. Here are some of the most commonly-asked questions I’ve asked, researched, or been asked by parents like you.

Oh, and if you don’t see your specific question (or answer), just shoot me an email. I’ll try to respond to as many emails as I can – and I’ll get your question added to this post. To find out how to email or contact me, click here.

When should I start gentle sleep training?

You can start gentle sleep training at any time – particularly if you’ve noticed that sleep has become a concern.

Ideally, sleep training should wait until a child is at least 4-6 months old. However, because gentle sleep training methods take weeks or even months to fully work, these methods have been successfully implemented with babies under 4-6 months of age. Check the section (earlier in this article) about gentle sleep training by age.

Do I have to let my baby cry while sleep training?

Nope. How much crying you want to let your baby do is totally up to you. Some parents prefer that their child doesn’t cry at all. Other parents are okay with allowing some crying in order to achieve sleep training. Either option is just fine and can be safely done – but it is your choice.

How long should I let my baby cry it out?

With gentle sleep training, you don’t have to let your baby cry it out at all if you don’t want to. The key part of that is this: “if you don’t want to.” The whole point of gentle, no-tear sleep training is to minimize (or even eliminate) the crying required.

If you do want to let your child cry some, that’s fine, too. There are varying levels of cry it out. For all the details on cry-it-out sleep training methods (including a Q&A section), read our article on it by clicking here.

How can I minimize my baby’s crying while using gentle sleep training?

Go slowly. Make changes and sleep training as slow as possible and this will very naturally minimize (if not completely eliminate) any need for tears.

How much sleep does my child need to get while sleep training?

Sleep is an amazing thing. And, based on data from the American Academy of Pediatrics and various governmental (USA) websites, here’s a table that shows how much sleep children need by age.

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

This is how much sleep your child will need in general – and while sleep training, too.

Do gentle sleep training methods work for naps?

Absolutely they do! Just know that you may need to build a separate sleep training plan for naps than for bedtimes. Or, you may not. Every child will have different needs. But now that you know about all of the gentle methods, you can pick what appeals to you and test it.

Be flexible with naps while using gentler sleep training methods. If you spend the whole time cuddling them to sleep, that may be all they require for their rest time. That’s okay. Naptime sleep training takes time – and so do these amazing tear-free sleep training methods.

How long should a baby stay in their crib if they aren’t napping?

If your baby is happily quiet or quietly playing during their naptime, let them have a quiet time. Some children don’t nap the whole of nap time, but they’ll still need the rest and time away from everything.

Our oldest boy didn’t so much nap as quietly play in his crib for a large part of his naps. But he needed the quiet time to recharge – I quickly learned to stop using the video monitor to gague when he was awake – and just to listen for him calling for me.

How long will gentle sleep training take at naptime?

It depends. Some children are able to handle naptime and bedtime sleep training at the same time – and do it relatively quickly. Other children do them both at the same time, but it takes 2-6 or more weeks. And some children have to do naptime and bedtime sleep training separately. These kiddos may require several months to get things sorted out.

It’s just going to depend on you, your child, consistency, and what works for your family. Even if it takes a long time, though, it is worth it.

Naptime sleep training was harder for us and our children. It took several months for our children to fully sleep train for naps.

Can I continue to nurse with gentle sleep training?

Absolutely! It’s completely your choice how much and when you nurse your child while using gentle methods of sleep training.

  • Nursing/cuddling at bedtime is totally fine – just build it into your bedtime routine. Try to put your child down in their bed in an “awake but drowsy” state.
  • Nursing/feeding during the night when needed is also fine. Consider waiting a few moments (or minutes) when your baby stirs to make sure they actually need the calories. Maybe they’re just having a crazy dream – where the milk is all gone. Give them a moment before rushing to their aid. But if they do need your comfort, then go give it to them.
  • Nursing/cuddling in the morning is an amazing activity. Once your baby has woken up for the day, spend a few minutes cuddling. It will help both of you get through the nights better, knowing that morning cuddles are coming.

Build these comfort/cuddle/nursing sessions into your routine and plan – and watch as things improve towards your goal of a full night’s sleep.

Do I have to wean while gentle sleep training?

Definitely not. Many parents are able to use gentle sleep training and continue their existing schedule of nursing or bottle-feeding. Build your schedule based on your baby’s needs, wants, and your family situation.

When you’re ready to wean, make sure you have this post on sleep training and weaning bookmarked as a reference. And feel free to refer back here, too, as weaning may require some additional, minor sleep training.

Sources

  • American Academy of Pediatrics (Ed.). (2012, September 10). Infant Sleep Training is Effective and Safe, Study Finds. Retrieved August 26, 2019, from https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/Infant-Sleep-Training-is-Effective-and-Safe-Study-Finds.aspx

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.

Recent Content