Baby Sleep Training

Sleep plays a crucial role in your baby or toddler’s healthy development. As a parent, you want to do everything you can to help your baby or older child get the best sleep possible, so read on to learn about sleep training, when to start sleep training and what sleep training methods might be best for you and your baby.

What Is Sleep Training?

You could define sleep training as the process of helping your child learn to wind down before bedtime and soothe him or herself if necessary when it’s time to go to sleep.

The process also involves helping your little one learn to fall back to sleep after waking up in the middle of the night, for example for a feed or nappy change.

It’s helpful to know that sleep training starts with recognising your baby’s natural sleep patterns and creating a regular routine around bedtime.

Keep in mind that the amount of sleep your baby needs will change over time, and your child’s natural sleep patterns won’t necessarily fit in with your own needs. Sleep training a 6-month-old baby will not be the same as sleep training a 2-year-old.

It might help to think of sleep training as an ongoing process rather than a one-off event.

We describe several sleep training methods below, including what baby or toddler age it’s most appropriate for.

How to Prepare for Sleep Training

Your baby will function best with a reasonably regular schedule and dependable routine for naps and night-time sleep. Keep in mind that for the first few months your infant is unlikely to have a regular sleeping schedule, and every child is different.

Whenever you put your baby to bed, always follow the guidelines for safe sleeping to help reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

Safe sleeping measures include always laying your baby down on his or her back and keeping the cot free of toys, pillows, duvets, cords and anything else that could pose a suffocation or strangling hazard.

Here are some tips on how to get ready for sleep training:

  • Establish a calming bedtime routine. When your baby’s around 3 or 4 months old you can start laying the foundations of a bedtime routine that will make sleep training easier later on. This little ritual can be calming for your baby and help prevent sleeping problems further down the road. Try to begin your routine at the same time every day. It could include, for example, giving your infant a bath, perhaps followed by a soothing baby massage, soft singing, reading a story or just a cuddle. Start doing these things each night before your baby is overly tired.

  • Teach your baby the difference between night and day. It’s never too early to start helping your infant understand that night-time is different from daytime. During the day, keep the curtains open and play between naps. There’s no need to shush everyone while your baby’s having a daytime snooze – a little background noise is fine. At night, keep the lights dim, speak softly, avoid playing with your baby and try keeping nocturnal nappy changes to a minimum. Extra-absorbent nappies are great for keeping tiny bottoms dry the whole night through.

  • Share a room for the first six months. Experts advise sleeping in the same room as your baby at least for the first six months. In the first few weeks your baby may only fall asleep in your arms (or those of your partner) or while you’re close by or standing next to the cot. Sleeping in the same room as you (in a separate cot or Moses basket) may also lower the risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome).

  • Put your baby to bed while drowsy, but still awake. To help your baby get used to falling asleep without too much extra comforting, try putting your infant into the cot before he or she falls asleep or just after a feed. This may work better after 3 months or so, when your baby is starting to spend more time awake and alert.

In Summary

Prepare your baby for sleep training and encourage healthy sleeping habits by establishing a familiar bedtime routine, helping your baby learn the difference between night and day and choosing a bedtime when your infant is still awake but feeling sleepy.

 

When to Start Sleep Training

At around 3 to 6 months old you might notice that your little one is sleeping for longer and needing fewer night feeds. This is also likely when you’ll start to see your baby’s sleep patterns emerge, so – although your infant isn’t ready yet for any of the sleep training methods below – this is a good time to start introducing a bedtime routine.

Experts advise waiting until your baby is at least 6 months old before using sleep training methods to address specific issues like waking in the night or not being able to sleep without you, your partner or another carer in the room.

In the early weeks and months of your baby’s life, it’s important to recognise and cater to your baby’s sleep patterns rather than expect your baby to sleep according to your schedule.

Creating a bedtime routine around your baby’s sleep rhythms from an early age could mean there’s less need to use additional sleep training methods to help overcome any sleep-related difficulties later.

In Summary

You can start to establish a bedtime routine as early as 3 months old; but more targeted sleep training methods aren’t recommended until at least 6 months after your baby is born.

 

Which Sleep Training Methods Are Best?

There are a number of different sleep training methods. When you’re deciding which method to choose, consider how old your child is and what you’d like to achieve.

For example, some sleep training techniques work best for a child who wakes in the night and can’t get back to sleep, while others could help a baby or toddler get used to falling asleep without a parent in the room.

The sleep training routines below usually take a couple of weeks or longer to work. It’s important to apply them consistently.

Your health visitor can offer personalised advice, but here are a few of the sleep training methods you might consider using:

Pick Me Up, Put Me Down

This is a gentle sleep training method that could be helpful if your baby or toddler finds it hard to settle or often wakes up in the night.

  • If your baby cries, pick up and comfort your infant with reassuring words and noises like ‘shh, It’s okay, I’m here’. Avoid giving your baby ‘comfort’ feeds at these times.

  • Once your baby is calm, put him or her down again.

  • If your baby cries again, pick up and reassure your child again, then put him or her back into the cot and leave the room.

  • Repeat this whenever your little one wakes or after feeds. This method usually yields results quite soon, but keep in mind that it could still take up to three hours to settle your baby when you first start to introduce this routine.

One Step at a Time

If your baby can only get to sleep while being fed or cuddled, this sleep training method – often referred to as gradual withdrawal – can gently help your infant learn to nod off without you in the room. It’s effective when your child is old enough to understand that you’re still in the room when you aren’t holding him or her.

Keep in mind that this technique can take several weeks or months to work properly.

  • After saying goodnight, sit down on a chair or cushion by the bed.

  • If your child cries, avoid eye contact but put a reassuring hand on him or her.

  • When your little one calms down, go back and sit on the chair or cushion.

  • Keep doing this until your child falls asleep. Repeat the steps any time your infant wakes up in the night.

  • Move the chair or cushion a little further away from the bed each night until it’s outside the room – when that happens, your child is ready to sleep without you in the room.

  • If your child gets upset when you move the chair, just put it back in the last place it was before you moved it.

Shower of Kisses

This no cry sleep training technique – which aims to help your toddler or older child learn to fall asleep while you’re not in the room – is only suitable for babies over 1 year old.

  • After putting your child to bed, give your toddler a kiss and say you’ll be back in a few minutes to kiss him or her again.

  • Leave the room, then go back almost immediately and give your child another kiss.

  • Walk a few steps toward the door then go back and kiss your child again. Promise you’ll be back again.

  • Return and kiss your child again. Promise another kiss, tidy up a few clothes or toys in the bedroom and go back with yet another kiss.

  • If your child gets out of bed, say ‘go back to bed and I’ll give you another kiss’.

  • Keep returning with kisses until your child falls asleep and repeat the routine if your toddler wakes up during the night. Keep in mind that when you first try this, it could take hundreds of kisses and several hours before your little one drops off to sleep!

Straight Back to Bed

This sleep training technique can help with an older child who keeps getting out of bed.

  • If your child gets out of bed, take him or her back to bed immediately and without saying a word. Stay calm and do your best to avoid eye contact.

  • Repeat as many times as necessary. If your child is determined, you might have to do this a lot – maybe up to 100 times – but keep at it: Being consistent is the key to most of these sleep training methods.

Scheduled Awakening

Use this sleep training method to help your child get a good night’s sleep if he or she tends to wake up at around the same time (or times) every night. Before starting to use this technique, it may help to keep a diary of the times your child wakes up at night.

  • Wake your child up 15 minutes before a known waking time, then let him or her fall back to sleep again.

  • After a week of doing this every day, make the awakening time 15 minutes earlier each night.

  • After two weeks, let your child sleep through the night without being woken.

Controlled Checking

If your baby is over 8 months old and has difficulty settling for sleep or wakes up often during the night, this sleep training routine often achieves quick results (although in some cases it can take up to a week or two to be fully effective).

Be aware that this method – also known as controlled crying – involves letting your baby cry for a brief period. Although research suggests that the technique may not have any long-term harmful effects, not all parents are comfortable using methods like this.

Your approach to parenting a matter of personal choice for you, so don’t feel pressured into using this (or any other sleep training method) if you don’t believe it’s good for you or your child.

Keep in mind also that experts often suggest trying gentler, no-cry sleep training methods before resorting to this technique. Talk to your health visitor if you have any questions or concerns about sleep training methods.

These are the steps in the controlled checking routine:

  • After softly saying good night, leave the room but keep an ear out for your baby’s crying

  • If your baby cries, wait no more than two minutes then go back in and reassure your child by saying: ‘Go to sleep, it’s OK I’m here’. Then, leave the room again without picking your baby up.

  • Repeat the previous step if necessary, waiting for a little longer each time before returning

  • Don’t extend the waiting period any longer than 15 minutes – this sleep training method is not about just letting your baby ‘cry it out’

  • If your baby stands up, can gently use your hands to encourage him or her to lie down again. Remember to praise your little one for doing so.

In Summary

With plenty of sleep training methods to choose from, you’re sure to find one that’s suitable for your child and fits in with your parenting style. Ask your health visitor for personalised advice if you need it.

 

Sleep Training Setbacks

No matter how well your sleep training is going, your baby won’t be able to fall or stay asleep if it’s time for a nappy change, your baby is hungry, too hot or cold or in any way uncomfortable.

Here are some other things to keep in mind that might cause temporary sleep training setbacks:

  • Illness. A cough, cold or other common illness might make it difficult for your little one to sleep and cause waking in the night. A fever could also disrupt your child’s sleep patterns.

  • Teething. If you notice signs of teething in your baby or toddler, brace yourself for some restless nights.

  • Growth spurts. Sometimes, especially during the first 4 months or so, your baby may have growth spurts accompanied by periods of cluster feeding (when your baby feeds for longer or more frequently than usual). These extra feeds might interrupt your baby’s sleep or change the pattern of sleeping and feeding.

  • Separation anxiety. Any time between the age of 6 months and 3 years old your baby’s night-time sleep might be affected by separation anxiety, a normal phase in your child’s emotional development. This is when your child becomes clingy and cries if you leave the room, which might make sleep training more challenging. Learn more about separation anxiety and strategies for coping with it.

In Summary

Sleep training doesn’t always go smoothly. Added to this, an unexpected illness, the appearance of a new tooth, a growth spurt or separation anxiety may mean you need to put your sleep training on hold for a little while until things get back to normal.

 

How Much Sleep Is Enough?

The amount of sleep needed can differ from baby to baby and from age to age, so letting your baby sleep according to his or her natural sleep rhythms is probably more important than targeting specific sleep amounts.

So, although your baby may need a little more or a little less snooze time, here are some average total sleep amounts for babies in their first year:

  • Newborns. Your newborn baby could sleep anything between 9 to 20 hours in a 24-hour period. For the first 8 to 12 weeks, your infant can’t tell the difference between day and night. During this stage your baby spends most of the time either sleeping or feeding – that tiny stomach can still only hold a small amount of breast milk or formula at a time, so it needs to be topped up regularly!

  • 3-month-old babies. Between 3 to 6 months old, your baby may still be sleeping between 8 and 17 hours a day, but with progressively fewer breaks and more night-time sleeping. At around 5 months old, your infant might sleep 5 to 8 hours during the night, although it’s rare for babies this age to sleep all through the night every night.

  • 6-month-old babies. At between 6 and 9 months old, your baby could be sleeping an average of 14-15 hours in a 24-hour period, including 1 to 3 daytime naps.

  • 9-month-old babies. Between 9 and 12 months the total number of hours spent sleeping out of every 24 hours may have dropped a little to around 13 to 14 hours, with at least 1 nap during the day.

  • 12-month-old babies. After your child’s first birthday he or she may sleep around 12 to 15 hours in a 24 period, including a nap or two during the day.

In Summary

During the first year of your baby’s life, the proportion of night-time sleep gradually increases and the number of daytime naps decreases as your little one gets older.

 

FAQs at a Glance

  • You can start to establish a bedtime routine as early as 3 months old; but using sleep training methods intended to overcome specific sleep issues – such as waking in the night or being unable to fall asleep alone – isn’t recommended until at least six months after your baby is born.

  • It’s not a good idea to just let your baby cry indefinitely. If you do choose to use a controlled crying sleep training method, experts advise only letting your baby cry for a minute or two at first, then gradually increase the length of time up to a maximum of 15 minutes.

  • Experts can’t agree on this, although research suggests that ‘controlled crying’ sleep training may not be harmful in the long term for babies 8 months or over. If you aren’t comfortable with controlled crying, there are plenty of other, no cry sleep training options to try.

The Bottom Line

When it comes to sleep training, don’t be hard on yourself if things aren’t always perfect. There will be times when your baby finds it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Some methods may not work for your little (or for you), but there are plenty of others to try and with a little patience and consistency – and tender loving care – you’ll get there in the end. Sweet dreams!

How we wrote this article
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the National Health Service (NHS). You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.