Sleep training is essentially teaching your baby to fall asleep on her own. The most intense, but arguably quickest, sleep training technique is extinction, where you allow your baby to "cry it out" until she falls asleep on her own. On the other end of the spectrum, some families elect not to sleep train at all.
If and how you choose to sleep train is a very personal choice.
Every family and baby is unique.
This article is for the mom that loves the bedtime snuggles, but is also feeling ready for baby to fall asleep on her own. This is for the momma that can’t stand the thought of “crying it out” but also wants to give her baby the gift of independent sleeping.
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As a sleep-deprived new mom, I became obsessed with the idea of sleep! I fantasized about the time that I would sleep through the night again.
I google searched like crazy and read every book out there to understand all methods to get your baby to sleep through the night.
After finishing an article or book, I would feel empowered, ready to take action. I would talk to my husband, come up with an action plan, and select a sleep training start date.
Then the start date for sleep training would come and go. I just couldn’t do it….
I’d lose my nerve, feel guilty, and get scared. I would decide to put the sleep training off for “just a little longer”.
In hindsight a big part of why I kept putting off sleep training was because I also loved nursing my daughter to sleep. After work and dinner, it was the peaceful part of my day. I cherished relaxing in the dark, with the sweet warmth of my daughter in my arms.
If you are a breastfeeding mama, check out this post!
Another reason I continued to postpone sleep training my daughter was because I struggled with the idea of sleep training. I personally couldn’t stand the thought of letting my daughter “cry it out”.
So for the first 9 months of my daughter’s life, I continued to nurse her to sleep. Over time, she started sleeping for longer stretches on her own, until eventually she consistently slept for 12 hours straight!
Yes mamas, it will happen eventually, even if you do absolutely nothing.
You will sleep again!
...but that’s not the end of the story.
Because I did reach a point where I was ready to have more time for myself and for my husband. I was so ready to have flexibility around naps and bedtimes.
I also knew my daughter was old enough to have some self-soothing capabilities. She was ready to learn to fall asleep on her own.
So at 9 months we embarked on a very gentle approach to sleep training.
Here are some of the resources I used to help formulate a gentle approach to sleep training, for anyone that’s interested:
Your baby should go to bed at about the same time every night. She should be tired but not overtired by bedtime.
2. Have a bedtime routine:
Babies love routine. They love the structure of knowing what is going to happen next. Complete the same 20-30 minute ritual every night before bed. Include soothing activities like a bath, infant massage, reading stories, singing, etc.
My daughter’s bedtime routine was: bath, pajamas, and song, for the first 6 months. She stopped tolerating a nightly bath and was more interested in books around 6 months. So the new routine became: pajamas, books, tooth brushing, song.
3. Be committed and consistent:
No matter what sleep training you decide works best for your family, you need to consistently implement it every night for it to work. As I mentioned before, babies love routine, and they will be comforted by knowing what to expect at bedtime.
It might take a few or several nights for everyone to adapt, but everyone will adjust in time. You are essentially teaching your child a new skill, so it will take practice for your baby to fall asleep on her own.
4. Be adaptable:
Although you want to be consistent for your baby's sake, it is also best to maintain a sense of flexibility as the parent. Teaching your baby to fall asleep on her own might be 2 steps forward, 1 step back, and that’s ok!
Make sure you keep an open mind and remain patient as everyone adjusts.
5. Pick the right time:
Make sure you attempt sleep training during a period of time when you can be consistent about it. Also, avoid times that might be challenging for your baby, like during a sleep regression or when she is sick.
Lastly, your baby’s age might make or break your success with sleep training. If your baby is too young, she might not have self-soothing abilities yet, which could make teaching your baby to fall asleep on her own much more challenging.
On the flip side, an older child could potentially be more resistant to change.
You know your baby best, so use your best judgement here. I felt that 9 months old was perfect for us, but again, every baby is different!
6. Keep calm and communicate:
Your baby is very perceptive and in tune with you. So if you are calm, your child will sense that everything is ok, even if she still expresses her frustration.
Tell your baby what is going to happen and what is expected of her. Depending on your baby’s age, she may or may not fully understand you, but babies understand WAY more than we realize.
It can’t hurt to tell them what’s going on, right?!
STEPS I USED FOR GENTLE SLEEP TRAINING
1. First I completed the bedtime routine.
2. ThenI communicated the plan to my baby.
“I’m going to let you fall asleep on your own tonight. I will leave the room but I will be right outside. I will check on you in 5 minutes.”
3. I nursed my baby until she was drowsy but still awake.
4. NextI kissed my baby, said goodnight, and put her in the crib.
5. I left the room and closed the door.
6. I set the timer for 5 minutes.
She screamed and cried for the entire 5 minutes.
7. Then I came back into the room. I picked her up, comforted her and began to nurse her again.
8. After she was calm, and while she was still nursing, I calmly communicated what would happen next.
“I’m going to let you fall asleep on your own. I will leave the room but I will be right outside. I will check on you in 10 minutes.”
9. I nursed my baby until she was drowsy but still awake.
10. I kissed my baby, said goodnight, and put her in the crib.
11. Next I left the room and closed the door.
12. I set the timer for 10 minutes.
She screamed and cried for the entire 10 minutes.
13. After 10 minutes, I came back into the room, picked her up and repeated the above process.
14. I set the timer for 10 minutes.
She screamed and cried for 8 minutes...then, silence. She was asleep.
(If my daughter had stayed awake, my plan was to continue the 10 minute increments until she fell asleep.)
When my daughter fell asleep...
My husband comforted me.
Before I went to bed, I checked on my daughter and she was sleeping peacefully.
In the morning, she greeted me with a big smile.
She was fine. I couldn’t believe it. She was totally fine!
The next night, I completed the above process, but I only had to go back in the room once after 5 minutes to comfort her before she fell asleep.
Within 1 week, she would fuss a little when I put her down, but would fall asleep on her own within the 5 minutes of me leaving the room.
That entire first week I did wait until she was drowsy to put her in the crib. However, over the next couple of weeks, I put her in the crib a little more awake each night. Eventually she tolerated being put in the crib calm and tired, but fully awake.
I was in awe and amazement that my daughter could actually fall asleep on her own. She was happy and we were happy!
What I like most about this gentle sleep training method:
1. I was still able to snuggle her and nurse her right before bed. I cherish that fact that I was able to have those cozy moments for an entire year.
If you are struggling to exclusively breastfeed, please check out my post on combination feeding!