Four approaches to baby sleep training
Can you train your baby to sleep in ten days? Jess Lacey tried and tested the four main approaches to baby sleep training.
Words by Jess Lacey.
When is it time for baby sleep training?
For most of us, it’s only when others ask if your baby sleeps well that you start to question what ‘well’ really is. Full-on baby sleep training shouldn’t really start until around six months old, but you can start instilling good sleep routines such as bath, story, bed, and introducing a comforter from around three months. These sleep cues can be a useful stepping stone to good habits and you’ll be amazed how quickly they become instilled.
Here’s where it gets personal because honestly, my baby doesn’t like to sleep. To get through the pain, my husband and I joke that she’s tried sleeping, but decided it’s just not for her. While all (yes every single one of eight) of my NCT friends gleefully reported, one by one, that their babies were getting the hang of sleeping, at nine months old our little night owl was still in the habit of waking three or four times. When it got to the point where we were breaking the night up into shifts, pacing, singing and rocking her to sleep for hours on end only to have her wake 90 minutes later, we decided we’d finally reached our limit and the kid had to learn to do it solo.
Four main approaches to baby sleep training kept coming up, so my idea was to start with the softest, and give it ten days to see if it worked before moving on to the next.
1. The gradual retreat
By slowly reducing the contact your baby relies on to get to sleep, this lets them take the lead on what they can handle.
Go from rocking them to sleep, to simply holding, to stroking, to a hand on their back while ssshing, and working towards leaving the room, one step at a time. This one sounded lovely to me – gently does it and all that. For the first few nights we reduced our part in getting our daughter to sleep and it seemed to work right up until the bit where you move away from the cot.
She wasn’t having any of that. By night ten I was lingering in the doorway, petrified of closing the door and desperate for a wee after being in her room for hours. The whole thing took so long to complete that we lost track of where we were in the schedule and went back to cuddling pretty quickly. Too soft to make any meaningful progress I’m afraid.
2. Pick up / put down
Pioneered by Tracy Hogg, The Baby Whisperer, this involves picking your baby up when they wake crying, but putting them straight back down again as soon as they calm down.
They learn you’re there for reassurance, but getting to sleep is down to them. In the book this seemed logical, but it was so different in practice. A fellow mum had immediate success with it and seemed totally sane so I was super keen to get going with it. Hmm – knowing when a baby’s stopped crying is harder than it sounds and we found ourselves picking up and putting down like yo-yos.
More to the point, didn’t it just teach our daughter that if she kept crying, she’d be held? My back ached and I was confused, so I gave up.
3. Controlled crying
This method involves leaving your child to cry for set amounts of time (such as five, then ten, then 15 minutes, slowly lengthening) until they learn to settle themselves.
You go in briefly to reassure the child, but without picking them up. I really didn’t want to get to this point but if it was only for short amounts of time, I as prepared to try. My husband took more convincing. At first it sucked. Sitting on the landing, willing the seconds to tick by more quickly and wincing each time she hit a crescendo of cries, I genuinely thought I might go mad. I ended up taking a shower just to get some perspective (actually ended up crying myself), while my husband stood sentinel outside her door.
Even worse, though, was going in for only a minute each time – tearing yourself away from a crying baby feels completely irresponsible. We took it in turns – and just when I was about to give up on night three, she got it. I couldn’t believe it. I woke up four times that night to complete silence. At the time of writing this we are on – wait for it – 15 glorious nights of full sleep. I might even go for a run in the morning (although probs not).
4. Extinction (crying it out)
Not for the faint-hearted or easily discouraged. This is exactly what you think it is: allowing your baby to cry until they give up.
You carry out a set bedtime routine, kiss them, tell them you love them and then leave them to it. We didn’t end up going this far and, to be completely honest, I don’t think we would have done. Letting your baby become so worked up that they collapse in exhaustion and resign themselves to thinking that no one will ever come to them isn’t something I’m comfortable with.
Also, what if there actually is something wrong with them and you’re so busy sticking to your plan that you miss a sign you’re really needed? I have excellent friends with well adjusted kids who’ve used this method successfully, but it’s not for me.
Everyone is allowed their line in the sand and this is mine. Even if things get bad again, I can’t see us resorting to this.