Redefining sleep training

Let’s talk about sleep training.

Roughly 75% of my consultations include a variation of the following conversation:

Parent: “…and I really can’t take it anymore. I mean, she’s not napping, she wakes up at least five times every night. All she does is scream at naptime. She won’t let her dad come anywhere near her, so the burden is all on me. We can’t leave her with a sitter. I really can’t deal anymore and I’m wondering if maybe it’s time to sleep train, but…” [long pause]

Me: “…But you’re afraid that you’ll turn your baby into an emotionally-detached axe murderer?”

Parent: “Yes! I just clicked on this article that a friend posted on Facebook and it linked to another article and then I started googling ‘sleep training and Charles Manson’ and… ”

“Sleep Training” has become a dirty term!

Have you ever noticed that people tend to use the term in hushed tones? (“Nancy has started sleep training her toddler… can you believe it!?”).

It seems to me that there’s a lot of judgment coming from both sides of the debate. Half the people I meet think it’s the best thing since sliced bread and they feel sad for the weak-willed, misinformed parents who aren’t on board with it. The other half believe it’s akin to child abuse and will talk about elevated cortisol levels for hours on end.

Which camp is right? Well, neither.

Let’s strip away the emotional baggage from the term and explore what it really means. Sleep training = teaching your child to sleep independently. It’s just like potty training; you’re imparting a new skill to your child. There’s no moral imperative here: if you want your child to sleep independently, super! If you don’t think she’s ready, that’s ok! Sleep is an intensely personal subject, not a public debate.

Ok, let’s say I’m open to the idea. Now what?

Obviously, the actual process of sleep training is more complicated than that. (If it were so simple, I wouldn’t have a job). Children are complex beings and each family situation is different. Getting a good night’s sleep is both an art and a science.

The first step to solving any sleep problem is ensuring that your child is on an age-appropriate sleep schedule. Daytime and nighttime sleep are equally important. Think of them as building blocks—take away one and the other will eventually tumble. It’s important to implement a solid sleep schedule in parallel with sleep training; otherwise, there’s a good chance it won’t work.

Now comes the tricky part: How do you want to teach your child this new skill?

No matter which method you choose, consistency is the key to success. This doesn’t mean you can’t troubleshoot along the way (that’s what I spend most of my day helping clients to do), but the most important thing is that you have to remain steady. If you don’t, it can a create a confusing and unfair situation for your child, which will almost always derail the progress. For example, if you decide you’re no longer going to nurse your child to sleep and stick to that for three days, but on the fourth day give in, then afterwards your child will be flummoxed (rightly so) if you once again withhold your liquid gold at bedtime.

Still with me? Here are the sleep training methods that, in my experience, will establish healthy sleep habits for the long-term and solve most common sleep problems:

Extinction (aka “Cry. It. Out!”): This method advocates letting the baby settle himself with no intervention from the parents. Almost always the fastest solution, but not all parents are ready to let their children cry for prolonged periods of time.

Best for: Older babies and toddlers or children with very stubborn personalities; parents who need a solution ASAP.

Partial extinction (aka timed checks or Ferber method): This method advocates leaving the child’s bedroom for increasingly longer intervals of time while he settles himself to sleep.

Best for: Timed checks can work for most babies and parents, provided the intervals are age-appropriate (shorter for babies, longer for toddlers). This is the method most of my clients choose.

Chair method: This method advocates the parent remaining in the room, sitting in a chair, while the child settles himself to sleep. Every few days, the parent moves the chair a few feet further away from the crib towards the door. This is a gradual method so progress is usually measured in weeks, not days.

Best for: Babies or toddlers moving from a family bed to their own crib; parents who don’t believe in leaving their child alone to cry for any length of time.

When making the decision about which method you want to use, you need to take not only your parenting style into account, but also your child’s personality. Is she super stubborn and becomes upset or agitated when you go in to check on her? Then she may be better off settling herself with less intervention. Is she transitioning from happily co-sleeping to the cold, hard reality of her own crib? Then she may require your presence while she learns how to sleep on her own. Be honest with yourself about what will work best for your child—it may not be the scenario you initially imagined, but it’s oftentimes the most effective method.

Or, maybe after reading all this, you’ve decided sleep training isn’t for you. That’s okay too!

Go with your gut. Follow your mama instincts. Does sleep training work on almost all babies? Yes. Does that mean it’s always the right choice? Absolutely not. So, whatever you decide, it’s cool. I won’t judge, and no one else should either.

This article originally appeared

Baby, ToddlerHadley Sewardbaby