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Cuddle—or Cry it Out? All About Infant Sleep Training

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Updated on May 10, 2012

Listening to your little one cry in her crib can be heartbreaking. At 3-5 months old, your newborn's developmentally ready to be "taught" how to go to sleep by herself—but it sure doesn't sound like it after forty-five minutes of screaming. How do you know if the bedtime method you're using is best for you and your baby?

The "cry-it-out" sleep training technique is widely used and is known as the "Ferber method". It can be hard on both baby and parent, but research shows that this method works well in establishing sleep routines for infants. It's not your only option however. A recent study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that most behavioral interventions are equally effective, with no single technique working better than any other.

Researcher Dr. Jodi Mindell, one of the authors of the AASM study, says that, "No one specific behavioral intervention appears to be more effective than another—so parents need to figure out what plan would work best for their family...Families need to choose a plan in which they can be totally consistent, as that seems to be the key to success."

Whether you opt for a single strategy or a mix of methods, the following simple techniques can help train your tiny sleeper so that everyone in the family can have a full night of shut-eye:

  • Get real. Be realistic when choosing your sleep-training method. If you know that you can't stand the sound of screaming for more than 5 minutes, don't torture yourself with the "cry-it-out" method. Because science says that most sleep training strategies work well, choose the one that's right for you—not the one you think you should be using. For example, if you have a low tolerance for crying, try the "graduated extinction" method. Pick a set time to check on your child—whether 10 minutes or 30 minutes—and make that the limit.
  • Repetition and routine. Consistency is crucial—commit to a routine and give it time. Your little dreamer doesn't know what it all means yet, but if the lights are low and she's bathed, full and being rocked—and if this happens over and over again—she'll soon figure out that these activities and sensations mean bedtime. The sameness will give her a sense of safety and security, allowing her to fall asleep on her own. Routines are at the heart of one of the most popular plans for parents who can't stand crying. The "no-cry sleep solution" developed by Elizabeth Pantley emphasizes routines, consistency and commitment.
  • One size does not fit all. You can school your baby in good sleep habits, but she was born with her own unique personality. Stay tuned to the clues that she's giving when establishing bedtime routines—she might be a night owl or an early bird by nature. If this doesn't fit with the family schedule, try gently waking her earlier each day or keeping her up later at night. If a bedtime routine has been well established, move it up or down gradually until your little one's in sync with the rest of the family.
  • No tricks. Sometimes duping your baby into doing something that's good for her is perfectly fine—but bedtime's not one of them. There's nothing more terrifying to an infant than waking up in a dark crib and not knowing how you got there. The Mayo Clinic's guidelines suggest that you put your little sleeper in her crib when she's still awake, but drowsy and ready for sleep. She'll know where she is and what's supposed to happen next, which will help decrease fear and fussiness in the long run.
  • Take a step back. The popular Dr. Sears' sleep method says that self-soothing is an essential skill for infants to develop if sleep training is going to be successful. Place your baby in her crib and stay nearby to see how she's settling in. If she starts to whimper, don't pick her up right away. Pat her, and speak softly and calmly. After a while, she'll learn to soothe herself to sleep.
  • Daytime activity. Keep your baby awake and active during the day and avoid excessive napping. Schedule stimulating activities for your baby early and then transition to quieter moments—reading, cuddling or lullabies—later on. This will help your tiny dreamer's bio-rhythms and lead to deeper sleep at night. Napping's still necessary of course, but start to separate naps from extended night-time sleep.
  • Sleep aids. Use sleep aids wisely. Pacifiers can help lull your baby by providing sucking comfort as she eases into her new sleep routine. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends pacifiers during sleep to help reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). But soft toys, blankets and other bulky items are not safe at this stage and you must remove them from your baby's crib before sleep.



Sleep training is confusing. You're supposed to stick to a sleep plan, but also be in touch with what your baby wants—you need to be firm, but flexible. There's really no contradiction, says pediatrician Dr. Cheryl Wu. "Parents have to understand that not every method will work for every baby, and as they collect more information about their baby's responses, they can modify their method accordingly." The important thing, she adds, is "to know your baby well and know what works for him or her—and...know what works for you." Play around with different options, and soon you'll find a method that works well for you and your baby both.

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