What is Sleep Training Anyway?


There are many different sleep-training methods on the market. Due to information overload, most parents take a pinch of one, a dollop of another and still come out a bit confused. Is baby sleep training really necessary? And what does it truly mean?

Sleep training sounds like a harsh term indicating a militant routine complete with pushups and burpees. New parents scoff at the idea that their precious baby needs to be “trained,” and those who practice attachment parenting believe sleep training is cruel and unnatural. Here is a simple breakdown of some of the most popular philosophies:

CO-SLEEPING. Co-sleeping is the first of the series of steps of attachment parenting where baby sleeps in the parental bed. Some families prefer to do this until the child decides they want to sleep in their own bed. According to askdrsears.com, the U.S.’s most recognized resource on attachment parenting, bed-sharing means “baby learns that sleep is a pleasant state to enter and a fearless state to remain in.” Baby wakes through the night and is easily comforted, so no formal “sleep training” needs to be done. The challenge can come later when parents may want their bed back and find that they may have to practice sleep training to transition little one into their own room or bed.

sleeptraining2WEISSBLUTH’S EXTINCTION METHOD. Developed by Dr. Marc Weissbluth, a distinguished pediatrician and father of four, the extinction method advocates for the caregiver to wait outside in the hallway and allows the baby to “cry it out.” Advocates of this method state that crying it out causes no developmental damage to the child and also allows the child to be less dependent on the caregiver for constant reassurance.

FERBER’S GRADUAL TEACHING. This is one of the most widely known sleep training methods created by Richard A. Ferber, MD, pediatrician and Director Emeritus of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital in Boston. With the Ferber method, parents are encouraged to practice “progressive waiting.” For example, leave baby in the crib, wait outside in the hallway, and go back in every few minutes to comfort and reassure baby, but never pick up baby. Supporters state that after a few days of this method, baby will learn to go to sleep on his own because he learned that crying does not earn anything more than a brief check in.

GRADUAL REMOVAL (SLINGSHOT METHOD). In pediatric sleep circles, the so-called Slingshot Method means that the parent stays in the room while baby finds their self-soothing mechanism. In other words, parents can soothe with their voice and touch, but should not intervene while baby figures out how he/she gets herself to sleep. The positive side of this method is that the parent shows the child they are there for support. The negative side is that it can be very difficult to resist picking the baby up while being so close to him/ her. I’m sure you see a common (and confusing) theme here. The fact is that all these methods are considered “gentle sleep training,” and yet they are all variations of crying it out.

What we seem to forget is that the “sleep training method” is only a tiny percentage of what we do to allow baby to sleep through the night. The real work in getting baby to sleep independently comes before bedtime. Sleep training does not mean a standoff between parent and child. It means that baby is fed properly, allowed to have stimulating activities and then a nice wind-down routine to switch gears from wake to sleep every day, consistently. This routine is much more important than any technique, because when it is time for bed, baby will feel secure and receptive to sleep. That’s nice, you may say, but I really need this kid sleeping through the night, so just tell me which method really works. The answer is that they all work. And they all don’t work. Only you know what’s right for your baby. For example, an exclusively breastfed six-month old will likely find Slingshot very frustrating because Mom is RIGHT THERE and not breastfeeding. And twins sharing a room will most certainly find Ferber confusing. Pick the method that makes you and baby most comfortable because THAT’s the best method.

In other words, the best way to sleep train is to make baby as calm, comfortable and secure as possible all day long. Using a sleep training technique is only the last in a series of small steps. Focusing on keeping baby well fed and content is something you’ve been doing since your first day on the job, so when you and baby are ready, sleeping through the night will be a natural milestone for both of you.