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Almost every new parent searching for a baby sleep-training method is pretty tired. And you may feel even more exhausted when you discover that the mountain of expert advice available ranges from snoozing with your baby to letting him cry it out on his own.
Is one sleep-training method better than another?
That depends. Researchers have reviewed the most commonly used sleep-training strategies and found that they all worked equally well as long as parents were consistent. But you're more likely to have success with a particular technique if it suits your baby's temperament – and your parenting style.
"There's not a right way or wrong way," says pediatrician Jennifer Shu, coauthor of Heading Home With Your Newborn, written for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "It's when your baby's pattern doesn't fit yours that you get some kind of conflict. You have to adapt."
To zero in on the right program, Shu, along with other sleep experts, says it helps to ask yourself the following questions:
What kind of personality does my baby have?
Observe how your baby responds to new or stressful situations. Does he roll with the punches or need lots of comforting? Is he flexible and easygoing or determined to get his own way?
"If you can match a sleep-training approach with your child's temperament, you'll have more success and see quicker results," says Chicago pediatrician Marc Weissbluth, author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. "It's just like disciplining your child – easygoing, adaptable children are easy to correct. A strong-willed, highly determined child, on the other hand, may need a tougher approach."
Some parents with highly sensitive children consider co-sleeping because these babies do best with lots of physical contact and comfort. Easygoing or adaptable children often do well with gentle no-cry, fading or "camping out," or modified cry it out methods.
"A sensitive child needs a slower approach," says Jodi Mindell, associate director of the Sleep Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. However, a more strong-willed child may do best with a full cry it out method, which encourages babies to fall asleep on their own because parental consoling can prolong or even intensify the process. "Children who have more resilient temperaments," says Mindell, "typically respond well to crying it out."
Which sleep-training method am I most likely to stick with?
Your ability to commit to a sleep program is obviously key to its success, so consider your own needs. If the sound of your baby's sobs makes you want to break down in tears, consider a slower approach that involves minimal crying. "Parents have to assess their strengths and limitations," Weissbluth says. "Often sleep-training programs fail because parents are too sleep-deprived themselves and can't go through with them – they lose track of when to check in on a crying baby, or they can't take the crying anymore," he says.
How will the sleep training affect everyone else in the family?
Are there other children in the family who might be woken up by the crying and develop sleep problems of their own? If so, you may need a gradual strategy that involves little or no crying (or a white noise machine in everyone's bedroom). Can parents or other caregivers share the load of carrying out the program? If not, consider a method that will put the least amount of stress on the one doing all the sleep training.
Once I've chosen a sleep-training method, how long will it take to work?
Any program you choose takes time – and some kids need more time than others. When you begin the training, expect an adjustment period with a little (or a lot of) crying, and remember you can modify any program to suit your baby's needs. "Give it seven to 10 days before making changes or giving up," says Mindell. "Things often get worse before they get better." Have faith – your baby is on his way to becoming a sound sleeper.
More help with baby sleep training
Ready to dive in and start teaching (or re-teaching) your child to sleep? Here are some of BabyCenter's best resources for helping your little one get more rest:
- Read up on sleep-training basics.
- Get time-tested advice with parents' favorite baby sleep tips.
- Find out more about the cry it out, fading, and no-tears methods of sleep training.
- Learn how to teach your child to soothe himself back to sleep.
- What to do when one parent wants to go with cry it out and the other doesn't? See what other parents advise.