Parents know how important sleep is, and it’s proven that good sleep plays a crucial role in children’s positive physical growth and brain development. But as natural as sleep may seem, sleep is a skill that is taught. Hence “sleep training”, a term that encompasses the process of teaching your baby to fall asleep independently. For many, this process can be one of the most perplexing parts of parenthood.
Parents themselves are often sleep-deprived and unsure how to get a baby to sleep. According to a 2016 study, one in five parents of 6-month-olds in a randomized controlled trial reported issues with getting their babies to sleep. Methods include rocking, singing, bouncing, feeding, or strapping them in their car seat and going for a ride.
But even with so-called no fail tips from social media or a well-intentioned family member, — whether it’s a specific swaddle, a certain lullaby, or a particular series of tricks to magically lull babies into dreamland — your baby’s sleep is not a one-size-fits-all solution. In fact, the trick to getting sleep training methods to work may rely on the routine your baby currently has, or doesn’t have.
So to help lay the foundation for getting your child good at sleeping, we interviewed expert sleep coaches who have worked with babies and newborns to spill their secrets. Here are their top tips.
Top tips from sleep training coaches
1. Start around 4 to 6 months
Knowing if your child is ready for sleep training depends on what your goals are. “Some people define that as sleeping through the night with no feedings. If that is the goal, the infant needs to be ready with regard to weight and development, which is typically around 4 to 6 months, depending on the baby,” says Amy Bonsiero, a pediatric sleep expert and founder of Baby Sleep Solved.
How early is too early to sleep train? Sleep training can also involve helping your infant begin to self-soothe, adjusting wake windows, or properly targeting nap and/or bedtimes.
If that’s your goal, Bonsiero says that parents can start earlier than four months but notes that it’s important that the first six to eight weeks focus on mom’s healing after birth, establishing feeding, and adjusting to the new family dynamic.
2. Sleep train for night and naps at the same time
“One thing parents don’t realize is that when they’re focused on sleep training, they often focus everything on night sleep. Nap time sleep is more work,” says Natalie Willes, founder of Baby Sleep Trainer and author of Getting Your Baby to Sleep the Baby Sleep Trainer Way. She notes that during the day kids don’t have the added benefit of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone that naturally occurs at night.
Because activities change day to day, it’s difficult to create the same nap time wind-down routine to cue babies that it’s time to rest. As a result, caregivers fall towards rocking or soothing babies at nap time in a way they won’t for nighttime.
If you are helping your child fall asleep — through rocking, holding, feeding, offering a pacifier — during the day, they won’t be able to consistently fall asleep independently at bedtime and throughout the night.
It can also be confusing for a baby, who doesn’t understand why a parent is willing to help them fall asleep during the day but unwilling to do so at bedtime. Sleep training for naps and bedtime may also be difficult if your child is in daycare or your child’s caregiver is unwilling to participate in sleep training.
3. Maintain a consistent bedtime routine
Where, when, and how you put your child down to sleep are all crucial to sleep-training success. Once children reach six months of age, Christine Stevens, a sleep consultant and founder of Sleep Solutions by Christine, recommends having a set sleep schedule so that the timing for naps, bedtime, and wake-ups are consistent.
Kids thrive on routines, so having a bedtime routine helps ease the transition from daytime to nighttime. A good bedtime routine should include sustainable indicators that sleep is approaching, such as reading books, singing songs, closing the blinds with your child, turning on the white noise machine, and dimming the room.
Put your child down drowsy, but awake. Stevens recommends an early bedtime for kids, between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. “For the first couple years of their life, kids need to sleep 10 to 12 hours plus a couple of naps, age-dependent,” she says. “We need to give them an opportunity to do that. Kids are usually fairly early risers and up between 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m.”
4. Create an optimal and safe sleep environment
Having a consistent place for your child to sleep is both a safety issue and part of keeping a consistent bedtime routine.
Babies should fall asleep on a firm, flat surface, such as a portable crib or bassinet, lowered to its lowest level. The sleep space should be completely empty — no blankets, cameras, mesh liners, wedges, or mobiles. Stevens is a fan of sleep slacks, especially for kids under a year old. “It’s a way to keep baby warm and give them that snuggly feeling, and you don’t have a loose blanket in the crib.”
Toddlers need their own consistent, designated sleep space, rather than, say, letting them fall asleep on the couch and then transferring them to their crib or bed.
The sleep environment should be as dark as possible (blackout curtains are a huge help) and must stay constant throughout the night. Willes recommends investing in an actual white noise machine to balance out the noise from the rest of the house, rather than using apps and speakers and choosing one that sounds like a bathroom fan.
Avoid nightlights, projector lights, or music machines that may shut off during the night, thereby changing the environment and causing your child to wake up.
5. Make a plan and stick to it
The biggest problem parents encounter while sleep training, Willes says, is that “they don’t have a plan.”
Some things that parents neglect to think about in advance include:
- how they’re going to do check-ins at bedtime
- what they’ll do if their child wakes up overnight
- how many feedings the child will need
- what to do for naps
- how to do feedings and keep their kid awake
If these scenarios aren’t addressed ahead of time, it can feel impossible to stay consistent.
During sleep training, your child will protest falling asleep unassisted. Willes advises deciding in advance how long you want to wait for check-in intervals and stick to it, then repeat the process during the night and for naps. She’s observed that most babies do well with check-in intervals spaced at least 10 minutes apart, but if parents feel the need to check in more often, they should do so.
6. Prepare for tears
“Every form of sleep training that will be effective involves putting the child down awake in their crib and letting them figure out going to sleep independently,” Willes says. “There are variables, such as how many times you’re checking on them and how long you stay with them.”
Willes says that despite labels like “gentle sleep coaching,” all sleep training methods involve some degree of the cry-it-out method. But the term conjures up images of letting your child cry without any check-ins until they fall asleep (a term called extinction), which can terrify parents. Willes reassure parents that the child isn’t worried about abandonment.
“They’re crying because they’re irritated,” she says. “They don’t know how to go to sleep and they’re tired. Generally, the more involved parents are, the more the child is going to cry.”
She’s found that the more sensitive a child is, the worse a hands-on method will be. “You’re taunting them with your presence without getting them what they want. It can backfire; you’re just trading one sleep association for another. What parents really need to do is back off and let their child fall asleep independently.”
A video monitor can help you observe while tracking check-ins and note how long it takes your child to fall asleep. Willes advises keeping the camera out of the baby’s reach.
7. Sleeping through the night is a myth
Getting your kid to sleep through the night feels like a milestone, but Willes says that puts extra pressure on everyone. Sleeping through the night is not just a myth, but a misnomer, as everyone wakes up in between sleep cycles, but we train our brains to minimize disruption and continue with our sleep.
It’s normal for kids to wake up more frequently in the early morning hours as they learn sleep patterns. Therefore, it’s crucial that kids learn how to fall asleep independently, so that they can put themselves back to sleep when they wake up during the night.
And sometimes it’s not developmentally appropriate for a child to sleep through the night. “It’s possible to have a six-and-a-half-month-old baby that’s not physically capable of consuming all the calories they need during the day and needs to eat once overnight,” Willes says. “As long as the child eats and goes back to sleep, it’s fine. Feedings should always be determined by your child’s pediatrician and informed by the child’s growth.
8. Be patient and manage your expectations
Sleep is a learned skill like any other, and any major transition takes time. Willes says that parents should prepare for two weeks of sleep training, noting that it typically takes one to two weeks for naps and generally three to four nights for nighttime sleep.
“Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not working,” Willes says. “Know that it’s challenging. Even if it seems like your child is not progressing, they are.”
Every child is different, but to assess progress, Willes looks for 15 minutes or less of crying before the child falls asleep. It also depends on factors such as age and whether an overnight feed is needed.
What to look for in a sleep trainer for newborns, babies, and toddlers
After they’ve exhausted their options (and themselves), some parents hit their breaking point and turn to sleep coaches. However, hiring a sleep trainer can be daunting — there’s the expense, the time spent interviewing candidates, and figuring out what kind of resources and support you need, which can range from following an online program to having a sleep coach stay overnight in your home.
“A good sleep consultant will be able to talk through with you whatever you’ve tried, see where that struggle is, and where they can help you,” Stevens says. Here are a few things to consider when looking to hire a sleep trainer:
Find a sleep coach referral and read online reviews
Ask friends for recommendations on sleep coaches they liked and found success with. Explore reviews across social media and online platforms such as Google or Yelp. “Any coach who’s a good coach is going to have a lot of reviews across different platforms,” says Willes.
What kind of training has the sleep coach had?
While there is no national certification for sleep consultants, it’s still worth asking consultants what training they’ve had and what the program was like. “Anyone can put their name on a website and say, ‘I’m a sleep consultant.’ It ranges from, I read a couple books and was a nanny, to ‘I took a training program,’” Stevens says. “Find out what their training entailed and what their background is and see if it gives you a good feeling.”
What kinds of services does a sleep coach offer?
Every sleep consultant works a little bit differently, so it’s important to ask what services are available and the levels of support associated with each. Examples include online programs with or without email support, one-on-one coaching with phone support, and overnight stays. Assess what kind of support you’re getting — emails, phone calls, video chat, tech support — and the hours the consultant is available to communicate with you.
What do sleep coaches charge?
Hiring a sleep coach can be expensive, but you’re paying not only for their expertise but also access to help. “Think of any money spent on sleep training as one of the most worthwhile investments in their child and their health,” Willes says.
Online programs can start around $99, while one-one-one services range from $400 to $800, and overnights can cost $1,000 or more, especially multiple-night-stay programs. As an example, Willes’ Baby Sleep Trainer program costs $147 for the online course only, $197 with support, which includes a weekly group video chat and unlimited email support, and $547 for one-on-one coaching.
Do you like their temperament and personality?
Ask yourself if you can see your family working with this person and if their philosophy aligns with your family’s values and goals, particularly when it comes to habits and routines you’ve established with your baby, and tolerance for the cry-it-out element of sleep training.
Using those considerations as a guide for hiring a professional sleep coach — and incorporating the experts’ methods into your newborn, infant, or toddler’s bedtime routine — will put you on track to helping them develop healthy sleep habits.