The human brain runs on sleep. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that infants aged 4-12 months get between 12-16 hours of sleep during each 24-hour period (including naps) to reap the most health benefits. Children ages 1-2 years need 11-14 hours, and those ages 3-5 need 10-13 hours a day.
Not catching enough Zzz’s can have numerous consequences for babies and parents. Indeed, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has linked frequent night wakings to postpartum depression in moms, future childhood obesity, behavioral problems, and more. Marc Weissbluth, M.D., the author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, adds that babies who don't get enough consolidated REM sleep have shorter attention spans, so they don't learn as well. They also release more of the stress hormone cortisol, setting them up for frequent night wakings and stunted naps.
The key to combating these negative consequences? Starting an effective sleep-training method that works for your child. If necessary, talk to your pediatrician to rule out any underlying medical condition (such as GERD, sleep apnea, or allergies) that may be keeping your child awake at night. Then make sure you and your partner are on the same page, and follow these tips for sleep training your baby.
1. Keep a Sleep Log
Keeping a log can help you notice patterns in your baby’s sleep schedule. Start by tracking days and nights for one week, then use the data to figure out their ideal bedtime. You might say, "Oh, she's always fussy at 7 p.m.—that's probably when I should be putting her down.” A log might also let you see that your infant isn’t crying as often as you thought; five minutes of fussing can feel like 50 minutes at 2 a.m.
2. Create a Bedtime Routine
Each night, perform bedtime rituals that will ease your baby's mind and prepare their body for sleep. Include soothing techniques such as bathing, reading, or singing lullabies. Keep anything stimulating—like tickling, watching TV, or playing with electronic toys—out of the equation. Following a consistent routine lets your baby know it’s time for bed, and it also develops their internal clock.
3. Pick an Effective Start Date
There's never a perfect time to start sleep training, but avoid scheduling it around major events in your baby’s life (time changes, a new nanny, teething, a different bedroom, etc.) Most parents begin on Friday to take advantage of the upcoming weekend—and some use vacation days so they won't have to worry about sleep deprivation at work. And remember: You'll always be more successful if your baby has been napping well.
4. Set the Nursery Scene
When it comes to sleep training your baby, the environment is extremely important. Keep the room cool and comfortable, preferably between 65 and 70 degrees. If your baby's room gets a lot of light—and she has trouble with naps and early wake-ups—consider installing room-darkening shades.
5. Choose a Sleep-Training Technique
Effective sleep-training tactics vary by family and child. Here are a few popular options to consider.
Fading Method: With this method, parents help their baby fall asleep with soothing techniques (feeding, rocking, talking, etc.) Your baby will naturally require less comfort over time, so you can gradually “fade out” of their bedtime routine.
Ferber Method: Parents check on their crying child at gradually increasing time intervals, which promotes self-soothing and independent sleeping.
Pick-Up/Put-Down Method: Parents pick up their baby when they cry or fuss, then put them down after they’re comforted, repeating until they fall asleep.
Cry It Out Method: After their bedtime routine, babies are left to “cry it out” until they fall asleep independently.
Chair Method: Mom or Dad sits next to the crib in a chair until the baby falls asleep, trying not to soothe if they get fussy. They gradually move the chair further from the crib each night, until they’re outside of the room and out of view.
6. Ditch the Sleep Crutches
No matter which sleep-training method you choose, it’s important to stop sleep crutches (like rocking, singing, or nursing to sleep) when your infant is older than 3 or 4 months, says Kim West, author of Good Night, Sleep Tight: The Sleep Lady's Gentle Guide to Helping Your Baby Go to Sleep. "These are not negative or bad behaviors," says West, "but they become a problem when they're so closely linked in the child's mind with slumber that he cannot drift off without them." Continuing with these sleep crutches will mean every time your baby wakes up, they’ll need you to rock, sing, or nurse them—but your goal is actually to teach them to self-soothe and put themself back to sleep.
7. Stay Consistent
One of the biggest mistakes parents make, no matter what sleep-training method they use, is being inconsistent. At some point, your little one will cry for you in the middle of the night—even if you think you've all made it over the sleep-training hump. Check on them to make sure all is well; just be sure not to restart an old sleep crutch during this check. After that, try comforting them from outside the door, if you can. If you regress due to illness or travel, get back on the training wagon as soon as possible. Otherwise you risk sabotaging the weeks of hard work you've already put in.