New parents and night nannies have slogged through sleepless nights for generations. But after too many sleepless nights, parents may seek out advice and recommendations. There is no shortage of “experts“ weighing in on everything: how to be a modern mom, to how to soothe fussy babies, and of course, sleep training. There are books from pediatricians, you can hire an overnight sleep coach, or pay for a consultation. But the sleep training business is not regulated. The mixture of current trends, scientific studies, an array of temperaments and a whole lot of “experts” on one subject creates confusion.


What is sleep training?

Sleep training is the process of training young children to fall asleep on their own, typically by means of techniques in which the child is left to self-soothe, either for gradually increasing periods of time or until they fall asleep. Sleep training isn’t one size fits all. You don’t have to follow any method strictly since you might find just one aspect of a particular method is effective for your child. Families often develop their own ways of getting their kids into good sleep habits. If it works, keep going.


The goal of sleep training is to teach good sleep habits, promote self-soothing and establish a routine in which the parent is not in the room when the child falls asleep. Most pediatricians recommend starting a sleep schedule when a baby is between 4 and 6 months old. By about 4 months, babies have typically started to develop a regular sleep-wake cycle and dropped most of their night feedings.


Developing good sleep habits

To get adequate sleep, it’s important to teach children healthy sleep habits. Start by setting a consistent sleep schedule. This means, going to bed and waking up at the same time each day. This schedule should be followed each day of the week, even on weekends.


A calming environment is essential for good sleep. Some people sleep better when dark curtains block outdoor light while others prefer soft music or a fan to create a light breeze. Keeping the bedroom cool will help you sleep. Creating a screen-free period to let the body unwind is very important. As difficult as it is to get kids to stop watching TV or using their electronic devices before bedtime, there’s a compelling reason to make it happen. The blue light that’s emitted from these screens can delay the release of sleep-inducing melatonin, increase alertness, and reset the body’s internal clock (or circadian rhythm) to a later schedule. Children should stop all electronic usage at least one hour and ideally, two hours before bedtime.


Sleep Training Techniques

Most sleep training techniques involve a type of systematic ignoring to encourage a child to self-soothe and fall asleep on their own. Techniques typically involve a program of gradual withdrawal or complete removal of parental assistance at sleep onset and during the night. When consistently applied, systematic ignoring usually achieves “extinction” of the need for parental assistance. Popular sleep training techniques include the 5 S’s, cry it out, no tears, and fading.


Popular sleep training techniques

  • 5 S’s (Harvey Karp). The 5 S’s for Soothing Babies was created by Dr. Harvey Karp, author of The Happiest Baby on the Block. Although most sleep training techniques are for older infants, this technique is intended for newborns during the first six weeks and creates a calming womb-like sensation. The 5 S’s are Swaddling, Side or stomach position for resting (not sleeping), Shush, Swing, and Suck.


  • Cry it out (Richard Ferber). Dr. Ferber popularized the “Cry it out” sleep technique. For children 6 months and older. The Ferber Method uses a series of training sessions whereby parents leave the child alone for strictly timed periods, ignoring any protests and cries they might hear. Ferber suggests three minutes the first night—before returning to the room to briefly comfort the child. This reassurance should last only a minute or two. Parents then leave the room again and extend the time period (Ferber suggests five minutes) in which the child is allowed to cry. Ferber refers to this technique as “progressive waiting.” If necessary, come in again and briefly comfort the child, and then leave while the child is still awake, repeating this process as needed.


  • No tears. William Sears (author of The Baby Sleep Book) and Elizabeth Pantley (author of The No-Cry Sleep Solution) favor a no-tears sleep training approach. They believe that bedtime offers an opportunity to connect with your child by developing quiet, cozy nighttime rituals and by quickly responding to your baby’s requests for food and comfort.


  • Fading is a sleep training approach that involves the adult slowly fading out of the baby’s bedtime routine until their presence is no longer necessary. For younger children, parents put the baby to bed drowsy but awake and reassure the baby with their presence, gradually diminishing their bedtime role. Camping out is when a parent or caregiver sits near the baby until the baby falls asleep. Parents gradually move the chair farther away from the crib each night. Timed check-ins are when the parent or caregiver checks on the baby and reassures the baby (without picking them up) every five minutes until they fall asleep.

Another example of using the fading method is to modify how children fall asleep. Parents may help the baby fall asleep by rocking or feeding them to sleep, but over time, parents gradually do less and less of the ‘work’ to put the baby to sleep. For instance, if a parent normally rocks their baby completely to sleep, they may shorten the amount of time they rock each night.


Every family and every child is unique so it’s important to try different techniques to develop good sleep habits and find one that works. For sleep training to succeed, parents must be consistent in applying behavioral programs to avoid intermittent reinforcement of undesired behaviors. Parents must also avoid giving attention to the child for bedtime-delaying behaviors such as asking for a drink of water. When consistently applied, sleep training usually works in 3-7 days in younger children. Remember, even after sleep training is over, the child will most likely have occasional sleep issues, especially when he or she gets sick or when traveling.

About the Author. Andrea Malson is a licensed nurse practitioner at a sleep clinic in Dayton, Ohio. Andrea earned a Masters’ degree from Ohio University and has over 15 years of experience as a healthcare professional. Andrea Malson teaches a Sleep Training class as part of the Professional Childcare program at the Nanny Institute.