Sleep Training Methods Demystified

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  • May 14, 2013

sleep trainingI Huffington Post recently published an article in answer to a fairly humorous take on sleep training, in which a mother was overwhelmed with the sheer amount of expert advice surrounding baby sleep training. While I chuckled as I read the article, I also sympathized with her. There is an overwhelming amount of information out there about how to sleep train your baby. But what most parents don’t realize is that it all essentially boils down to just a few basic sleep training methods: Cry It Out, or Extinction; Controlled Crying, or Modified Extinction;“No Cry”; and Fading, where the goal is to gradually shift the responsibility of falling asleep from parent to child without (many) tears.

As parents, we quickly realize that every baby is different (especially if you have more than one child), and what works for one baby, may not work for another. With so many differing opinions, how can we really make an educated decision about what is really, truly best for our babies? I think that it helps to understand what each method is truly about. I’m going to be upfront and say that I believe my ‘Sleep Lady Shuffle’ is the best of all worlds, but I may be getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

Ferber and Controlled Crying

In the beginning…okay, in the 1980s, Dr. Richard Ferber came out with a book entitled “Solve Your Baby’s Sleep Problems”. Although Ferber is generally associated with the Cry It Out form of sleep training, he actually advocates timed checks—meaning checking in on your child at increasing increments of time (i.e., 5mins, 10mins etc.) until your child is asleep.. Ferber also addresses the different sleep stages, as well as proper sleep associations, and the importance of a solid and soothing bedtime routine.

What many people take away from Ferber is his controlled crying, which basically means that you do timed checks on your child during sleep training, with longer periods of non-contact to help teach him to fall to sleep by himself, with the hope that his crying will diminish the longer you practice controlled crying. In contrast, Dr. Marc Weissbluth advocates a true extinction method of sleep training.

Weissbluth and Cry It Out

Like Ferber, Dr. Weissbluth advocates a method of sleep training in which crying is just simply part of it. Unlike Ferber, Weissbluth encourages parents to allow their baby to cry. While the Extinction method involves the least parental interference, it does involve a LOT of crying, usually by both the baby and the parent. It can be very difficult to listen to your baby sob, and not offer comfort. Those who advocate a Cry It Out method have stated that crying for extended periods is not traumatic for babies to cry alone (although it certainly can be for parents, in my opinion) Advocates of this method have concluded that the end result of crying it out is a well-rested, happier child.

Other proponents of Cry It Out feel that a no-cry sleep training method may result in babies who are overly dependent on parental reassurance, which makes it harder for babies to learn to fall asleep without assistance.

“No-Cry” Sleep Training

In contrast with the opinions of Cry It Out proponents, Dr. William Sears, an advocate of the no-cry method has stated that that Cry It Out techniques can give your child negative associations with bedtime and sleep that could last a lifetime. Proponents of the No-Cry method encourage parents to either rock or feed their baby to the point of drowsiness, with an immediate response (usually cuddling, or additional feeding) should the baby cry, interestingly, the same method is applied for night wakings. Those that follow a No-Cry method believe that theirs is the only way to build positive sleep associations.

I always found calling a sleep training method “no cry” was a bit of a misnomer. Yes, there may be less tears, and a parent being right there to comfort as soon as the baby begins to fuss will definitely reduce crying, but that does not mean that your baby will not cry while they are learning a new skill. When we as parents teach our babies that the way to fall asleep is to be held, or nursed, or rocked to sleep, and then we go change it, our children are bound to protest with fussing, crying, and complaints. I completely understand the wish to not have our babies cry. It’s hard, but crying is how babies communicate, and some crying is a normal part of childhood.

Fading to Sleep

Fading generally falls between the camps of Controlled Crying and No Cry sleep methods. Fading is a gradual reduction in parental intervention. There are different ways to approach this method, including The Shuffle. The basic goal with fading is to help minimize the crying and frustration your child experiences, while allowing him to learn to fall asleep on his own. With fading, it’s a gradual but deliberate transition that helps babies take, for lack of a better term, the baby steps of sleep and self-soothing.

The Shuffle

I like to think of my gentle sleep coaching method as a happy middle ground. Babies are not born with the knowledge of how to put oneself to sleep, and it is our responsibility as parents to teach our children how to fall asleep without assistance from us. Additionally, we need to help our babies create positive sleep associations to replace any established sleep crutches that may be present.

I recognize how hard it is to listen to your baby cry. Personally, I couldn’t stand to let my girls cry alone, but I also had to remind myself that crying is a normal part of childhood. For those little ones that are non-verbal, often crying is how they communicate discomfort, frustration, or even that they just want to be moved to a different position. Gentle sleep coaching is all about providing the tools and support so that your child can be successful at learning to sleep with minimal frustration and tears.

This is why I often use the term ‘sleep coach’. I believe that parents should act as sleep coaches for their children, giving them positive examples and lots of chances to figure it out, rather than stepping in and doing it for them. When parents practice The Shuffle, they are coaching their child in good sleep habits, and providing verbal and physical encouragement along the way. This approach allows babies to learn what best soothes them, and do so in a safe environment with the knowledge that mom (or dad) is right there if I need her.

Regardless of what type of sleep training you choose, it’s interesting to note that every method has some similarities. First, every sleep training method involves some crying. It’s really just a matter of how quickly a parent responds and what they do in their response, based on the method or advice they have received that dictates how much crying is involved. In addition to crying, each sleep training method attempts to instill positive sleep associations and replace (or reduce, if you’re following the No-Cry example) sleep crutches. The most obvious common goal of all the methods is finding a way to help your baby learn to fall asleep.

Every parent wants to find that magic moment when their baby is put in the crib without fussing or fighting, and peacefully drifts off to sleep. You can (and will), have that moment with most sleep coaching methods, but some methods are gentler than others. When choosing a sleep training style, it’s important to take into account not only your parenting style and family beliefs, but your baby’s temperament as well. Most babies are best suited to a gentle, gradual method in which crying is minimized, with maximum verbal and physical support. This type of sleep coaching helps your baby adjust to the change in routine over a period of time, rather than be put into bed one night to be left alone, wondering what happened.

It’s important as parents that we choose a sleep method that we can follow through with on a consistent basis. Remember, babies (and adults) thrive on consistency. Once you’ve chosen a method, be it Cry It Out, Controlled Crying, The Shuffle, or “No Cry”, stick with it. Sleep training takes time, patience, and parental perseverance. Sometimes, it is not one method that works for families, but a mixture. If you are new to sleep training, you may choose a gradual approach, and move to something more structured, like timed checks after a few days of progress with your baby.

Parents who choose the extinction method may find that they have not made progress, or are unhappy with the amount of crying. If this is the case in your home, you have nothing to lose by moving to a more gradual method, like The Shuffle, which involves staying in the room to reassure your child for a few days. If you chose to do this, I recommend that you gradually reduce your interventions and slowly move out of the room so that you don’t have to worry about creating a new sleep crutch, or getting “stuck”.

A note from The Sleep Lady: If you have attempted a single method of sleep training for several days with absolutely no progress, please stop sleep training and see your doctor to rule out any underlying medical conditions.

Have you attempted one of these sleep training methods? How did it work for your family?

photo credit: Lab2112 via photopin cc

Kim West
Kim is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been a practicing child and family therapist for more than 24 years, and the creator of the original gentle, proven method to get a good night’s sleep for you and your child. She is the author of The Sleep Lady's Good Night Sleep Tight, its companion Workbook and 52 Sleep Secrets for Babies. Click here to read more about her.

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