A few summers ago, I traveled down the shore to the bungalow that my great grandmother had resided in since her early 20s when she first became a mother. It was a beautiful, albeit tiny, space I had come to love deeply as I grew up. It was a girl's day consisting of my great-grandmother, my grandmother, and my great aunt. We sat at the kitchen table under the ruse of watercolor painting, but more truthfully for chatting and occasionally remembering the paintings in front of us. Inevitably, we came across one of my favorite family topics: stories about motherhood —particularly the humorous lens through which my great-grandmother and great aunt portrayed my grandmothers' approach to motherhood.
To perhaps add context, my great-grandmother was my maternal grandfather's mother. So, my grandmother found herself under the microscope from her mother-in-law and sister-in-law, even all these years later. Amongst the inevitable remarks of raising my mother in a hippie commune for her first few years of life, my grandmother was also notoriously recollected as "coddling my mother" if she cried at night, according to my great-grandmother and great-aunt.
"Oh, Ty," my aunt started, "Your Mum-Mum was just a riot. If your mother so much as let out a gasp, your Mum over here would be right beside her all night."
"It was all the time! Your grandmother never slept, the poor thing! It's a miracle your mother ended up as self-sufficient as she is," my great-grandmother warmly teased.
While this was a warm (frequented) debate within my family, this debate extends beyond my family's parameters. This debate on sleep training is a long-standing and ongoing debate, often accompanied by competing evidence from scientific studies. The two extremes of this debate include the cry-it-out method, also known as total extinction, and conversely gentle sleep methods like my grandmother assumed. In cry-it-out, people hope to motivate their infant to develop self-regulation and, more specifically, self-regulated sleep. However, those who oppose it note that they find this method harmful to their baby, stating it may jeopardize their attachment formation with parents and cause overall generalized distress. Of course, there are methods between the two, such as the Ferber Method that utilizes interval check-ins instead of crying ques or ignoring cries altogether. So, what gives? Is one method better than the others? Unfortunately, the answer is not so clear-cut.
However, one thing is certain. This debate should not be considered until your child is at least four months old. Before four months, your newborn will need your attention throughout the night, particularly in need of nighttime feeding. Additionally, before four months, babies will not have had the opportunity for their sleep schedule to mature and their circadian rhythm to regulate. It's also important to consider speaking with your child's healthcare provider to ensure that four months is the right age. Sometimes babies can be ready earlier than four months or later than four months. Once you've determined that your baby is well-positioned to begin sleep training, we have compiled information on the common methods that parents utilize. Due to the limited scientific consensus, it ultimately comes down to creating a sleep training process that works best for your family's unique experiences. However, let these inspire you to determine what will best serve you and your family.
As the name suggests, this method involves letting the baby cry it out when they are fussy throughout the night. Rather than address the baby, the parent will simply let the fussiness go with the hopes of encouraging the child to self-soothe to sleep. In addition to promoting the child to practice self-regulation, this also serves as a mechanism for parents to insulate their own sleep.
Criticisms for the cry it out method are grounded in the fact that some people believe it causes the baby distress to continuously cry it out. Some opposers believe it causes psychological damage, digestive issues, secure attachment issues, and even damaged brain synapses. Yale's director of sleep medicine and associate professor of pediatrics, Craig Canapari, M.D., disagree, though. In an article on Parents.Com, he notes, "I think that's ludicrous. Honestly, it really wouldn't make much sense if kids got brain damage every time they cry. They cry all the time."
The Ferber Method is not as extreme as the cry-it-out method. Rather than completely ignoring your baby, you set up predetermined time intervals in which you can go in to check on your baby. Initially, it is suggested you check on your little one at three-minute intervals, gradually increasing the time between intervals. When you check on your baby, you should soothe your baby by speaking in a soothing tone as well as patting your little one gently on the back. However, it would help if you refrained from picking up your little one because you want to facilitate self-soothing mechanisms.
The Chair Method, aptly named, involves sitting in a chair close to your baby's crib to comfort them to sleep. To perform this method, you tuck your little ones in when they are slightly drowsy. You let them know that you are thereby offering soothing verbal support and little physical touch, like occasional ats on the back. However, similar to the Ferber Method, try to limit the interactions that you have. When your little one falls asleep, leave the chair. If you hear your baby cry, you may return and assume the same position in the chair. After a few nights, try moving the chair further away from the crib. Gradually, the goal is to keep moving the chair further and further every night for about two weeks until you are outside of the room.
The pick-up put-down apropos to its name involves picking your baby up when they are fussy and then putting them down when they are calmer. This is one of the gentler sleep training methods and one in which parents' role is relatively more attentive. The unfortunate downside of this method, on behalf of the parents, is its demanding nature. Its frequent calls for pick-up and put-downs don't leave much room for consistent sleep for parents, which points to an important suggestion: the pick-up put-down is a mission best taken by two to mitigate the amount of sleep deprivation for one parent.
While these are four major sleep training methods people use, the data does not point to one being the best. Sleep training success is majorly contingent on two key priorities: first, that you commit to whatever you do with a sense of consistency, and second, you choose whatever best suits your particular family situation. This last part is vital. You may find yourself presented with various opinions on which sleeping method is best (my family is no exception). Still, nobody can ever fully understand what will work best for your baby, your partnership, or you. So, happy sleep training!