Effective sleep-training tactics vary by family and even from one child to another. If crying it out hasn't stopped your baby's nighttime wakings, or simply isn't your style, there are no-cry sleep-training options. We spoke with Kim West, author of Good Night, Sleep Tight: The Sleep Lady's Gentle Guide to Helping Your Baby Go to Sleep and for tips on how to implement her "Sleep Lady Shuffle"—a gentle method of "teaching your child how to fall asleep on his own in a secure environment." And while West says some fussing is to be expected early on, her method doesn't involve shutting the door to your baby's room and leaving him to cry hysterically. Follow these steps to better snoozing in just a few weeks.
Remember that the human brain—yours and your baby's—runs on sleep. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has linked babies' frequent night wakings to everything from postpartum depression in moms to future obesity and behavior problems in kids. As Marc Weissbluth, M.D., the author of Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, explains, children who don't get enough consolidated REM sleep have shorter attention spans, so they don't learn as well. These babies also release more of the stress hormone cortisol, setting them up for frequent night wakings and stunted naps. Tired yet?
Before you start any sleep-training method, make sure all the necessary people are on board. Talk to your pediatrician to rule out any underlying medical condition, such as reflux or 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; plan together how you'll react to wakings at given times. If your 10-month-old is nursing six times a night, both of you must agree that you'll feed him once before bed, then not again until morning.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends infants age 4–12 months get between 12–16 hours of sleep during each 24-hour period, including naps, to reap the most health benefits from sleep. Children ages 1–2 years need 11-14 hours, and those ages 3–5 need 10–13 hours a day.
If you have a hard time remembering how many times your baby woke last night, much less how she slept last week, a log will help you notice patterns. After a week of tracking her days and nights, start by figuring out her ideal bedtime. You might say, "Oh, she's always fussy at 7 p.m.—that's probably when I should be putting her down, and I'm missing the window." A log will also let you see that your baby may not have cried during the night for as long as you thought. Five minutes of fussing can feel like 50 when it's 2 a.m.
Fifteen minutes is all you need to perform a soothing bedtime ritual that will help your baby's mind and body prepare for sleep. Remain in his nursery or near his crib and choose the same two or three quiet, calm activities, such as reading or singing. Be sure to keep anything stimulating (tickling, TV) out of the equation. For babies over 6 months, incorporate a favorite stuffed animal or blanket into the routine.
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There's never a perfect time to start sleep training. But if you're using the Sleep Lady Shuffle method, it's best to start when you know you'll have at least three weeks without any changes in time zone, cribs, or bedrooms—especially if your baby is alert and sensitive. The most popular night to begin is Friday because of the upcoming weekend. Some parents use vacation days so they won't have to worry about being at work in the morning. And remember that you'll always be more successful if your baby has been napping well.
The right environment means everything when it comes to sleep training. Keep the room cool and comfortable—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—install room-darkening shades. (You may also want to invest in a night-light.)
Run through your bedtime routine with the lights on, then place your baby in the crib drowsy but awake. Expect some tears, especially if she's used to falling asleep in your arms. For the first three nights, sit next to the crib in a chair, offering gentle, intermittent reassurances and occasional touches. If she becomes hysterical you can pick her up, but put her back as soon as she calms down. Stay beside the crib until she's sound asleep. Respond to night wakings the same way.
Use the same calming techniques and move the chair progressively farther from the crib every third night until you're outside her room and out of view. It's important to keep moving. If you stay in one spot for more than a few days, your baby will grow accustom to your being there, and this will become her new sleep crutch.
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West says once an infant is older than 3 or 4 months, habits like rocking, singing, or nursing her until she dozes off become "sleep crutches." "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 (multiple times throughout the night), she'll need you to rock, sing, or nurse her—but your goal is to teach her to self-soothe and put herself back to sleep.
Within a couple of weeks of implementing West's no-cry sleep solution, you should be able to put your baby down to sleep at bedtime, say good night, and close the door—and she should be able to quickly put herself back to sleep during those inevitable night wakings.
One of the biggest mistakes parents make, no matter what 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. Go to his cribside to check on him and make sure all is well—just be sure not to restart an old sleep crutch during this check. After that, try comforting him 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.