We Asked a Pediatrician and a Sleep Consultant The Best Way to Sleep Train, Here's What They Said

My infant's sleepless nights were affecting me so much that I had a fender bender. I decided it was time to sleep train and turned to the experts to get their tips. Here's what I learned.

asian infant sleeping with arms up
Photo: ChristopherBernard/Getty Images

My son was 9 months old and his sleep habits were in a word, exhausting. Every night felt like I was preparing for battle. Armed with coffee and a jukebox full of lullabies, I waited for the inevitable cry from his crib. I clung to the hope that a miracle would occur, and that my sweet son would just sleep on his own without the humming, rocking, walking, and pleading.

Unfortunately for me, that miracle did not occur. And then I slammed my 2009 Honda Accord into a 2001 Toyota Camry parked in my own driveway which made me realize just how bad my sleep deprivation was affecting me. I know I'm not alone: Only 10 percent of new parents are getting seven or more hours of sleep per night.

Still I felt I needed to try some type of sleep training, which studies show is safe and effective. But should I let my son cry it out (also known as extinction sleep training)? Should I opt for intermittent check-ins? Or what about the pick up, put down method?

I reached out to a pediatrician and a sleep consultant to weigh my options.

Pediatrician's Take on Sleep Training

Every baby needs sleep training, according to Michael McKenna, M.D., pediatrician at St. Vincent Medical Group in Zionsville, Indiana. How much training really depends on the individual baby.

And don't be surprised if your mad scientist methods aren't fully being appreciated till they are about 6 months. "At 6 months babies now have ability to entertain and soothe themselves," says Dr. McKenna. "Before that there is no guarantee they have the ability."

Prior to 6 months, it's all about laying the groundwork for positive sleep habits with consistency and routine. Your baby may or may not be receptive—either or is totally normal for that age. Once the training begins, it's important to stick with it. "Babies will fight change," says Dr. McKenna. "If you give into what the baby wants you will have to start all over again."

What Dr. McKenna has found most effective? The chair method, which involves putting a chair next to the baby's crib and scooting it a little further away every night. Eventually you will hopefully be far away sitting comfy while your little one is fast asleep. He also notes the pick up, put down method, in which parents decide how long to wait before going in and picking up the baby. The next step is getting them settled down, spending a little time calming them, and walking out. The next time baby cries extend the time a bit before entering and doing it all over again. "The first night will be pretty bad," says Dr. McKenna. "But by the third night it should be better. You just need to be strong and stick with it."

Keep in mind, you might hear some amplified crying while sleep training, too. "Your baby will realize their normal crying isn't working, so they will take it up a notch. You will know the training is working when the baby starts acting worse," says Dr. McKenna.

If you really stick with it, in about a solid week you should have conquered sleep training, adds Dr. McKenna. If after a week you are still having issues talk to your pediatrician on next steps.

Sleep Consultant's Take on Sleep Training

Parents struggling to get their baby to sleep should first head over to their pediatrician's office for help, says Cara Dumaplin, neonatal nurse, sleep consultant, and founder of Taking Cara Babies, which specializes in helping babies get sleep while allowing parents to reclaim the joy of parenthood.

But for some families, the basics aren't enough and that's where her company comes in. Taking Cara Babies offers online courses and training designed for newborns up to 24 months with pricing packages that range from $34 to $319. Depending on the package you choose, training can include phone consultations, helpful training videos, and a reference booklet.

She has seen some babies respond to training as quickly as two to three days, while others need a bit more time. That's why prior to embarking on the mission of sleep training, Dumaplin recommends that parents ask themselves if they are able to commit to the process and follow the plan for 14 to 28 days with heart and soul commitment.

Cara Dumaplin of Taking Cara Babies

You focus on reassuring your baby, and I am going to focus on reassuring you.

— Cara Dumaplin of Taking Cara Babies

Ultimately, some parents opt for a sleep trainer in order to help with their own well-being as well as their baby's. "Science can provide the answers, but it doesn't tell you how you as a parent are going to feel as you manage sleep training," says Dumaplin. While aiding parents to get their tot to sleep, Dumaplin also focuses on making sure they feel good by giving them personalized guidance and support they need along the way. "You focus on reassuring your baby, and I am going to focus on reassuring you," adds Dumaplin.

What Dumaplin has found most effective? The intermittent check-ins, which involves establishing a time you intend to pop in once the crying begins and extending that check-in time little by little.

With that in mind, Dumaplin encourages parents to be mindful that the training is much bigger than just check-ins. She recommends that no matter the method, parents have a holistic approach before beginning any sleep training. This approach should consider factors such as caloric intake, nighttime feedings, environment, and wake windows.

And if deciding to get a little help from a sleep consultation, make sure to do some research as there are no governing bodies which monitor them. Dumaplin recommends reviewing your consultant's education and experience, make sure they are using evidence-based research, and request references from parents who can speak to their success. Most importantly, Dumaplin encourages parents to partner with a consultant whose mission and heart aligns with theirs.

What Both Experts Agree On

The good news: There is no wrong way to sleep train a baby, according to Dr. McKenna and Dumaplin. (And that includes the cry it out method, which both say can be effective, and not harmful to Baby despite the controversy.) As long as your little one is safe, gaining weight appropriately, and has been properly fed, your baby is pretty well able to tolerate most things.

But no matter the method, both experts say consistency is key. "You don't have to be the most organized person to get your baby on a schedule. Pick one solid rule as your starting point and go from there," says Dr. McKenna. A great first step is selecting a bedtime. "You pick the timeframe you want them to go to bed based on your family's schedule," adds Dr. McKenna.

As long as your little one is safe, gaining weight appropriately, and has been properly fed, your baby is pretty well able to tolerate most things.

Dumaplin also recommends a consistent bedtime routine. "It doesn't need to be hard," she says. "Give your baby a bath, put on a diaper, read a story, have a feeding—just have a series of consistent events."

After considering all the options, I am going to bet on myself for the moment and see if I can give this chair method a real go. Should I fail, it's comforting to know that folks like Dumaplin are waiting in the wings ready to prop me and my eyelids up.

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