What Is Baby Sleep Training & Is It Safe?

7 min read

Last Modified 19 August 2021 First Added 19 August 2021

By Liam Porter

Praised by some parents and criticised by others, sleep training is all about teaching your baby to self-soothe. But with increased risk of SIDS and the potential to disrupt the natural bonding between mum and baby, is it safe and is it recommended?

Is sleep training safe?

There are numerous concerns when it comes to sleep training which we’ll explore throughout this article. However, it’s important to recognise that not all techniques are about leaving your baby to fend for themselves and not all come with attached risks.

For example, sleep training can involve the simple creation of a consistent bedtime routine. There are ‘no-cry’ techniques too – gentle, soothing practises that gradually build up your little one’s ability to sleep without you nearby. On the other hand, there are more contentious techniques, like ‘cry-it-out’ also known as the extinction and Ferber methods.

What’s most important is to recognise the difference between contentious methods and more gentle sleep training which is often considered wise and even recommended by health professionals:

Many sleep experts suggest ‘gradual retreat’ as a no-cry method of sleep training. Put your baby down to sleep while she’s drowsy but awake. Instead of leaving your baby’s room, stay by her cot until she falls asleep, patting and stroking her whenever she needs reassurance. Over the course of a few nights, gradually move further away from her cot until you find that your baby can fall asleep without you being in the room with her.

However, there are risks associated with sleep training, especially if started too early. Generally, advice centres around three concepts:

  1. Do not encourage your baby to sleep for longer than is recommended, including both in terms of total hours per day and the duration of each sleep phase.
  2. The aim of sleep training is to encourage your little one to sleep alone. While this is a skill that we all need to learn, it isn’t something we should learn before we are ready. Research into SIDS risk factors identifies that babies who sleep alone, especially under 6 months, have a significantly increased chance of SIDS compared to those who sleep in the same room as a parent.
  3. Longer phases of sleep during the night reduce opportunities for breastfeeding. This is not recommended as it can reduce a mother’s milk supply.

If you have any doubts or concerns about your baby’s sleep routine, speak to your GP or health visitor. You must also stick to NHS Safe Sleep Guidance:

  • Place your baby on their back to sleep, in a cot in the same room as you, for the first 6 months
  • Keep your baby’s head uncovered – their blanket should be tucked in no higher than their shoulders
  • Place your baby in the ‘feet-to-foot’ position, with their feet at the end of the cot or moses basket
  • Don’t let your baby get too hot or cold
  • Don’t share a bed with your baby
  • Never sleep with your baby on a sofa or armchair
  • Don’t smoke during pregnancy or breastfeeding, and don’t let anyone smoke in the same room as your baby

Sleep training for 0-3 months old:

At this age, no type of sleep training is recommended – whether that’s simple bedtime routine setting or something extreme like the Ferber method. That’s because, as identified, leaving your little one at this age is dangerous and unsafe and continues to be so until 6 months.

Between 0-3 months, your baby will need to sleep without restriction. They’ll typically sleep around 16 to 17 hours a day. When they get closer to 8 weeks, you’ll probably notice your little one start to sleep more in the night than the day.

Source: NHS.uk

 

Sleep training for 3-4 months old

While specific sleep training isn’t generally recommended at this age, you can start to incorporate some light elements into your little’s one routine:

  • Establish a calming bedtime routine
  • Teach your baby the difference between night and day
  • Put baby to bed when drowsy but still awake
  • Sleep in the same room

Source: pampers.co.uk

Sleep training for 5-6 months old

  • Have realistic expectations
  • Start a calming bedtime routine
  • Set an age-appropriate bedtime
  • Create a sleep-friendly space
  • Help your baby nap frequently
  • 14-16 hours’ total sleep per day

Source: babysleepmadesimple.com

Sleep training for 7-8 months old

  • 14 hours sleep per day including 2-3 naps
  • Adjust baby’s room to their preferences: night light, white noise etc
  • Avoid screens
  • Stay active during the day

Source: whattoexpect.com

Sleep training for 9-10 months old

  • Strong and consistent bedtime routine
  • Avoid over-tiredness
  • Limit naps to 4 hours per day max but stick with the morning nap
  • Consistency is key
  • Consider a soothing, safe, cuddly toy
  • Use teething rings to limit teething pain

Source: whattoexpect.com

Sleep training for 11-12 months old

Sleep regression is common at this age. To limit the impact:

  • Keep a steady schedule
  • Allow one favourite item in bed (cuddly toy)
  • Keep active throughout the day
  • Keep a consistent good-night process which shows warmth and love
  • Practise separation during the day but do so safely

Source: sleepfoundation.org

An expert's take on sleep training:

We spoke to Harland Adkins, a registered nutritionist and health professional with a range of experience in parenting and childcare. The following content is his take on sleep training with safety tips on how to help your baby sleep:

The best way to sleep train an infant is NOT to do anything that interferes with the normal ability of an infant to self-regulate.

1. Lights:

Avoid lights that’ll interfere with your baby’s circadian rhythm – a biological cycle coordinated by food, sleep, darkness and light. Newborns are typically on a 2-hour cycle whereas adults are on a 24-hour cycle.

2. Food:

Hungry babies are typically not sleepy. If bottle-feeding, follow your paediatrician’s instructions. For those breastfeeding, be aware that longer periods of sleep (and therefore no feeding) can affect a mother’s ability to produce milk.

3. Distracting noises:

Loud sudden noises can startle a sleeping baby and interfere with their sleep cycle. Typically, most babies sleep better if the noise they fall asleep listening to stays consistent while they’re asleep. 

4. Too much jostling:

Like anyone, babies need quiet time right before they sleep. If a baby is constantly moved when they’re trying to sleep, they may become cranky and overtired, neither of which are conducive to a natural sleep cycle.

5. Body comfort: 

A baby with a rash or irritated skin will not be comfortable and may have trouble settling. Protect against nappy rash and keep your little one soft, dry and comfortable. This means making sure nappies are not too tight and that the adhesive of paper nappies are not touching the baby’s skin. All of these things can interfere with a baby’s comfort and defeat your efforts to allow your baby a natural sleep cycle.

6. Temperature:

A baby needs to be comfortable and, like you and me, if they’re too cold or hot they may struggle to get to sleep. Here’s what Healthline say on ideal temperatures:

Most adults and babies feel cool but comfortable at the recommended temperature of 68° and 72°F (20° to 22.2°C), especially when appropriately dressed. In addition to keeping your child’s sleeping room at a comfortable temperature be sure not to overdress your baby with heavy layers of clothing.

7. Soothing and security:

To best allow a newborn baby to sleep effectively and naturally, they must feel connected to the heartbeat, smell and touch of the person who cares for them. They need to feel safe and aware that their needs will be met. To bond with your baby and create feelings of sufficiency, concentrate on maximising eye contact and speaking to your new baby in gentle hushed tones while they’re nodding off.

 

Verdict:

Should parents consider sleep training?

Sleep training is a catch-all term for a range of methods that help teach your baby how to fall asleep without stress and by themselves. While certain techniques are considered contentious and hotly debated by health professionals and parents, there are a range of tips and tricks which can help your baby learn to sleep risk-free. Most important is to discuss any concerns with your GP or other relevant health professionals. It’s also important to stick to NHS safe sleep guidance and consider your baby’s needs at every phase of their first year.

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