The safe and appropriate time to to start sleep training, at the earliest, is quite a controversial question. There are so many different ideas and opinions on this. A popular New York pediatrics office suggests you can start sleep training as early as 8 weeks. But then you can also find information online where people will suggest that you shouldn’t start until at least four months or six months or even longer than that. This makes it really hard to work out what the best thing to do is.
So let’s talk today about when it is really appropriate to start sleep training your baby.
What is sleep training?
Sleep training is the process of teaching a baby to fall asleep, stay asleep and return to sleep without the presence or help of their parents. This means that they are not getting help to sleep by rocking, patting, breastfeeding, cuddling, etc. Babies who have self-soothing skills are essentially being put in their crib, awake and aware and going to sleep by themselves.
Sleep is a learned skill. Babies need opportunities to practice falling asleep on their own so that they are able to do it consistently without the help of anyone else.
When can you sleep train?
Even though places have suggested that it might be safe to sleep train as early as eight weeks, this is not my suggestion. Instead, I recommend that four months of age is when it’s appropriate to start sleep training. The reason I suggest four months is because a baby has developed a regular sleep and wake cycle and is generally down to two feedings per night. Babies are sleeping more consistently, their naps are no longer irregular and they have a good, consistent wake windows between sleep periods. Their naps might still be short if you start sleep training right on 4 months because naps take awhile to consolidate, but they’re definitely capable of learning how to fall asleep independently for them at sleep through the night independently (besides waking once or twice to feed).
Another reason why sleep training after four months of age is recommended is that a baby doesn’t develop their circadian rhythm much before then (it is developed around 3 or 4 months). Harnessing that circadian rhythm really helps for sleep training success.
One thing to bear in mind though is that when we say a four-month-old baby, we mean four months adjusted. If your baby was born early, then you really need to go from their estimated due date instead of the day they were actually born and you are safe to sleep train 4 months from then. This is because, much like physical development, sleep development can be delayed in premature babies.
What can you do for newborn babies then?
As newborns, we can start laying that foundation for independent sleep skills. What we want to be doing is establishing healthy sleep habits, which can include practicing the skills needed for independent sleep and self-soothing, but not actually letting them cry alone. This means giving them a little bit of an opportunity to try and fall asleep by popping them in their crib drowsy but awake and giving them time to try and fall asleep (some fussing is okay, but not big cries). If they struggle and start to really cry, you can pick them up again and soothe them. It’s okay, in the newborn stage, to be soothing them to the point that they fall asleep when attempt at falling asleep independently don’t work, as long as you regularly try to give them the opportunity to have try falling asleep from being drowsy. The more we give newborn babies the opportunity to practice, the better they’ll get at putting themselves to sleep.
Basically, in the newborn stage, we are using prevention efforts (to potentially avoid the need for sleep training, but not actually sleep training.
So, we’ve talked about the earliest age it is appropriate to sleep train, but there’s a whole other factor involved as well.
Make sure your pediatrician has given the go-ahead.
Have a chat with your pediatrician to make sure that they give their approval to begin the sleep training process and ensure they believe your baby is ready. I suggest discussing any night weaning you might be planning on doing – to make sure your baby’s growth and development is on track and that they are able to go with fewer feedings at night. Not all babies are ready to give up night feedings completely until at least six months of age, so getting the go-ahead from your doctor to night wean can help you feel confident that this is safe for your baby before starting.
Are you mentally ready to sleep train?
Even if your baby is developmentally ready, it is still important not to start until you are sure you and your partner are mentally prepared too. This is a big undertaking and should be done when you feel you can be consistent for plenty of time to see your desired sleep changes. You can start when you are feeling like you can handle the sleep training process and when you’ve got a good, solid plan in place along with a good support system to seek help from while you do it.