If you can't stand letting your baby cry, gentle sleep training may be for you. Also called no cry sleep training, it promises to help babies sleep more soundly and soothe themselves when they wake up – with no tears required. Methods include the pick up put down method, the chair method, and scheduled awakenings. Some parents find these approaches to be less stressful and more in line with their parenting style. However, gentle sleep training usually takes longer to work and can be more tiring for parents.
What is gentle sleep training?
If you don't like the idea of leaving your baby to cry alone – or you've tried cry it out (CIO) or similar methods and they didn't work for you – you may want to consider a more gradual approach that involves fewer tears. Enter gentle sleep training, also called no cry sleep training.
There are three main approaches: The chair method, the pick up put down method, and scheduled awakenings. There are several books on no cry sleep training, including Elizabeth Pantley's No-Cry Sleep Solution, Tracy Hogg's The Baby Whisperer, and Kim West's The Sleep Lady's Good Night Sleep Tight. BabyCenter also offers a video-led course from a pediatric sleep doctor that you can take on-demand from the comfort of your own home – and the course includes a variation on "the chair method."
Those who favor a no-tears approach believe that bedtime offers an opportunity to connect with your child by developing quiet, cozy nighttime rituals and by quickly responding to your baby's requests for food and comfort.
Gentle sleep training advocates believe that it's natural for babies to want to be close to their parents, and that cry it out (also called extinction sleep training) doesn't teach babies to self-soothe as advertised. They point out that while research suggests that extinction methods may result in better sleep in the short-term, all babies have similar sleep patterns at around 1 year of age regardless of the sleep training method their parents used. They conclude that sleep training methods that involve crying aren't necessary in the longer term.
As with all sleep training methods, it's best to start gentle sleep training when your baby is physically and emotionally ready to sleep through the night, usually between 4 and 6 months old. By then, babies' sleep cycles are more regular and predictable, and they may be able to go through the night without a feeding.
The pick up put down method
The pick up put down method is essentially what its name suggests: You'll pick up your baby when they cry and put them back down to sleep when they're calm, until they eventually fall and stay asleep. Here's how:
- Place your baby in their crib, drowsy but awake, at a set bedtime.
- If your baby is calm, you can leave the room.
- If your baby begins to cry, pick them up and cuddle or rock them until they stop crying.
- Once your baby is calm, put them back down in their crib.
- Leave the room immediately.
- If your baby starts crying again, repeat the above steps.
- Eventually your baby will fall and stay asleep.
- This method may require that you pick up and put down your baby dozens of times. The goal is that they will gradually need to be reassured fewer times every night, until they don't need to be picked up at all.
Pros and cons of the pick up put down method
Some parents feel very stressed when they hear their baby cry. The main pro of the pick up put down method is that it may be less stressful for parents.
That said, it requires a lot of patience – and can be exhausting. Compared to cry it out sleep training, babies trained with the pick up put down method require more time to learn to fall and stay asleep without help. While CIO often takes three to four days to work, no cry methods can take up to three weeks, possibly more. Depending on your temperament, your level of sleep deprivation, and your baby's sleep habits, you may find this to be much more stressful than a few nights of crying.
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The chair method
Sometimes called "camping out," the chair method involves sitting in a chair near your baby's crib while they fall asleep. Ideally, they'll learn to soothe themself into slumber without being picked up, held, rocked, or nursed to sleep. Then you'll progressively move the chair farther away, until your baby gradually learns to fall asleep without you in the room. Follow these steps:
- Put your baby in their crib at a set bedtime, when they're drowsy but not asleep.
- Place a chair near your baby's crib and sit next to them until they fall asleep.
- Leave the room.
- If your baby begins to cry, come back into their room and sit in the chair until they fall asleep. You can pat them and say a few soothing words, but don't pick them up.
- After a few nights, move the chair farther from the crib.
- Continue moving the chair farther from the crib until you're out of your baby's room.
Pros and cons of the chair method
As with the pick up put down method, some parents prefer the chair method because it can involve less crying. You're able to soothe your baby as needed (without picking them up).
The downside is the chair method takes a lot more time and patience than cry-it-out – up to three weeks, versus a few days. It can be tedious to sit and wait for your baby to sleep, and you may find it difficult if they start to cry, since you won't pick them up or use standard comforting methods like rocking and nursing. Your baby may also be confused and unhappy that you're in their room but not comforting them.
If your baby usually falls asleep easily but wakes up several times throughout the night, you may want to consider scheduled awakenings. The idea behind scheduled awakenings is to interrupt your baby's sleep cycles and gradually nudge them in the direction of a more consolidated night's sleep. Here's how:
- Note your baby's sleep patterns over the course of several days. You'll want to determine the approximate times they wake up every night.
- Put your baby in their crib at their regularly scheduled bedtime. Use whatever tactics have been successful in the past to get your baby to sleep.
- Set your alarm clock to about 15 to 30 minutes before your baby usually wakes. When the alarm sounds, wake your baby.
- Console your baby (rock them, nurse them, etc.) until they fall back asleep.
- Repeat as many times as your baby wakes during the night.
- Gradually increase the time between awakenings, until your baby sleeps through the night without crying out for you.
Pros and cons of scheduled awakenings
Scheduled awakenings involve less crying than CIO, and they do seem to increase a baby's stretches of uninterrupted sleep.
However, there are a number of cons to scheduled awakenings. It's a methodical and time-consuming method that may take several weeks to work. If your baby doesn't already wake at regular, predictable intervals during the night, you won't be able to reliably schedule awakenings (which may be why some experts say it's best reserved for older children). It also doesn't help teach babies to fall asleep on their own when you first put them to bed.
You might find it stressful to wake your sleeping baby, knowing they're likely going to cry. And your baby may still wake up between scheduled awakenings — at which point you'll have to decide whether you'll go into the room and soothe them back to sleep or let them cry.
Tips for gentle sleep training
- Be consistent. Establish a regular nap and bedtime schedule, and stick to it. A consistent sleep routine helps regulate nighttime sleep.
- Choose the right time. Put your baby to bed when they show signs of being tired, including rubbing their eyes, fussing, and yawning. Don't fall into the trap of keeping your baby awake so they'll be more tired. An overtired baby may actually have a harder time getting to sleep and may sleep less overall.
- Make changes slowly. If your baby's on a later schedule, don't suddenly move bedtime from, say, 9:30 to 7 o'clock. Make bedtime about 15 minutes earlier each night until you reach the time that seems best for your baby.
- Follow a soothing bedtime routine. For example, give your baby a bath, then read a book, then sing a lullaby, then put them to bed at the same time every night.
- Develop some "key words." These help signal to your child that it's time for sleep. It could be a simple "ssshhhh" sound or a softly spoken phrase like "It's sleepy time." Repeat the sound or phrase when you're soothing your child to sleep or back to sleep so they'll associate it with bedtime.
- Create a comfortable sleep environment. Your baby's room should be quiet and dimly lit. Older children may prefer a nightlight and the door slightly cracked open. Recordings of soft music or nature sounds or the sound of a gurgling aquarium can be soothing, as white noise reminds babies of the cozy confines of the womb. To reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), always place your baby to bed on their back with no loose bedding or other objects in the crib. Don't overdress your child or overheat the room.
- Try a pacifier. It may help a fussy baby calm down and fall asleep – plus pacifier use at bedtime has been linked to a lower risk of SIDS.
- Don't respond to every noise your child makes. Learn to distinguish a real cry from a sleepy whimper. If you're not sure, it's okay to wait for a minute outside the door so you won't disturb your baby if they're actually asleep.
Does gentle sleep training work?
No sleep strategy is effective for every baby – or even for one baby all the time. Figuring out an approach that's right for your family could take some trial and error. You'll have to get to know your child, be flexible, and find a method (or combination of methods) that work for you.
Fans of gentle sleep training admit that the approach can take a while – longer than cry-it-out techniques – but they say that in the long run it's worth it. (Note: Though CIO sleep training can be difficult for babies and their parents, research indicates that it doesn't harm a baby's social or emotional development or cause attachment problems.)
The most important ingredient for sleep training success, no matter the method you choose, is to be consistent and give it time to work. You may need to stick to gentle sleep training techniques for at least a week, often longer, to see results.
Gentle sleep training could work well for you. If it doesn't, you may want to try the Ferber method: You'll allow your baby to cry for short, scheduled periods of time before picking them up and soothing them, gradually extending the time between check-ins.