Sleep Training – The Basics


We had been pretty lucky in terms of sleep.  By 3 1/2 months, our boys were down to one 3AM feeding with a maximum of 2 quick wakings that required just a few minutes of soothing (putting a pacifier back in, patting a stomach, stroking a forehead) or transfer to a swing.  Then, about a week after they turned 4 months, they turned into antisleep maniacs.  They weren’t going to sleep, they weren’t staying asleep, they weren’t even going to sleep if we put them in swings.  The dreaded 4 month regression had descended upon our family.

The week before this happened, my partner and I attended a presentation by Karen Pollack, who gave us the basics on sleep training and a brief overview of some common methods (Pick Up, Put Down (Elizabeth Pantley’s No Cry Sleep Solution), Sleep Lady Shuffle (Kim West’s Good Night, Sleep Tight), Progressive Waiting Intervals (Richard Ferber’s Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems/Marc Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child/Twins), Extinction (Weissbluth)).

My partner and I were inspired to try graduated extinction (also known as progressive waiting intervals, controlled crying, cry it out, intervals, etc) so we too could have babies who slept for 12 hours with no feedings or parental soothing required.  Karen made it sound doable and the idea of a night of uninterrupted sleep sounded so incredible that two days later, we tried it.  BIG MISTAKE.  We tried it for two naps, but quickly realized we had a lot of questions about how to do it because everything we knew about sleep training was from a two hour talk!  It was also my last week of maternity leave and I didn’t want to deal with sad, crying babies all day, so we stopped to better prepare ourselves.  Then, the 4 month regression reared its ugly head and I couldn’t help thinking it was karmic punishment for being greedy trying to eliminate our one night feeding.

Be Consistent, Commit to Sleep Training

What everyone tells you, no matter what method you choose for sleep training, is to be consistent and stick with it until it works or set a time frame during which you won’t give up (like two weeks, not two hours!).  (Here’s a good NYT article about that.)  Clearly we didn’t do that with our first effort, but we decided with our renewed effort that we’d start the Friday night before I went back to work so that we could start it together and my partner, who is much less moved by crying babies, could deal with naps during his paternity leave.  My only hesitations were that maybe it wasn’t a great idea to start during the 4 month regression and that my going back to work would itself be a big change for them.  In the end, we couldn’t imagine enduring another week of them waking up every couple of hours, so we dove in and decided we were in it until they were able to put themselves to sleep for naps and at night.

My caveat to the “be consistent” mantra is that you have to be confident enough to adjust your method slightly as you go along.  Of course, don’t change to a completely new strategy on day 2, but as I’ll explain in a later post about what we did day to day, it’s important to be able to see how your babies are responding and act accordingly.

The Method

Cry it out (CIO) gets a bad name because it sounds harsh, but there are so many variations of it that you can adapt it to your own tolerance and parenting philosophy.  We started the first night with 5/10/15/20 intervals.  We put each baby down to sleep drowsy, but awake.  As soon as they started crying for real, not just grumbling, we started the timer.  After 5 minutes, we went in and did whatever it took to soothe them.  We’d pick them up, sway them, talk to them quietly, etc.  As soon as they stopped crying, we put them back down and left even if they started crying again right away.  After 10 minutes, we did the same, etc.  If during any interval, they stopped crying for 15 seconds, we started that interval over.  So, if they cried for 3 minutes during a 10 minute interval, then stopped for 15 seconds, and started crying again, we wouldn’t go back in until after another 10 minutes.  This gives them credit for their “progress”.  After the 20 minute interval, if they were still crying, we’d do whatever it took until they fell asleep.  Usually, we just picked them up and held them for a few minutes and they would fall asleep within minutes because they were exhausted from crying.

The next time they woke up, generally hours later, we repeated this unless it was time for a feeding.  Also, it’s obvious, but we counted the intervals for each baby (only an issue if you have more than one!) and deliberately kept them in the same room.  Even though we knew this would be more work now (waking each other up), we didn’t want to deal with reteaching them to be together later.

The next day, for naps, we used 5/10/15 intervals and the next night, we increased to 10/15/15/20 (we generally wanted the total time they could cry at night to be close to a sleep cycle, so 45 minutes – 1 hour).  Each subsequent night, we increased the intervals, but reduced the number of intervals so that the total was still around 45 minutes – 1 hour.

Did it Work?

Stay tuned for a more detailed accounting of how we sleep trained our now almost completely self-soothing and well-rested babies (I’m knocking on wood as I dare to type this!).

Update:  Click here for the details on how we sleep trained.


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