It’s not until you become a parent for the first time that you truly value the wonder that is sleep!  For the first few weeks, you may be basking in the relief of not being pregnant, absolute adoration for your baby and the fact that newborns tend to drift off without too much cajoling!  However as your baby starts to get more aware, more hungry and more demanding you may find that getting them to sleep, and stay asleep is becoming harder and harder.  For many parents at this stage, sleep training brings with it the promise of routine, quiet evenings and maybe, just maybe a whole night of uninterrupted slumber!

Of course every parent is different, every baby is different and so there are a range of methods that you can try – some require a will of iron and the ability to leave your little one to cry (a lot, in some cases!), others require more patience and an altogether more gentle approach.  The method that you opt for will depend not only on what feels right for you and your style of parenting, but also on your baby’s temperament….

Self Soothing

This method as the name suggests, relies on your child learning to fall asleep and go back to sleep on his own by means of a consistent routine and verbal and physical reassurance.

Make sure you follow the same routine at the same time each night, 20-30 minutes consisting of a bath, story, dimmed lights, soft music – all cues that, as your baby will come to understand, signal bedtime.  Once drowsy, put your baby into his cot and leave him to fall asleep on his own.  If he’s crying, feel free to check on him and reassure him verbally, but avoid picking him up.  Gradually he’ll learn not only to fall asleep and once he’s mastered that, to get himself back to sleep if he wakes in the night.

Pros: You don’t have to leave your baby to cry and can soothe if you choose, your baby will learn to settle himself without intervention from you.
Cons: You’ll need to be patient, as it may take a week or so before your baby starts to get to grips with self soothing.

Tried and tested:

“We loved the idea of this technique as we couldn’t bear the idea of leaving Lola to cry, yet we knew that 16 weeks, she was too alert and switched to to get away with a no-cry approach.  It took longer than we were told, but after just over two weeks she suddenly seemed to turn the corner and would settle really quickly at bedtime, then would self soothe in the night too.  Brilliant!!”

Let them cry

It seems this technique is becoming less and less popular with today’s parents – who only seem to resort to it out of desperation – when other attempts have failed! Childcare guru Benjamin Spock MD was first credited with this technique – a charge which he denies in the revised version of his Baby and Child Care book (Simon & Schuster, £14.99). In it, he says his advice was related strictly to a particular type of sleeping problem – chronic resistance to sleep, which can happen in one of two cases:

1. Babies up to six months, who resist being put to bed in the early evening. Perhaps they suffered from colic and were used to being carried around by their parents until they eventually succumbed to sleep. Once they are on the mend, the parents don’t see the need to carry on this routine, but the babies, naturally, rather like it! Spock’s advice in this situation is as follows: “The habit is usually easy to break once parents realise it as bad for the baby as it is for them. The cure is simple: put the baby to bed at a reasonable hour, say good night affectionately but firmly, walk out the room and don’t go back.” 2. Babies in the first half of the second year, who resist being put back to bed if they awake at night wanting attention. This could be the result of a painful ear infection or teething, which had their parents sympathetically running to console them in the wee hours of the morning. When they get better, they might be used to waking in the night and, as might enjoy the company! “Most cases can be cured easily,” says Spock. “The baby has to learn that there is nothing to be gained by waking and crying.

The method for both problems is the same – to leave the babies to sort themselves out. “Most babies … will cry furiously for 20 or 30 minutes the first night, and then when nothing happens, they suddenly fall asleep! The second night [it] is apt to last ten minutes (although it may seem like much longer). The third night there usually isn’t any at all.”

Pros: Most people say it brings results fast. Can be used as a last resort for tired, desperate parents!
Cons:
It can drive some parents to tears listening to their baby cry (or scream) for ages. It might be too painful for many people who would prefer the comfort of checking the child for peace of mind.

Tried and tested:

“I don’t think it’s cruel to let a child cry themselves to sleep, but it is a hard thing to do. One thing that helped me with my daughter was what an analyst told me. Basically, a very young baby, who is prone to being over-stimulated anyway, needs to cry as a way of shutting out all external noise etc. That helped me to think she just has to do this, she has to sleep, she needs to do it alone, every time I pick her up I’m disturbing this possibility. And it’s much easier to do when they’re v. young and can’t deliberately keep themselves awake. With my daughter, now 14 months, I do respond to the way in which she cries. I know now she has a ‘sleep cry’ but I know when she’s actually really upset and always give her a cuddle. I couldn’t do the full on controlled crying thing. I’d be a nervous wreck!”

Ferberizing/Controlled crying

Controlled crying is a technique that has received favourable feedback from parents, health professionals and authors alike. Controversial childcare guru and former nanny Gina Ford agrees with its theory, in combination with a structured routine from an early age, including naps at the same time every day and bed by seven. Gina Ford’s advice on sleeping does depend on the age of the baby, so it is worth checking out her theories in more detail in The Complete Sleep Guide for Contented Babies and Toddlers (see below) .

The controlled crying technique can be accredited to the Director of the Center for Paediatric Sleep Disorders in Boston, Dr Richard Ferber.

The basic premise is as follows:

  1. Establish a quiet, relaxing bedtime routine starting around an hour before you put your baby to bed. A bath, followed by a bedtime story and feed is ideal.
  2. Make sure you put your baby to bed awake, then leave the room.
  3. If your baby cries, don’t rush in immediately. Wait a few minutes before checking.
  4. If and when you go in, try to soothe your baby by talking to her quietly but don’t pick her up, or rock or feed her.
  5. Gradually increase the periods of time between checking on your baby.
  6. Some people check after the first five minutes, then the next ten, then 15 (or as long as your nerves can stand). Remember not to pick your baby up.

Use steps 3-5 of the above technique if your child awakes in the middle of the night.

Ferber predicts that a week will be enough to sort the problem out and for your baby to realise that crying will get them nowhere.

Pros: This is a great compromise for parents who want to find an effective solution to sleep problems but who cannot either bear to hear their child cry or leave their child without checking that they are OK.
Cons: It might take a few weeks of persistence if your baby is determined!

Tried and tested:

“My baby is now 13 weeks and I did controlled crying at 6 weeks and it was a life saver. She then started settling herself into a routine without me doing anything. I put her down after a feed at 7.00pm as she had spent all the time before that crying and feeding between 6.00pm-10.00pm which made my evenings difficult. Once we got over the first 4-5 nights she realised this was going to happen anyway and adjusted herself. She has a one-hour nap in the morning and a couple of hours in the afternoon and then goes down after her evening feed absolutely fine now. Obviously it is all down to individuals but I think the earlier you can get them into their routine the better. You have to feel brave when you first do it (like when you first put them in their Moses basket for a daytime sleep) but perseverance was the best thing we did. We now have our evenings to eat together and chat which is wonderful.”

The Baby Whisperer

Tracy Hogg, RNMH, has been dubbed the “Baby Whisperer” by her clients. She is a British-trained nurse, lactation educator, and newborn consultant, and has cared for babies and their families for the past 24 years. Her approach to helping to understand what babies want and need is by listening to their cries and tuning in to their body language.The Baby Whisperer, Tracy Hogg (Vermilion, £10.99)

Hogg is not an advocator of the controlled crying method because she thinks it breaks the bond of trust between parent and baby, because the baby is left to cry alone. Instead, she suggests her own method – pick-up/put-down – at bedtime. The basic idea is you pick your baby up when he or she is upset, gently rock, pat or soothe them. The moment they settle, put them back in the cot. As soon as they become upset again (even if this is immediate), pick the up again and resume the soothing technique. You should not leave the room in between. This method can also be done in combination with back-rubbing, etc, in the cot to try and settle them.

Hoggs’ supporters are firm in their belief of her method, and from the feedback it does seem she has a high success rate. Be warned though that success isn’t guaranteed immediately: it can sometimes take up to 100 attempts of picking up and putting down when you first start!

Pros: It’s a no-cry method, gentler on mum (or dad!) and baby, if crying upsets you.
Cons: It requires a good deal of patience and stamina on your part to keep going with it.

Tried and tested:

“For me, this was a much better way of getting DS to sleep on his own as it didn’t involve lots of crying – something which is much more stressful than you could imagine before becoming a mum!”

“I tried it and I think would have worked had I stuck to it. Unfortunately, when I was tired I found it too difficult. Definitely worth a go though.”

The No Cry Sleep Solution

Developed by Elizabeth Pantley, a mother of four who has been through the sleepless nights too, the No Cry Sleep Solution recognises that many parents hate the idea of listening to their child cry in an effort to get them to sleep through, but also understands that parents need their sleep too! Her method is as follows:

  1. Get some sleep! Before you do anything, take a break from dealing with the sleep problem for a few weeks. Do whatever it takes to get your baby back to sleep asap and concentrate on getting enough sleep for yourself. This will get your energy levels up again to cope with the programme.
  2. Earlier bedtimes. According to Elizabeth most babies are ‘programmed’ to go to sleep between 6.30-7.00pm. Keeping them up later in the vague hope that they will sleep later won’t work – overtired babies take longer to settle and often wake earlier! Watch out for sings of tiredness (glazed eyes, fretfulness, etc) and start the bedtime routine. You can ease your baby into it by gradually bringing forward bedtime by 15-30 minutes each day if he’s used to a later time.
  3. Let your baby sleep! Babies often make noises in the night that don’t necessarily mean they are waking up. By rushing to them the minute they start making noises means you are inadvertently interrupting their sleep. Wait, observe and, if they aren’t settling back down, then deal with them. But don’t leave them to cry it out.
  4. Sleep association. Some babies associate sleep with a prop, e.g. a feed or their dummy, and need this to get back to the land of nod. Pantley advises you to let the baby suck for a while until the intensity decreases. Then, as your baby’s getting sleepy (but isn’t completely asleep!) remove the dummy/nipple from her mouth. If she roots for it, gently try to keep her mouth closed by applying pressure just under the lower lip. If she’s still insistent on being ‘pacified’ give her the dummy/nipple again but repeat the process until she goes to sleep without her usual prop.
  5. Change your routine. If your baby is still having trouble sleeping through the night with these changes in place, look at the last thing she does at night. If she always is put to sleep after a feed, try to change her routine slightly so that she feeds, then has a bath or plays quietly in her room or read to her then put her down.

Tried and tested:

“I did try it when my DD was 9 months old, and had been sleeping for what felt like 20 minutes a night since she was born. I have to say that I was SOOO tired that I could barely read the book let alone stick to the plans.

I did try some of her ideas though, mainly the keeping her little teddy between us whilst I was reading her bedtime story and rocking her. Then when I put her down she still had it to comfort her – I still do that now she is going down awake. I did try the gradual withdrawal of feeding during the night (feeding for one minute or so less each time) but to be honest I kept falling asleep whilst feeding her so didn’t manage to count very well!

It probably is a much gentler way of getting your little one to sleep through than the way I did it in the end (controlled crying) but we all needed our sleep so desperately that that was what I ended up doing.”