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Sleep Training Methods Overview: A Tour of the Most Popular Methods

Bethany Johnson
June 18, 2015

Wondering how you can train your baby to sleep through the night? Here are the facts about the top 3 methods.

It's 2 a.m. and your baby is crying in her crib. You're starting to wonder if she'll ever sleep through the night. Is sleep training the answer to reaching this milestone? If so, what are the best sleep training methods? As a new parent, you're too sleep deprived to read all three dozen how-to books out there about getting your baby to sleep through the night. Asking friends and family just leaves you more conflicted and confused.

To ease your mind, expert Kim West, a licensed family therapist (lovingly called "The Sleep Lady" by her readers and clients) shares her advice about sleep training techniques. West has spent 23 years coaching families to achieve that goodness of "sleeping through the night." As a mother of two and author of "The Sleep Lady's Good Night Sleep Tight," West knows a thing or two about the different approaches to sleep training.

According to West, all sleep training methods are alike in some ways. "All experts agree that sleep training is what happens after you put baby down to sleep for the night," she says. "A common thread in all the methods is that you need to put baby down at least partially awake each night. From there, the variations begin."

Here's the lowdown on several popular methods of sleep training:

"Cry-It-Out" or "Extinction"
The name says it all: Once baby is put down, Mommy and Daddy go away until morning. Introduced in the '80s, this approach achieves results within a few days to a week -- an attractive incentive for anyone dealing with a wakeful child. The drawbacks? Obviously, the crying affects parents. Deeply. Instinctually, it's nearly impossible for a parent to feel (and do) nothing while his or her little one cries.

"Gradual Extinction"
Instead of encouraging you to ignore your baby entirely at night, proponents of the "Gradual Extinction" method say measured visits are the key. "This method says you put your baby down awake, and leave them in increasing increments of time each night," says West. "The minutes are to control the parents from going in and giving mixed messages to the baby," she says. So you're allowed to comfort baby, but not on a whim. One of those increments will be the one when baby falls asleep for good, and hopefully it'll be closer and closer to bedtime each night. West says the benefits of this method include the satisfaction of comforting your child, but it may come with a price. "Kids can get really upset when you come and go," she says.

"No Tears" or "Fading"
Elizabeth Pantley, author of the book "No-Cry Sleep Solution," tells us the "No Tears" approach exchanges goal-oriented rigidity for a deeper appreciation of human sleep systems. "It's about understanding the underlying reasons for baby's sleep patterns and then gradually and respectfully modifying those patterns to move a child toward sleep maturity, all-night sleep and quality naps," she says.

West agrees. "When you put baby down and stay, you learn a lot about your child," she says. West says parents report an enjoyment of helping soothe their baby, without doing the child's work for them.

The plan is simple. "You don't leave your child while he's crying. Instead, you stay, offering verbal and even a little physical comfort while he teaches himself the skill of falling asleep," she says. Humming, singing, murmuring and assuring the baby sends the message, "I'm here with you."

Gradually, you move to a position further and further away, in increments and distances that are ultimately up to you. One day, you'll find you can put baby down and walk away, having established in his mind you're always there for him.

The only drawback, says West, is that fading takes thought. "Parents are exhausted," she says. "And watching your child for cues means you have to think."

Tips for Starting to Sleep Train
Before beginning a sleep training method, you should talk with your pediatrician. "The first thing I ask families is whether their pediatrician has said that their child should, given his age, weight and health, be able to sleep through the night," she says. After getting the green light from your baby's doctor, make your plan.

There are two ways to determine the sleep training method that works for you: First, "It shouldn't feel like you're going against your instincts as a parent," says West. Self-discipline is one thing, but sticking with a method that you seriously doubt will never work. Second, choose a plan that you will be able to do consistently. "If you think a graduated extinction method is for you, but you're not up to the task of clocking visits, then don't start it," she says. "There's nothing worse for baby's sleep than starting a routine only to give up the second night in."

To learn more, check out these 5 Things to Know About a Sleeping Baby.

Bethany Johnson, a professional writer from Washington, D.C., specializes in the quirks of family life and relationships. When she's not writing, Bethany and her husband raise both free-range chickens and free-range children on their organic farm in the suburbs.

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