Sleep training: 5 common baby sleep training techniques

Last modified on Friday 23 June 2023

techniques to help your baby sleep

If your baby is struggling to fall asleep, or wakes frequently in the night and needs you to settle them, it might be time to think about sleep training. We asked a sleep expert about the different ways you can help your baby learn to fall asleep – and stay asleep – at night.

Getting your baby to sleep through the night is undoubtedly a struggle for many parents – and it's something that plenty of other mums and dads you meet will be able to relate to!

You might have heard of other parents using 'sleep training' or 'sleep strategies' to help their baby sleep. But what exactly is sleep training? How old does your baby need to be before you can start sleep training?

And what's the best tactic for getting baby to sleep: should you let them cry it out or should you commando crawl out of the room?


If you're confused about sleep training, we’ve asked sleep expert and registered health visitor Andrea Grace to explain how to choose the best sleep technique for your baby – and for you ...

What's the right age for sleep training?

If you're interested in trying sleep training with your baby, the first thing you need to be aware of is the right age to start it.

‘Many babies will naturally start to sleep through the night at about three to four months old without intervention, so not all babies need help to sleep at night, and not every parent agrees with sleep training,’ says Andrea.

‘The most important thing in the early weeks is to establish feeding and bonding. But after about 6 months old, if a baby is waking frequently in the night, especially if they were sleeping better when they were younger, it is worth considering some gentle sleep training.

‘There is no critical age for sleep training to happen, so don’t worry that you’ve missed the boat if you start when they are older.

'Also, don’t think that the longer you leave it and the more entrenched the poor sleeping is, that it will be more difficult to tackle. This really isn’t the case. It’s never too late to start,' Andrea explains.

Why use a sleep training technique?

In the Netmums Forum, we get lots of posts from parents who are thoroughly exhausted by a baby who wakes up frequently in the night or takes hours to fall asleep. Indeed, our previously released sleep survey found over half of parents were up at least once in the night with their baby or child.

While this disturbed sleep can be utterly exhausting, it can also cause problems for parents too, with better sleep being linked to better immunity and better mental wellbeing, according to the NHS. And low mood and low immunity are not what you or your baby need!

So, if you're struggling with disrupted sleep, it might mean you're interested in trying sleep training for your baby.

What do the experts say?

‘I’ve often heard people say that babies will sleep when they are ready, and rushing them into sleeping through the night can be detrimental for them,’ says Andrea.

‘The fact is that sleep is not a developmental milestone like crawling, walking or talking.'

While it’s wrong to push very young babies into a strict sleep routine before they are ready, Andrea believes the majority of healthy babies of over six months have the ability to sleep through the night.

‘Babies need sleep for growth, memory consolidation, to develop a healthy immune system and to be happy,’ explains Andrea.

‘As a mum, nurse, health visitor and sleep expert, I know how much babies benefit from a good night’s sleep and helping them do so with a gentle nudge them in the right direction is neither harmful or heartless.

‘I would always recommend that any sleep training involves lots of parental support and contact, so that a child never feels in any abandoned or distressed,' says Andrea.

But with so many sleep training techniques and methods available, how do you know which one will work for you and your baby?

We've provided the lowdown on the 5 most common methods used by parents (the ones you’ll hear being discussed at length during messy play) below.

Your baby's sleep: keep a diary

It can often be hard to pinpoint exactly why your baby isn't sleeping – especially if you’re feeling sleep-deprived yourself.

But in order to choose an appropriate sleep training strategy, it helps to work out exactly what the issue is with your baby's sleep.

Firstly, you need think about how much sleep your baby should be having at their age – and, importantly, how often they should be waking up.

To help understand your baby’s sleep, think about their routine as a whole – from getting up to feeding, napping, resting, playing, bathing and bedtime routine. For each, think about how you respond to your baby's demands.

It can also help to keep a note of how long and how well your baby has slept each day and/or night.

‘Keeping a sleep diary is a great idea as it gives you a realistic overview of your baby’s sleep. You’ll be able to see the times that your baby naturally wants to sleep at and if there is a relationship between certain foods or activities and their sleep,’ explains Andrea.

‘You’ll get a clearer picture of what conditions they are likely to sleep best under and what (if any) their sleep signals and triggers are.

‘Sometimes the mere action of keeping a diary will help you. The record may show you that their sleep is in fact usual for their age, and provide you with the reassurance that they are “normal”.’

A baby sleep diary can just be simple – and it'll help you get a clearer picture of your little one's sleeping patterns.

Which sleep training technique is right for your baby (and you)?

We've listed the five most common forms of sleep training below, along with information about each so you can choose which technique is best for your baby.

1. Teaching your baby to self settle or self soothe

Self settling or self soothing means teaching your little one how to fall asleep on their own without needing your help. This means your baby is able to fall asleep without needing you to rock, pat or shush them. It's a gentle method and doesn't mean leaving your baby to cry.

Read more about teaching your baby to self soothe here.

2. Gradual retreat, or 'disappearing chair'

The gradual retreat method provides a more gentle approach to baby sleep training than some other techniques, such as controlled crying (see below). The gradual retreat technique is a way of helping your baby to get used to going to sleep without you in the room.

As hinted by the name 'disappearing chair', it involves sitting on a chair next to your baby while they fall asleep, then gradually moving your chair further away each night.

Find out more about the gradual retreat or disappearing chair technique here.

3. Controlled crying

Controlled crying – also called the 'Ferber Method' – is sometimes viewed as a controversial form of sleep training. Controlled crying involves allowing your baby to cry for short, specified periods of time before going in to offer comfort.

Contrary to popular belief, it does not just mean leaving your baby to cry for as long as it takes for them to get to sleep. That's known as 'crying it out', and it's not usually recommended.

Take a look at our controlled crying guide to find out if controlled crying is right for you and your baby.

4. Pick up, put down

The pick up, put down approach was made popular by Tracy Hogg in her book The Baby Whisperer. It can be hard work but, again, is more gentle than controlled crying.

The pick up, put down method works exactly like it sounds: if your baby is crying in their cot during their nap or at bedtime, you pick them up and comfort them until they're sleepy. Then, put them back down to sleep. If they're still fussing or crying, repeat the cycle until your baby is asleep.

Find out more about the pick up, put down method here.

5. 'No cry' approach

The 'no cry' or 'no tears' approach doesn't mean that your sleepy baby will never cry, but it means that you remain with them to comfort them – or at least take a flexible approach to bedtimes. The term was coined by parenting expert and mum of four Elizabeth Pantley in her book, The No Cry Sleep Solution.

According to Elizabeth, the 'no cry' approach isn't one specific technique but is instead tailored to your baby’s individual needs. However, it mainly entails rocking and feeding your baby until they're drowsy before putting them down, then picking them back up immediately if they do cry.

Read more about the 'no cry' approach and find out whether it's right for your baby here.

Sleep training: how long does it take?

Most sleep strategies fall into two main camps: controlled crying, where a baby is left to cry to sleep, with you returning to reassure them at specified intervals; and gradual withdrawal, where you remain with your baby as they learn to settle and sleep alone, and then gradually move away. The more specific techniques within these two camps are outlined above.

‘Both of them, if consistently applied, will work, but you need to give them at least a week,’ says Andrea.

You might find that controlled crying is the quicker method, with gradual withdrawal taking a bit longer. However, every baby is different.

'If you’re seeing no improvement within a week or so, it may be that there is some other factor affecting their sleep that you’re missing,' suggests Andrea. 'Maybe a dawn feed or transfer to your bed is confusing them and adding a bit of inconsistency?’

It is also worth remembering that helping your baby to learn to sleep alone, in their own bed and stay there throughout the night, can be more exhausting to begin with than them waking up! So, think about when is best for you to start.

You might want to begin your new routine at the weekend, when both parents are around (if you live in a two-parent household), or at the beginning of the school holiday when it doesn't matter so much if older siblings are disturbed.

It’s also important to remember that things may get worse before they get better. So try not to give up too soon! As with all things baby, staying consistent will offer the best chances of success.

Sleep training and naps

The sleep training methods above are usually aimed more at helping your baby get a good night's sleep. But you can still use some of the ideas for your baby's daytime naps, too!

Many experts recommend keeping the house light and noisy during your baby's naps. That way, they'll learn to sleep through, even when the rest of the house is active, so you won't have to tiptoe around every time they need a nap!

Consistency is great for babies, so try using the same sleep training technique during the day as you do at night, perhaps with just a few minor modifications to make it work for your family.

A light projector can help to soothe and distract fractious little ones. We like this model by Infantino that projects a starry night sky onto the ceiling and surrounding walls. See more details here at Amazon.

Why is sleep training so controversial?

It seems like sleep training is one of the topics that divides parents more than any other!

Some parents argue that it's not natural to leave babies to cry, and that all babies should have as many cuddles as they want. Other parents argue that babies need to learn how to self-settle, and that sleep training is good for both parents and baby.

As you can see above, expert opinion is definitely divided, too! There's no hard and fast rule; just do what works best for you and your baby.

Sleep training and cortisol

One concern that some parents raise about sleep training is to do with the stress hormone cortisol. We all produce this hormone during times of stress, and babies who are left to cry do tend to have higher levels of cortisol in their system than average.

There's some evidence to suggest that babies who have really high levels of cortisol, for prolonged periods, may be more likely to develop behaviour problems in later life. However, this mainly affects babies who've been through serious trauma, such as severe neglect or exposure to violence.

In general, so long as you don't leave your baby to cry for hours on end, most sleep experts agree that a bit of gentle sleep training won't do your baby any harm. Even some NHS leaflets recommend certain gentle sleep training techniques, so if you'd like to try them, there's no reason not to.

However, it's a personal decision, so do whatever works for your family.

Sleep training: things to remember

After reading through the different sleep training techniques, it's up to you how you choose to implement them (or if you do at all!). You might choose to follow one to the letter or mix and match. The choice is entirely yours.

Here are some helpful tips to remember ...

  • Whichever approach you choose to follow, be prepared for things to get worse before they get better.
  • Often things may seem to regress at first, so it's important not to give up. Keep going and you'll soon reap the rewards of your efforts.
  • More gradual methods can take between three and six weeks to be effective, so choose a method with which you feel comfortable. This will help you to be consistent in your approach, which will speed up the process.
  • A baby's sleep requirements change as they develop, so be prepared to adapt.
  • Other factors like teething and growth spurts can also affect your baby's sleep. Plus, it can be helpful to rule out underlying issues such as reflux and colic, as well as other illnesses.
  • Keeping a sleep diary can help give you a clearer idea of the 'bigger picture' of your baby's sleeping habits.
  • Remember: what suits one baby (and parent) doesn't necessarily suit another. And you even may find your very own sleep training method. If you do, why not share it with us here in the Netmums forum?

Looking for more advice on helping your baby sleep? Read our articles below or exchange advice with parents in the forum.

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