What is baby sleep training? The most popular bedtime routines explained

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  • Getting newborns and babies into a regular sleeping routine is one of the biggest challenges faced by parents, no matter how many times they've done it before.

    It’s such a mountain to climb because every child is different. So you can read all the baby sleeping guides out there, which recommend all sorts of wonderful techniques, but in the end it will be down to what your baby wants.

    This means that what works for one child may not work for another and it could take a few weeks to figure out what works best.

    READ MORE: Is your baby’s bed a safe place for them to sleep? The experts weigh in

    Along with classic baby sleep aids and ways to feed your baby when they’re asleep so they don’t wake up, sleep training methods are dedicated techniques to get little ones down for the night. Whether it’s controlled crying, the EASY method or another technique entirely, each technique has their own benefits and work for children for different reasons.

    But there’s no need to panic, as we’ve got the experts in to discuss the benefits of some of the most popular baby sleep training techniques out there.

    What is baby sleep training? The most popular methods explained…

    baby sleeping with arms up - baby sleep training

    Credit: Getty

    The Rapid Return Method

    A popular form of sleep training, the Rapid Return method is essentially a way to encourage babies and toddlers to not seek comfort from parents during the night and get to sleep by themselves.

    It’s similar to the controlled crying method in some ways, but helps walking toddlers especially to understand that they need to be in their beds at night.

    For babies

    For babies, the training can take place between the ages of 10 to 12 weeks old.

    Baby expert, Dr Miriam Stoppard tried the three-day rapid return method on her three-month-old granddaughter, to encourage her to fall asleep in her cot.

    She said, “When your baby cries, wait one minute and then go in to see them. Rub or pat their back, but don’t speak. When they’ve stopped crying, leave the room. When the baby cries again, wait a minute and then go back in and do the same thing.”

    Dr Stoppard says she had to go in 28 times the first night, but after two nights this was down to five times.

    For toddlers

    The Rapid Return method for toddlers operates on more of a “tough love” approach and works especially well if a child has chronic sleep problems that involve aggression or tantrums. It’s the night time equivalent of a ‘time out’ and you need to be really clear with them about what will happen, in order for it to be successful.

    Child sleep specialist and founder of Little Sleep Stars, Lauren Peacock says, “Rapid return can be an effective way of dissuading older children that getting out of bed is great game. The approach needs consistency to be effective and is likely to involve a lot of returning initially.”

    But she warns, “Be mindful that not all bed-absconding is deliberately defiant and some children, especially those under three, may genuinely need more support to remain settled in bed.”

    How does the rapid return method work? 

    The rapid return technique means you tuck your toddler into their bed, turn out the light, say good night and leave the room. If they get out of bed, take them back gently and straight away, without speaking and without losing your temper (which is very difficult when it’s the 20th time that night). Repeat this process promptly and assertively as often as needed, until she eventually falls asleep.

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    It can be exhausting, so wherever possible, try to enrol the help of a partner and swap shifts, but make sure you’re in complete agreement about what to do, so as to avoid sending confused messages to your little one.

    You have to be willing to persevere, not just give in when the going gets tough, and remember, the results could be worth a few nights’ misery.

    The controlled crying method

    baby crying

    Credit: Getty

    The controlled crying method involves leaving your baby to cry it out for progressively longer periods of time, until they learn that you’re not going to pick them up and settle themselves to sleep.

    Sophia Nomicos, founder of Mas and Pas, says that the method is reported to work for many parents and has lots of benefits, like teaching a baby to self sooth and settle to sleep by themselves.

    She tells GoodtoKnow, “This doesn’t only benefit baby at bedtime, but when they come out of sleep cycles during the night, they are often able to settle themselves to sleep again without waking their parents.

    “It also seems to be one of the quickest ways to sleep train a child with a number of parents reporting their children were sleeping through the night after just 3-5 nights of starting the method.”

    How does the controlled crying method work?

    As Sophia says, “The controlled crying method involves parents or caregivers putting their child to sleep in their crib at bedtime and leaving the room. If the child cries, then they are allowed to cry for a short period of time, usually between 2 and 10 minutes, before the parent goes in and comforts them.

    “When they do it’s important that they do not to make eye contact or lift baby out of the crib. They can stroke or soothe them while they’re in their bed until they are calm.

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    “The parent then leaves the room again and if baby cries they repeat the process until baby falls asleep.”

    If you fancy trying this technique, it’s important that…

    • Your baby is at least 6 months of age.
    • Baby isn’t teething, ill or unwell in any way.
    • Baby is eating enough in the day, as if they are not, then they might not be able to settle or sleep or they may be waking up with hunger during the night.
    • You give your baby or toddler a consistent bedtime routine every evening and ideally, the baby sleeps in the same place each night. Sophia says that a bath and a story at the same time every night could be an idea of a good bedtime routine.
    • Baby has a routine during the day as well. This is so that they know what to expect each day and begins to pick up on cues more easily. This also makes it easier for parents to know that baby is getting enough good or sleep from their daytime nap, so they’re not overtired or hungry when bedtime comes.

    “Most parents report the first night to be the hardest.” Sophia says, “The key is consistency and doing the same technique in the same way, every night for five nights.”

    The EASY baby routine

    laughing baby being held by parents

    Credit: Getty

    As much as the name suggests, unfortunately the EASY baby routine isn’t as simple as it sounds. It stands for eat, activity, sleep, you-time.

    Our expert Lauren Peacock says, “The EASY routine creates a consistent flow to the day and provides opportunities for babies to experience falling asleep in different ways, rather than only on the breast or bottle.

    “Parents often find their baby feeds well immediately on waking. I recommend feeding babies on demand, which will sometimes take a family outside of the EASY routine – and that’s fine too!”

    So how does it work? 

    The EASY method is essentially a three hour routine that starts with babies being fed until they are full (Eat), play (Activity) and then a nap (Sleep). The you-time begins when your little one is having a sleep.

    To be sure that this routine works, baby will need to eat before bedtime and around the time of 5 to 7pm and then again between 6 to 8pm, which should fill them up for the night.

    A feed at about 10pm, known as the dream feed, is the last one of the night.

    Although this routine is strictly structured and you shouldn’t deviate too much from it if you’re trying it out, it’s one of the only ones that allows some time for parents. The type of play can also be diversified, so you don’t have to do the same thing every day!

    The gradual withdrawal baby sleep solution

    “The gradual withdrawal or gradual retreat method is a gentler way of getting your child to sleep without you needing to be present in the room.” Sophia Nomicos, founder of Mas and Pas says.

    It’s a really effective technique for getting your older baby or child to settle themselves to sleep and it’s especially useful for toddlers, who aren’t used to sleeping in their own bed or who need to be physically close to get to sleep.

    You’ll need to be prepared to follow this routine for a few weeks as the trick is to ‘gradually’ stop soothing them and eventually leave their room without them realising, but some parents see results in just a few days.

    How does it work?

    Sophia tells us everything we need to know about the gradual withdrawal method. She explains, “You start by standing or sitting next to your child’s bed or crib, and letting them sleep with you by their side.  Each night or every few nights, you take a new position, a step further away from their bed until you are at the door opening.

    “The idea is that your baby or toddler gets gradually used to you being further away from them and learns to sleep on their own while having the reassurance that you are there in the room.

    “If your baby cries during this process you can go to them and gently comfort them by putting a hand on them or stroking their back, but without talking or engaging with them. Once they are calm you then resume your position for the evening. This process is repeated until they get used to your new position and fall asleep.”

    “It may take several weeks until you are able to make it to the door opening and then to just outside the room. Once baby is able to fall asleep without you in the room, they will be able to fall asleep by themselves.”

    These are just some of the popular baby sleep training methods out there, naturally, there are loads so why not start with one of these and see how you get on? If your baby or toddler’s sleep is worrying you, visit your GP or local health professional who will be able to offer advice.