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Rock-a-Bye Baby: Does Sleep Training Work?

New parenthood is great, isn’t it? Your family has expanded, you’re thrilled that your baby has finally arrived, and she’s doing new things every day, so you want to watch her every move … that is, if you can actually see her through your bleary, sleep-deprived eyes. More often than not, you feel like you’re barely making it through the day as you juggle soothing and stimulating the baby, keeping up with diaper changes and feedings, and guzzling caffeine in attempts to jolt yourself awake after endless nights of tossing and turning, punctuated by the baby’s cries every two hours. 

Most parents expect to live in a daze when their baby is a newborn. But if the tumultuous routine of waking up every few hours persists after the first few months, it can start to feel unbearable. Enter Richard Ferber, the director of the Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders at Children’s Hospital in Boston. In 1985, Ferber published a book called Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems that introduced parents to a revolutionary concept called sleep training. By conditioning your baby to adhere to a fixed schedule of naps and bedtime, Ferber proposed, you can sleep soundly every night and actually be able to see your little gymnast when he rolls over onto his stomach for the first time. 

Rock-a-Bye Baby, in the Treetop (by 7 p.m.)
The crux of Ferber’s sleep-training concept is that babies can and should learn to soothe themselves to sleep. Exactly when they become physically and emotionally ready to do so varies from infant to infant, but on average, Ferber believes it happens sometime between ages four and six months. Once a baby is amenable to being sleep-trained, it’s up to the parents to cultivate that capacity through establishing a calming, loving bedtime routine and putting the baby down for naps and for bed at the same times every day. In addition, parents should always put the infant to bed when she’s still awake—otherwise, she won’t learn to fall asleep on her own. 

The key assumption behind Ferber’s approach—also known as the “cry it out” method—is that falling asleep on one’s own is a skill any infant can master, given the opportunity to do so. However, babies whose parents rock them to sleep every night and pick them up the moment they begin to cry will quickly come to expect these actions, so when their parents suddenly begin leaving them alone and awake in their crib, they will invariably become upset. As heartbreaking as it may seem to some new parents to let their baby “tough it out” in her crib while she wails, Ferber insists that’s precisely what they need to do in order to break the cycle of giving and dependence that they’ve initiated with their child. 

However, recognizing how traumatic this new routine can be for babies and parents alike, Ferber recommends easing into it by using a technique called progressive waiting, in which parents predetermine exactly how long they will allow their infant to cry before they intervene, and then gradually increase those intervals over the next week. For progressive waiting to be effective, parents should never pick up or feed their crying baby when they enter his room—rather, they should pat him or speak to him in a quiet, soothing voice and be sure to leave the lights off. In addition, parents should remain in the room for no more than a minute or two, never long enough for the baby to go back to sleep. Within three or four days on average, Ferber claims, the baby will be able to fall asleep on his own—and even wake up in the middle of the night—without crying. 

Trail of Tears: Coping Mechanisms for Parents
No matter how agonizing it is for you to ignore your baby’s cries during the first few days, once you’ve committed to sleep training, it’s essential that you stick with it. As tempting as it may be to pick up your infant from his crib “just this once” when he wakes you up screaming at 2 a.m., you’ll only prolong the whole process by giving in. And don’t torture yourself by standing right outside the nursery door, waiting for the designated amount of time to pass before you can enter the room; instead, set a timer if you need to, then distract yourself. Remove yourself to another part of your home, turn on happy music, or watch part of a movie with your partner. If you and your partner opt to take turns soothing your child, you might also consider taking a shower or leaving the house for a walk while the other parent monitors the situation.  

Does It Work?
Just ask all the people who have made infant sleep consulting their full-time job. Vivian Sonnenberg, a San Francisco–based sleep consultant, has been working with sleep-resistant babies for twenty-one years. Sonnenberg’s services don’t come cheap—she charges $500 for a single-child consultation, which includes one initial meeting and daily check-ins by phone while the sleep training is happening—but what her clients get in return, according to her Web site, may be life-changing: “After just a few days, all my babies are peacefully sleeping through the night in their cribs and taking scheduled naps.” 

For new parents running on fumes, the quick fix a sleep-training professional offers can far outweigh the cost. Alyssa Maher, who has a five-month-old daughter, has firsthand experience with the wonders of sleep consultants. “For the first four months of my daughter’s life, I had a terrible time getting her to take naps and sleep through the night,” she recalls. “I finally became so desperate that I hired a sleep consultant, and she worked wonders right away. The night after her first visit, my baby slept from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. without waking up once, and she’s continued to get at least ten hours of uninterrupted sleep each night since then. At first, I couldn’t believe I was actually paying someone to help me, but it was worth every penny in the long run.” 

Nighttime Is the Right Time
According to the National Sleep Foundation, 70 percent of all babies sleep through the night by the time they’re nine months old, even if they haven’t been “Ferberized.” But if that feels like an eternity to you when your four-month-old is keeping you up for hours on end, there are abundant resources available to guide you through the sleep-training process—and if the experts are correct, the odds are good that your entire household will be slumbering harmoniously within a relatively short period of time. And when you’re having a moment of weakness as you listen to your infant screaming from his crib, just remember: suffering through a few days of wearing earplugs is a small price to pay for a future full of restful nights.

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