Stress-Free Bedtimes

How to sleep train for success
Baby G7d6c2f026 1920

One of the biggest challenges we face as parents is sleep—making sure our children get enough of it and finding a little for ourselves along the way.

In addition to helping parents keep their sanity, adequate sleep is a huge driver of a child’s overall health, both physical and mental. The American Academy of Pediatrics says children who get enough sleep have a “healthier immune system and better school performance, behavior, memory, and mental health.” Those who don’t can face problems with “irritability, difficulty concentrating, hypertension, obesity, headaches, and depression.”

Good sleep habits need to be taught, managed, encouraged, and recalibrated as a child grows. It requires what Charlotte pediatrician Dr. Mary Felkner calls “active parenting.”

Parents can choose a variety of ways to sleep train a child, whether it’s the old school method of letting a baby “cry it out,” tending to a child in increasing intervals as Dr. Richard Ferber recommends, or going the more modern “no cry” route of assuaging the child with each cry.

“There’s a million ways to manage sleep,” says Felkner, who spent 25 years with Eastover Pediatrics before retiring in 2020. “And there’s not one solution. Ultimately a parent is trying to find something that feels good to them.”

One thing she does recommend for all parents is that they start around the time a baby reaches six months. Below, she shares some other recommendations as well as challenges and rewards she faced as a parent of three.

Q: Why is six months the right age to start sleep training a baby?

A: Developmental night waking occurs around six months of age, maybe a little shy of that, maybe a little more than that. But that is a natural time when babies wake up and go back to sleep. They can either come to full consciousness or roll over get back to sleep.

Q: How can you tell if your baby is in that developmental stage and not waking because he or she is hungry or need a diaper change?

A: I typically recommended my patients give it three nights. Attend to the child but don’t use your voice. You’re making sure they’re okay. If after three days, your instincts are telling you “This is probably developmental,” then you need to be actively parenting. If you walk in and they immediately stop crying, that’s developmental.

Q: What do you recommend parents do then?

A: They should do what their instincts tell them. At the end of the day, I’m going to tell them what’s safe and what’s not and how can they meet their instincts, according to what is safe.

Q: What is unsafe?

A: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends not co-sleeping—not for any moral reason, but for safety, because of the risk for suffocation.

Q: What happens if you wait longer than six months to start sleep training?

A: The longer you put this off, the more ingrained it is. If you believe it’s developmental night waking and you want your child to sleep through the night and you’re just chicken at six months, it’s so much harder on the baby at nine months. I believe it is unfair.

 Q: What’s the one thing all parents should do as they start sleep training?

A: What you want to be is consistent, and you have to know yourself to know what you can do. This most important thing of all of this is safety and sending a consistent signal. You don’t want to do Ferber one night and then get the baby the next night. Then you’re confusing the baby neurologically.

Q: What are your feelings on letting a baby cry it out?

A: There’s a school of thought that believes crying is pain. I look at crying (after waking) as “I don’t know what to do, and that hurts my feelings.” I look at letting them cry as reassuring, “You’re going to be good. You got this.” And not everybody looks at it that way.

Q: Sleep training isn’t just for infants, though, is it?

A: Sleep training occurs at all ages. Kids have different needs. Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child is a book I highly recommend; it talks about even teenage sleep problems. A 6-month-old and a 3-year-old are the most common ones we interact with as pediatricians.

Q: What if a toddler has learned to climb out of the crib?

A: It’s what I call the jack in the box. Our son David, at age 2, learned how to get out of his crib and came in our room. I put him back in his crib 67 times that first night. By about nine or 10, I was like, “Oh my gosh.” It meant I had to not get frustrated and realize he doesn’t know what to do and doesn’t want to do what I’m telling him to do, which is totally developmentally appropriate for a 2-year-old. I had to keep putting him back and not say a word, nothing. It took him 67 times until he was basically pooped out.

Q: How was he by age 3?

A: He would get up and come into bed with us. There were times when I was so exhausted—I also had a newborn—it was just easier to put a pallet on the floor and tell him if he came in, he couldn’t wake us up and could go there. I tried that for a while. Ultimately I got into a sleep chart.

Q: What did the sleep chart entail?

A: We had four rules. No. 1 is stay in your bed, and I would draw a bed. I drew eyes closed (for No. 2), and a quiet mouth (for No. 3): don’t call out for Mommy and don’t cry. And the fourth rule is fall asleep. Before they go to bed, remind them of the sleep rules. If and when they make a mistake, you say nothing. You automatically put them back in the bed each night. When all four rules were met, we would go to Target and pick out a carrot. It could be big; it could be a Thomas the Train. Once the child has made it to seven days, they get another carrot. Then you can act like you have to get to a month, but they’ve already forgotten. You moved on to other things. It works.

For a guideline of how much sleep children need at each stage of development, visit healthychildren.org.

CARROLL WALTON was a longtime sportswriter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and co-authored Ballplayer, the Chipper Jones biography, in 2017. Today she lives in Charlotte with her husband and three sons and continues to freelance for several media outlets.