Putting Sleep Problems to Bed

Knowing when to sleep train kids is more important than how.

Sleep deprivation is often the most frequent and most overwhelming source of stress reported by parents. Inadequate sleep has many costs. For the child, lack of sleep leads to poor memory, learning difficulties, fussiness and emotional problems. For parents, sleep deprivation can result in prolonged periods of irritability, angry outbursts and depression.

To deal with young children’s sleep problems, lots of books about sleep training have been published in the past 30 years. From our perspective, it is up to parents to choose a particular sleep-training method. Parents should consider their parenting styles and philosophies, their cultural backgrounds, their children’s temperaments, family structures and related factors.

Almost any method you choose has a reasonable chance of success. A review of 52 studies in the journal Sleep concluded that there were no appreciable differences in the effectiveness of the top five sleep-training methods assessed (from cry-it-out methods to gentler no-cry techniques). But picking your method is just the first step, and it may not be the most important one for success.

Just as crucial as knowing how to sleep train— if not more— is to knowing when to sleep train. No matter what teaching method you use to get your child to sleep, it has a far better chance of succeeding if applied in the right developmental period. There are certain ages at which babies and toddlers are ready to learn to fall asleep easily and stay asleep through most of the night. There are other ages at which, no matter what method is used, the child seems determined to resist sleeping. Sleep training during these periods often leads to an escalation in crying, screaming, pleading and wheedling. Your efforts may fail not because you picked the wrong method, but because the timing was off.

We believe that the lack of accessible information for parents on developmental timing is by far the biggest factor sabotaging sleep-training efforts. And yet, there’s a solid body of theory and research that has been accumulating in developmental psychology over the last four decades that could help parents and their kids get a good night’s rest. The research highlights cognitive and emotional changes that are predictable for the vast majority of children. For example, around the ages of 5½-7½ months, babies are in a robust stage: They’re interested in grasping objects and moving their bodies and they’re less concerned with tracking their parents’ whereabouts at all times. This can be an ideal stage for sleep training. On the other hand, the ages of 8-11 months can be problematic for changing sleep habits. This is when infants acquire object permanence, a cognitive “aha!” moment as they suddenly understand that out of sight is not out of mind. With this realization comes the predictable first peak in separation anxiety. This is not the stage when you want to start leaving your baby alone in the night for the first time in his life.

If you are armed with solid developmental information about what to expect across the early childhood years, then you can decide for yourself when to implement your plan for getting a full night’s sleep for the whole family.

Top 5 Things to Know Before Sleep Training a Child

It’s not what you might expect.

  1. Timing is everything. No matter what method of sleep training you use, it is more likely to work at particular developmental stages, and more likely to fail at others. The vast majority of children follow a predictable developmental schedule of emotional and cognitive changes in the first five years of life.
  2. The best times for sleep training are neither early nor late. Many people assume that getting sleep training over with before the child gets too clever or too entrenched in nighttime habits is the best approach. Others assume that waiting until the attachment bond is strong or kids are more independent is important. Both are wrong. The best stages to sleep train follow a pendulum swing from one age to the next, with difficult periods interspersed between periods of relative ease.
  3. Particular methods are likely to work at some ages better than others. If you understand the emotional vulnerabilities and strengths that characterize each developmental stage, you will be better equipped to match a sleep-training method with your child’s age.
  4. Things often get worse before they get better. Children already have sleep habits when we decide to sleep train them. Breaking those habits may involve some disruption, disorganization or outright rebellion. As a result, your child may sleep less or wake more frequently before settling into a new routine.
  5. A family that is getting enough sleep is a happy, healthy family. Mothers in particular often feel guilty about sleep training because of messages from the media, friends and family members that their only priority should be their child’s happiness. Parents who are considering sleep training for reasons beyond just the well-being of their child are perfectly normal, and are doing the right thing. A sleep-deprived child is a cranky, inattentive one who will have a tougher time learning and socializing. A sleep-deprived parent is often irritable, angry, depressed and ineffective. A well-rested parent and a well-rested child will both be happier, healthier, more alert and more affectionate.