Early sleep training: learning to go solo

Image of Professor Colin Espie
by Professor Colin Espie

Everyone has brief wakeful periods during the night between sleep cycles of deeper sleep. Most adults aren't aware of waking because they wake for less than three minutes. The secret to your child sleeping through the night is for them to learn to soothe themselves back to sleep after a brief awakening.

Babies and younger children who can't sleep without being rocked, cuddled, having milk or even put in the back of a car, have developed a learned an association between getting to sleep and specific conditions which are hard to find in the in the middle of the night.

Learning new associations as an infant

Research evidence shows that you can train your child to sleep solo by gradually letting them spend longer amounts of time by themselves at night, until they routinely drift off alone. In the literature, this is called 'graduated extinction', but there are variations which involve more or less parental contact.

Early preparation: self-soothing

Between 6 and 12 weeks, start putting your baby down to sleep when drowsy but awake. A favorite toy or a baby mirror in the crib could help occupy them. This is their first practice at self-soothing – if they start to whimper they may still settle down, but they shouldn't be left to cry for prolonged periods.

Older Infants: gradually learning to sleep solo

A few months later, once you have a set bedtime and a consistent bedtime routine, you can start teaching your child to fall asleep independently.

After the bedtime routine, say goodnight and leave the room.The first few times a child notices this change in their routine, they are likely to be upset. They will cry out, call or scream. Wait a few moments. Then return to check they are okay. Tell him or her that it's time for sleep. Be gentle but firm and don't pick them up. Stay for no more than a minute before you leave. Don't reinforce your child's crying by staying too long. If they continue crying, check again after a few minutes. Make the visits brief and boring. Repeat until they go to sleep.

How often you check on your child, and how long for, will depend on your child’s temperament and also your tolerance for hearing them cry. If they are comforted quickly, make the visits short, but if the visits themselves are unsettling, it may be better to leave longer gaps between checks.

Most children will cry for around 45 minutes the first night and will often cry for longer the second night, but within a week most children are starting to sleep by themselves.

Alternative approaches

Most parents find it very difficult to hear their child crying. If you would prefer not to leave your child upset for so long, you can try staying in the room while your child sleeps, but gradually moving your chair further and further away from them until after a week or two they are by themselves. This technique typically takes longer than graduated extinction.

Learning new associations as a toddler or older child

For toddlers who understand language and a sense of time, rather than leave a child for longer and longer periods, you can stay with them for shorter and shorter periods. Each time explain how long you will be staying, and stick to what you've said.

Similarly, if your child has never been left before, you may need to tell them that you have to leave for a very brief time – for example – to do a job in another part of the house, before returning. Gradually increase the length of your errands until your child falls asleep waiting for you.

Next: Common questions

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