When most professionals use the term, they are actually referring to a method of sleep training that uses gradual extinction or bedtime fading strategies, which are designed to produce better infant sleep behaviors. The Ferber method, better known as gradual extinction, involves a series of training sessions comprised of timed intervals of parent exposure. Over time (usually 1 week), these exposures are gradually limited, and the child will eventually learn to self-soothe and fall back to sleep on his or her own. Bedtime fading involves moving bedtime forward or backward (usually in 30-minute intervals) based on your baby’s sleepiness with the end goal of having your baby fall asleep within 15 minutes of when he or she is laid down.
So, what does the research have to say about gradual extinction and bedtime fading? A study by Gradisar and colleagues (2016) published in Pediatrics found bedtime fading was as effective as gradual extinction. Bedtime fading babies fell asleep within 12 minutes of being laid down while gradual extinction babies fell asleep within 15 minutes. The results from the 12-month follow-up showed no significant differences in attachment styles, stress levels, or emotional and behavioral concerns among the bedtime fading, gradual extinction, and control conditions. These findings are similar to those of another study published in Pediatrics by Price and colleagues (2012) that found behavioral sleep trainings did not present long-lasting negative or positive effects on infants over a 5-year follow-up period. Further, in a study by Higley and Dozier (2009) published in Attachment & Human Development, no significant differences were found for infant attachment classification with respect to whether or not mothers responded to their baby’s signals at night. They did find, however, that mothers of securely attached infants were more likely to pick up and soothe their baby when they did respond to baby’s signals than mothers of insecurely attached infants. Even though these studies contain limitations (e.g., small sample sizes), they do indicate that your baby should not experience negative outcomes when you do not immediately respond to your baby’s crying during sleeping times.
Understanding these sleep training methods can help you establish a healthy balance for you and your baby. When choosing which parenting methods you will use, consider these key elements:: your baby’s age, your expectations about your baby’s self-soothing, how difficult it is for you to listen to your baby cry, what strategies work for your family situation, and your and your baby’s temperament. Parents who recognize their infant’s needs and emotions, who engage to support their infant’s efforts to process distress, and who offer meaningful support are more likely to form secure attachments to their infants by their baby’s first birthday (Higley and Dozier, 2019). Young children, whose needs are met in good and difficult times by parents who can respond appropriately and empathically, build healthier coping strategies and patterns based on trusting relationships. Many professionals do agree that it is acceptable to let a baby cry once he or she is 6 months or older (Cry it out, 2017). However, this is recommended only when the crying is not related to attachment or when specific needs are not met (i.e., scared, physically hurt, or emotionally distressed; Cry it out, 2017). This is why it’s important to understand what types of crying your baby is displaying in order to respond appropriately. You know your child better than anyone else. Use what you know to make healthy decisions on how to handle your child’s sleep. Here are a few tips to help get you started:
- Make safety a top priority: If you feel frustrated or overwhelmed at any point, be sure to put your baby in a safe spot and take a couple of minutes to cool down. Do not get aggressive or shake your baby. It’s okay to seek help from other family members or close friends. Stop, think, and breathe.
- Establish a routine: Figure out what your baby likes and what makes her feel comfortable. This could include showing her comfort or giving her a pacifier before she goes to bed. By establishing healthy bedtime routines early, you will set your baby up for success as she or he transitions into childhood.
- Recognize not all children are the same: Children’s needs are not all the same. Strategies and methods that worked for one child may not work for another. Be aware of this, and try to be open to change in order to adapt to your baby’s needs.
- Develop a plan that works for you and your baby: Don’t forget about yourself! Your baby needs you to be fully rested and can sense when you may feel anxious or tired. You want to give your baby the best you. Develop a sleeping routine that gives both of you a healthy balance.
- Accept relapses and understand that establishing routines takes time: It can be difficult to predict your baby’s behavior as babies are still developing. Relapses and life will get in the way sometimes. Just remember to keep with the routine as long as it’s appropriate for your baby’s healthy development, and, if changes need to be made, be flexible and make those changes.
Gradisar, M., Jackson, K., Spurrier, N. J., Gibson, J., Whitham, J., Williams, A. S., … Kennaway, D. J. (2016). Behavioral interventions for infant sleep problems: A randomized controlled trial. Pediatrics, 137(6), e20151486-e20151486. doi:10.1542/peds.2015-1486
Higley, E., & Dozier, M. (2009). Nighttime maternal responsiveness and infant attachment at one year. Attachment & Human Development, 11(4), 347-363. doi:10.1080/14616730903016979
Price, A. M. H., Wake, M., Ukoumunne, O. C., & Hiscock, H. (2012). Five-year follow-up of harms and benefits of behavioral infant sleep intervention: Randomized trial. Pediatrics, 130(4), 643-651. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-3467
Wiertelak, Eric. (2017, May) Cry it out. Retrieved from https://www.macalester.edu/projects/UBNRP/Website_Attachement/cry-it-out.html