Sleep training approaches and alternatives

Sleep training is a topic that is usually loaded with emotions, opinions, controversy, conflicting advice, and a multitude of approaches that make different claims. One popular belief about sleep training is that it equates to cry-it-out or controlled crying.

However, that’s not the reality. Sleep training is based on the idea that babies don’t know how to sleep so their caregivers must teach them. Often, normal infant sleep is seen as problematic, and something that needs to be ‘fixed’. So, from this perspective, sleep training can come in many forms, even those that claim to be ‘gentle’.

Here, we explore some of the more popular sleep training approaches, before we go on to look at alternatives.

It’s important to remember that every parent is trying to do the best they can with the information and support they have, and they should be able to make their parenting choices without feeling judged or shamed by family, friends, healthcare professionals, and our society as a whole.

What are the different sleep training approaches?

There is no right or wrong method, but we hope that with this information, it will help you to make the choice that feels best for you, your baby, your family, and your values. If something doesn’t feel right, then listen to and trust your instincts (they’re usually right, mumma!), and try something else.

The Scheduling Method

This is when the parent decides when to feed their baby, which is usually every 3-4 hours, and when their baby sleeps. The idea is that the baby becomes so accustomed to the schedule, that they go down for naps and bedtime easily.

As you would imagine, many babies have their own ideas about when they’re hungry and tired. And if you’re finding it stressful sticking to a rigid schedule, this might not be for you either.

The Gentle Method

Gentle sleep training comes under many names, but the idea is usually to stay and settle the baby while they cry.

  • The ‘camping out’ approach is where the parent sets up a mattress beside the baby’s cot, and comforts them verbally or pats them while they cry.
  • The ‘moving chair’ approach is where a parent sits beside the cot for a set number of nights, and then slowly moves the chair towards the door until out of the room.
  • The ‘pick-up, put-down’ approach involves putting the baby in their cot, and then if they fuss, the parent picks them up, and then returns them to their cot when they’re calm. This is then repeated as often as necessary until they fall asleep.
  • The ‘shush-pat’ approach is similar in that the parent comforts their fussing baby, usually by turning them on their side and patting their bottom, whilst shushing. This is often done for a set number of pats or a set amount of time. Once calm (and often preferably not fully asleep), the baby is returned to their back. This is repeated until the baby is calm.

What these gentle sleep training approaches all have in common is that the baby should be put to bed ‘drowsy, but awake’ (you might like to read about the baby self-settling myth) but they aren’t left alone to cry. Some babies can wind up feeling more stressed and stimulated with these approaches, particularly if they are only really comforted in their parents’ arms (which most babies are).

The Ferberizing Method

Otherwise known as ‘controlled crying’, ‘controlled comforting’, ‘graduated extinction’, ‘interval method’, or ‘check and console’, this approach involves checking on your fussing or crying baby at preset intervals, but not picking them up to feed or rock them.

Once the baby is put to bed ‘drowsy, but awake’, the parent leaves the room, and then returns after a set time (perhaps it’s one minute, perhaps it’s seven. Every sleep trainer has a different number) if the baby is fussing. The parent then returns, and reassures the baby verbally or with touch such as patting. The time between visits is then increased, and is kept up until the baby falls asleep.

The Combination Method

Some sleep training approaches use a combination of strategies, such as controlled crying along with scheduling. For instance, it might be an Eat-Play-Sleep approach that advises against feeding to sleep, but to put them to bed at set times, and settle them at set intervals.

The Extinction Method

This is the ‘cry-it-out’ (CIO) method that involves putting a baby in their cot awake, and leaving them to fuss or cry until they fall asleep, without any help from you. This method is certainly the most controversial, and for some seriously exhausted parents who feel like they’ve tried everything else, it’s understandable that they feel this is their last and only resort.

What are the alternatives to sleep training?

With any approach, ideally it should cause little to no distress to the baby or the parents. So, what if you’ve tried one or two of these approaches, and they didn’t work? What if you tried an approach with one child, but you want to do things differently with your second? What if you’re pregnant, and you’re already so overwhelmed by the advice on sleep? Or, what if you don’t feel comfortable with any of these sleep training approaches?

You’re definitely not alone. The great news is that there are alternatives that are risk-free, truly gentle, stress-free for both you and your baby, and that actually benefit a baby’s developing brain.

It’s called response-based care, where the caregivers support their baby’s sleep by comforting and nurturing their unique baby to sleep. It’s a holistic approach that is based on improving the sleep-promoting conditions for the family, and having realistic expectations about infant sleep, all while observing and responding to a baby’s needs.

To further help inform your choices about your baby’s sleep, discover what the alternatives to sleep training involve in more detail in these articles:


If you would like to book a sleep consultation with our resident holistic baby sleep specialist Kara Wilson, please email her at [email protected]


X click to search