Baby sleep training: Fading methods

Baby sleep training: Fading methods

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What is fading?

Fading, also called adult fading or camping out, is a gentle version of cry it out (CIO), which refers to any sleep training approach that says it's okay to let a child cry for a specified period of time. If you're not comfortable with CIO or you're worried that a no tears method might not be enough, you might consider fading, which falls somewhere in between these two better-known approaches.

In fading, parents gradually diminish their role in helping their baby fall asleep, giving him room to figure out how to soothe himself. "The idea is to be his coach, not his crutch," says Kim West, a licensed clinical social worker in Annapolis, Maryland, and author of The Sleep Lady's Good Night, Sleep Tight, who embraces fading strategies.

It can work with babies as young as 5 months old, and the techniques can be adapted for toddlers and preschoolers, too. For many parents, fading methods help everyone get more rest, with minimal tears all around.

How does fading work?

There are two main approaches to fading: camping out and timed check-ins, both of which involve putting your baby to bed drowsy but awake and reassuring her with your presence.

To camp out, sit in a chair next to your baby's crib until she's sound asleep. If she cries or fusses, you might say "shhh" or offer a gentle pat. Every few nights, move farther away but still within view: halfway across the room, in the doorway, or outside the door. Within two weeks, you should be able to simply leave the room after saying good night.

To do timed check-ins, settle your baby into bed and leave the room. Leave her for short intervals – usually just 5 minutes – and then return briefly to reassure her if she fusses. Some experts say it's okay to pat your baby, while others recommend sticking to verbal reassurance only – tell her it's time to sleep and that you love her, then leave the room.

Repeat as needed until she's asleep – it should go more easily after a few nights. (This differs from the Ferber method, which calls for waiting progressively longer between check-ins.)

What's the theory behind fading?

Fading advocates say self-soothing is an essential skill all children need to master on their journey to independence, just like learning to walk. Rocking or nursing your baby to sleep is wonderfully cozy, but the risk is that he'll end up relying on you to comfort him every time he wakes during the night.

The fading approach helps parents find the right balance between helping too much and too little.

Proponents say it promotes attachment by providing attentive support and encouraging your baby to be confident in his own skills.

Families committed to co-sleeping and room sharing can use fading techniques too, especially during naptime and before parents bring their baby into the family bed each night. (Babies should never be left alone in an adult bed.) Fading strategies can also help older children transition to a bed and discourage bedtime battles with stubborn toddlers and chatty preschoolers.

Does fading work?

Some parents see improvement within a few days, and advocates say it should work within two weeks. The basic techniques are in line with advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Sleep Foundation.

One large, long-term study found that fading helped babies sleep better, and their mothers had lower rates of depression. Researchers followed up with families when the children were 6 years old and found no long-lasting effects – good or bad – from sleep training.

But no single strategy works with every baby, so you might need to experiment with different styles before you find an approach that works for your family.

Who are the experts behind the fading program?

Kim West, child and family therapist

  • Book and website: The Sleep Lady's Good Night, Sleep Tight (The Sleep Lady website)
  • What she says: "This approach can minimize frustration and maximize reassurance."
  • Her approach: West recommends a camping out strategy she calls the Sleep Lady Shuffle, which involves staying by your child's bed the first few nights until she's sound asleep, then moving further away over a two-week period. Physical contact should be kept to a minimum, but West tells parents to pick up their baby if she's crying hysterically.
  • Help your baby find her natural rhythm: West urges parents to keep a log to track their baby's naps, sleep time, feedings, and more to help develop a natural routine.

Julie Wright and Heather Turgeon, psychotherapists

  • Book and website: The Happy Sleeper (Happy Sleeper website)
  • What they say: "Your goal here is to 'pass the baton' of soothing to your child."
  • Their approach: Wright and Turgeon recommend responding to your baby with the least intrusive means possible. For very young babies, see if just entering the room is enough to calm your baby before you try talking, touching, or feeding him.
    Once your baby is 5 months or older, the authors suggest using a technique called the Sleep Wave, which involves giving your baby five minutes to settle down by himself, soothing him verbally if he's still crying, then giving him another five minutes. Repeat the process exactly, they say, and your baby will be settling to sleep with fewer tears within a few nights.
  • Use your baby's talent for recognizing patterns: If you're consistent, he'll soon recognize – and trust – your new pattern of behavior. Comforting predictability and routines help him feel safe and secure.

Tips for getting the most out of fading strategies:

  • Make bedtime kid-friendly. Experts recommend picking a bedtime between 7 and 8 o'clock. Overtired babies have a harder time settling to sleep.
  • Stick to a consistent, calming bedtime routine, such as a giving your baby a warm bath, reading a book together, and singing a lullaby before bed.
  • Don't overhelp. Give your baby room to get comfortable on her own and resist the urge to scoop her up if she's fussing. When you hear her wake up at night, take a deep breath and pause a few minutes to see if she really needs you.
  • Expect a few tears. Babies don't like change, and crying is often how they let you know. But they can also adapt to new routines so the crying shouldn't last too long.
  • Offer a "lovey" or comfort object. When your baby is at least a year old (and the risk of SIDS has dropped), giving her a soft piece of fabric no larger than a washcloth or small stuffed animal can ease the transition to sleep.
  • Be consistent. If parents, grandparents, and other caregivers aren't working from the same playbook, it may take a lot longer for your baby to learn to sleep well at night. Coordinate with your partner and fellow caregivers to ensure that you're all carrying out the fading method in a uniform, consistent way.

Parents' voices

"I started by her crib, on a folding chair. The first few nights were rough, she just screamed at me the whole time. I moved a smidge away any night that she seemed to tolerate it. Then I started sitting by the dresser – far enough from her that she's not distracted by me, close enough that I could help her if it's important. She now sleeps from 7 or 7:30 in the evening to 8 in the morning."

"Here's what worked for my son: On the first night, do your calming nighttime routine and put your baby in the crib. Stay next to the crib, rubbing or patting your baby and talking to him until he falls asleep. Do not pick him up! This can take a while, but at least he knows you're there and will fall asleep. Do this for three nights. On the fourth night, do the nighttime routine, put your baby in bed and then stand halfway between the bed and door. Softly sing or talk to your baby until he falls asleep. Do not pick him up! Do this for three nights. On the seventh night, do your bedtime routine and put your baby in bed. Then stand in the doorway and talk or sing to your baby until he falls asleep. This method lets your baby learn how to fall asleep on his own, yet he knows you're there."

"The Sleep Lady Shuffle ended up being too stimulating for our baby, so we did cry it out with [timed] checks for our 5.5-month-old son with great success."

"I would say the most helpful thing so far is being on the same page with my husband. Also, a lot of what you need to do won't be known until after the first two nights, I think. We discovered patting her made things worse and timed checks helped. I didn't want to [do timed checks], but that's what she needed."

"We used a modified version of [the Sleep Lady Shuffle]. I try to follow it but also just follow my gut. It's helpful to learn what causes bad sleep habits and what you can do to avoid creating a sleep crutch. For example, you're not supposed to rock or walk your baby to sleep every night or they will depend on that to fall asleep. So I don't do this on a daily basis. However, if there's a night that she's extra fussy or just wants to snuggle, I will rock her to sleep that night and enjoy the snuggles."

Learn more:

  • Baby sleep training: The basics
  • Baby sleep problems and solutions
  • Expert sleep strategies for babies
  • Parents' favorite baby sleep tips

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