Gentle or “no-cry” sleep training methods Part I

We've talked about Ferberizing or gradual extinction methods, now let's go to the other side of the spectrum and discuss some of the techniques that attempt to avoid any distress or crying on the part of the baby. The following excerpt is from our book and summarizes some of these approaches and their general aims:

"There are a set of methods that are often referred to as “No-cry” solutions, from Pantley’s popular book by the same name, The No-Cry Sleep Solution: Gentle Ways to Help Your Baby Sleep Through the Night. The methods under the rubric of “attachment parenting” would also be classified as gentle methods, including manuals such as Sears’ Nighttime Parenting and McKenna’s Sleeping with your Baby: A Parent’s Guide to Co-Sleeping.  What these approaches have in common is a commitment to minimizing or altogether eliminating any distress at all by the baby when she is falling asleep for naps or bedtime.  The Sears and McKenna approaches are particularly focused on encouraging co-sleeping practices. The former author is well-recognized for encouraging parents to accept the natural, often difficult sleep patterns that many babies and toddlers fall into in the first 2 years of life. Sears stresses that parents can’t “force” their children to sleep longer stretches. Sears and other attachment parenting gurus suggest that sleep training itself is not a healthy, productive way to promote healthy sleep habits. Instead, parents should learn to structure their lives such that their own sleep is maximized; but to be realistic about this structure and understand that sleep deprivation in the first few years of parenting is simply a part of parenting. 

Proponents of gentle or no-cry methods of putting your child to sleep argue that babies and toddlers have been kept as close as possible to their mother’s bodies for centuries and across many different cultures. Practices such as co-sleeping and “wearing” your baby are critical practices that promote a healthy bond between the mother and child, a bond necessary for the optimal development of the child. These authors go on to argue that mothers who systematically ignore their babies’ cries during the night are fostering deep anxieties and insecurities in their children that will leave emotional scars for life. Some of the most common sleep strategies that are often touted as “attachment” oriented include:
(1)    Sleep with your child in the same bed (co-sleep).
(2)    “Wear” your baby (in a sling or other type of baby carrier) for as long as possible throughout the day and at night if necessary.
(3)    Nurse on demand and particularly before naptimes and bedtimes to help the baby fall asleep peacefully. 
(4)    Fathers can bounce, rock or cuddle the baby into a deep sleep.
(5)    If you leave the baby alone in a crib or bassinet, leave behind an article of clothing or cloth with the baby that has the mother’s scent on it.
(6)    Respond as quickly as possible to your child’s cries at bedtime and throughout the night (in other words, try to not let your child cry for any length of time before falling asleep or upon waking during the night).

Pantley’s “No-cry” solutions are also geared towards minimizing children’s distress. Her approach is meant as an alternative to the cry-it-out methods. In addition to her other common-sense suggestions, including creating a relaxing atmosphere (e.g., dim lighting), providing a bedtime ritual and so on, Pantley offers a number of additional tips. Hers is not a sleep-training method per se, but more like a set of helpful soothing strategies. Her suggestions are aimed at transitioning children’s bedtime and napping habits very gradually. For example, if a parent wants to stop nursing her baby to sleep, Pantley suggests substituting the nursing for gentle rocking, then the rocking for patting in the crib and then finally moving towards putting the child down on her own and seeing if she’ll self-soothe without the parent’s help. Other examples of such techniques include a form of “gradual extinction” but at a much slower pace than Ferber’s approach. To get a child to fall asleep on his own, in his crib, one gentle method might be to sit close to the child with a hand on her belly at first and stay that way until she falls asleep. The next night, the parent might move the chair back a meter or so and not touch the child. The next night, the parent may inch the chair back even further until eventually the parent is outside the child’s room and the child can fall asleep on her own."

For those of your who have tried one or a set of these methods, how did it go for you? What were some of the challenges you faced? At what age did is seem to work or not work for your family?  Why would you recommend these types of methods or why would you advise others to steer clear of them? Remember, I firmly believe that different strategies will work for different children, depending on a whole host of factors. So it would be particularly useful for parents still considering the many options of sleep-training methods to hear from parents about their own philosophies, their child's temperament, their child's age and all the other issues that may need to be considered to make gentle or "no cry" methods work.

8 thoughts on “Gentle or “no-cry” sleep training methods Part I

  1. I really like the concept of gently patting the child’s back as they fall asleep or slowly moving out of the room night by night via the “chair method”… but my kid screams like a demon if I’m in the room and won’t pick her up. She’s far better off with a “Night night, Mommy loves you, see you in the morning” than she’d ever be with a slow goodbye.
    Different strokes for different folks indeed!

  2. @Misc Jenn: My problem was that I had one baby who was cool with the patting and the other who was so NOT. I would sit in between their cribs and be patting and shushing them both at the same time and trying to inch away gradually. One boy would start making cooing noises, turn around and start falling asleep while the other started screaming bloody murder as soon as he’d see my chair even slightly shift. That slow goodbye was just a big mean tease to him. Kind of a ridiculous situation when they’re in the same room. But it really drove home the point to me that different strokes are indeed for different folks…

  3. Both my kids have been the same type as @Misc Jenn’s. Mine, too, are much happier if you just get yourself out of there (if you’re not going to be picking them up). As I mentioned in the last post, this mirrors their general reaction to the “gentle extinction” techniques, as far as I can tell. If you come back in it often gets them upset again, so unless they’re really upset and getting more so, it’s best to just stay the heck out.
    As a side note, they’re actually very similar in other ways pertaining to sleep, too. (Neither falls into either the crying tension-increaser or -decreaser category, for example. Sometimes they get wound up, sometimes they wind up and then wind down, sometimes they just wind down.) I’m fine with that–having had one of that type, I know what to do and what not to do, more or less, with the second–but I’m a little surprised. I thought the one thing I could rely on is that they would be notably different! And maybe it makes it harder, sometimes, to understand others’ experiences.

  4. We tried gentle methods before moving to Ferber. My husband would walk or bounce the baby to sleep at night, and I would take her for a stroller or car ride for naps. We found that this was effective, but took a long time and was very stressful for us. Our child, who is pretty even tempered, never quite managed to make the leap to self-soothing till we did Ferber. However, working with her so diligently ahead of time made the Ferber process very fast (1 night.) I’m glad we didn’t let her cry early in her life, but in retrospect I would have given up on the gentle methods about a month earlier than we did. We were both getting very resentful of the time and stress we encountered around her bed time.

  5. Everything was a gradual process of us encouraging but not forcing sleep habits. We moved from nursing to sleep (under 2 months old) to wearing him in a wrap/carrier and then to rocking. At 7 months old my husband started putting my son in the pack and play when he looked tired with some toys and music while my husband would work on the computer a few feet away. He started to fall asleep for most naps this way.
    Then at 9 months old he refused to be rocked or walked to sleep for bedtime. We knew he could fall asleep on his own since he did it already for most naps so we put him in his crib with music and would sit in the room until he fell asleep. Every night we moved further from the crib and eventually left the room.
    It took 2-3 weeks for a full transition. If my son whined we didn’t do anything but if he cried we picked him up and would offer to walk him around the room. As soon as he would push away from us he went back in the crib. If he cried we picked him up again and repeated. When he cries he only escalates and gets hysterical so it was important to keep him as calm as possible through the whole process.
    He started sleeping through the night during this time as well. I don’t think what we did was exactly a method listed above but it was tailored around respecting my son’s temperment as a tension increaser and respecting my need as a parent to comfort my child when he is crying.

  6. I bought Ferbers book and Pantley’s book. Read them both. Ferber takes a few nights, Pantley’s takes a few months. Decided to try Ferber, if it didn’t work, Pantley was Plan B. My son was a classic Ferber, fell asleep on the boob, then transfer to crib, then woke up EVERY SINGLE NIGHT at 3:30ish. One week of Ferber and he was going down by himself without crying, and staying asleep. He occasionally has bad nights, usually when he is overtired (who doesn’t?), but Ferber worked for our kid…

  7. I tried the Baby Whisperer’s shh/pat method from when the baby was 6 weeks to 12 weeks old (3 months) and had absolutely no luck. Even now, at 8 months, if I am there, WHY AREN’T YOU PICKING ME UP!!
    We tried Pantley’s jiggles and stuff, and while we loved her book, we couldn’t find anything that worked. Maybe we broke the baby by trying so many different methods.

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