Three to four months old Part II: Reader’s question about sleep training a 3-month old baby

Here's a question from N., the gist of which represents a significant number of emails that I receive.

My baby is about to turn 3 months (currently 2.5) and I would love
to try sleep training.  I am very sleep deprived and it is causing
marital strife.  Our baby gets up at night every hour to three  and
sometimes he will only fall asleep while lying on us.  Naps are a joke
as they simply don't exist or, if the do, they are 5-45 minute catnaps
in my arms….there is no schedule.  I am not functioning well and it
is terrifying me!  I would like to try CIO when my baby turns 3 months
but I have a feeling that within 10min our baby will begin screaming
fits and my husband won't (right or wrong) go for this…he will only
let the baby cry for 5-10 ….I'm willing to go for much longer because
I am that desperate!
I can't wait an additional 3 months until the 6 month mark…any ideas or wisdom would so greatly be appreciated!

First and foremost, this is SUCH a tough age. I remember the panic I felt when I realized how much longer this whole infancy thing was going to last. At the time, I couldn't imagine making it "to the other side." A few thoughts: First, your baby actually does need to wake up at least a couple of times during the night to be fed. That doesn't mean she needs to wake up every hour for that nourishment, but it's good to keep in mind that the vast majority of infants need their stomachs re-filled every 3-4 hours or so. Second, you may find that your baby hits 3 months old and naturally starts sleeping longer stretches (and not necessarily on top of you either). These shifts may occur naturally, without you doing anything at all because those first 2.5 months are filled with huge biological changes that are settling down right about now. But if your baby DOES continue to wake up every hour or two and does not settle down easily afterwards and if you simply can't go on like this much longer, you can certainly consider some form of gentle sleep training methods.

As I mentioned in Part I of the 3 to 4 month stage description, this is the only stage that I am somewhat hesitant to recommend because the distress levels of the baby really do need to be monitored by the parent. But on the other hand, there are several reasons why we included this stage — in the book — as one of the
possible periods to sleep-train:
1. There are DESPERATE mothers like the one who posted the question who can't go on feeling sane without some change. I don't know this particular woman's circumstance, but many mothers also either need or want to go back to
work by the time their child is 3 months old. These mothers often have no
choice but to try SOMETHING. My main point is that if you feel you
have to do something, don't try sleep training at 4 months if you can avoid it and earlier than 2.5 months isn't wise either.
2. We have heard remarkably consistent reports from parents who did
gently sleep train (i.e., not CIO methods, more like "no-cry sleep
solutions") at this window with great success. Although I personally
didn't feel comfortable doing any kind of sleep training with my boys
this age (especially since they were 4 weeks premature and I had "issues", let's just say…), I strongly
feel that it's important to provide the developmental
and let parents make the decisions for themselves.
3. I think it's important to consider the unique properties of each developmental stage and think about whether there are some special considerations that should be made in terms of methods that might work best. From my perspective, I'd like to emphasize that whatever method is used
during this period, it shouldn't result in letting the baby cry for
more than 5-10 min max (I don't know about your baby, but mine cried
more than that if they were in their carseat and I stopped at a red
light). This is the only age at which I'm careful to dissuade parents
from picking a method that will involve prolonged distress because
the baby is simply biologically incapable of regulating intense distress by herself; she
needs mom and/or dad to bring her back down (of course, some babies DO calm themselves down at this age, but very few can do so when they are really, really wailing).

If you find that your baby doesn't take to sleep training easily during this age, and you feel you need to stop, then there ARE things you can do to maximize your own sleep. Some common suggestions: (1) Enlist your partner to take half the night shift and you do the other half. So, if you're breastfeeding, you can consider pumping or supplementing with formula and asking your partner to take the 10 pm – 2 am shift and you can take over for the 2 am – 7 am shift. That way, each of you are at least getting a 5-hour chunk of sleep in a row. (2) Hire a "mommy's helper" if you can afford it. This person can help soothe your baby to sleep after you feed her during the day and maximize nap times for you. She can also take your baby for a walk while you catch a nap. (3) Every 3 days or so, you can ask your partner to take the full night shift so you can catch up. Again, your partner can give the baby a bottle of breastmilk or formula when the baby wakes up. That way, you can always refuel twice a week and feel just a little more human. (4) If you can afford it, night doulas or night nurses that come very highly recommended can be serious life-savers when your partner can't help. Hiring someone even once/week might just give you enough energy to get you through the worst of this time. (5) Some people also find that co-sleeping during the worst of the frequent wakings works for them. It really DOES come to an end eventually and although 6 months seems completely impossible to imagine getting to at this point, your baby WILL get to that stage when sleep training may take much easier (believe me, I really DO get it, having had twin babies who woke up every other hour — and NOT the same hour — througout the first 6 months, I feel your horror like I was there yesterday).

What do you
think? Words of encouragement or wisdom for N.? Anyone out there who sleep-trained during this age and was
thrilled with the results (I know you're out there because I've talked
to many of you)? Does anyone want to respectfully gasp in horror at my
recommendation to try sleep training at this age?

5 thoughts on “Three to four months old Part II: Reader’s question about sleep training a 3-month old baby

  1. I sleep trained both of my boys at 3 months…The first born was sleep trained at 3 months and 2 days, and the second was at 13 weeks (but a week short of 3 months) because I was going batty. We actually did CIO both times. It was the only method we knew about for the first, and the Baby Whisperer method wasn’t working for the 2nd (we were doing baby whisperer from about 8 weeks). The initial crying is the hard part – but yeah, we plowed through the two days, and we saw results immediately. So quickly, that when the 2nd one hit his 4 month regression a week ago, we cried, because the past few weeks had been oh so lovely.

  2. @fahmi: I’m so glad you feel comfortable enough to post about this! This is EXACTLY what I want to hear about — people who have successfully been through this process, even when I might not be comfortable recommending CIO for most babies. Your story is not unique at all, and most people who I’ve heard from who sleep trained this early usually talk about it taking 2 days at MOST. I’m curious: did your babies cry for long, extended periods for those 2 days? I’m not asking at all to judge you. Quite the contrary. I suspect that the kids who are more amenable to sleep training during this stage are not the full-throttle criers. But I might be completely wrong. There are some kids who “cry” in low-level whimpers and whines that are interspersed with occasional crying rather than full-out, high-level sobs the whole time, when they’re put to bed alone. This might also fit with Moxie’s tension increasers vs releasers…

  3. I tried to sleep train my son when he was about that age, with limited success. He stopped waking up so much at night, but was a basket case during the day – clingy, fussy, poor naps, etc. His personality has never lent itself well to CIO and I ended up co-sleeping through the 8-11 month stretch out of desperation. I found the Pantley method perfect for him around a year. He is 3 now and still a very intense little person who gobbles up my energy.
    OTOH, I suspect I could have sleep- trained my daughter at that age without much fussing, but I was so exhausted from meeting both their needs all day that I couldn’t handle any more stress in the evenings, so I told my husband that we’d have to sleep in separate beds for a while (he and I). I have been co-sleeping with her on a mattress on the floor since 3 weeks. I am not exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed but I am coping.
    She is almost 9 months and cutting her 6th tooth in 3 weeks while working on walking. Of course sleep has gone all awry but she is still a joy to be around. I can’t believe what a difference personality makes. I plan on moving her to a crib in August and hope it will go well.

  4. Hi! I followed you over from Ask Moxie.
    My daughter has never been what most people would call a “good sleeper.” I never thought CIO would be a good way for us to go- she’s pretty intense and tends to just wind up rather than down when she’s crying. Also, I’m pretty intense and didn’t think I could take the amount of crying CIO would entail.
    I did try some gentle sleep training methods until she was about 9 months old. They may or may not have contributed to the improvement we saw at about 10 months.
    All of that is to say- I don’t have what the original question asked for. But I do know a lot about getting by with less sleep than you want. I wrote up the things that helped get us through on my blog:
    and also wrote a post about how I managed to keep doing my job as a sleep-deprived new mother (I went back to work when Pumpkin was 3 months old):

Leave a Reply