Help! I Need a Sleep Plan for my Baby!

Baby sleeping

Photo by Tamaki Sono

I know how you feel. I've been there. You've tried everything and you're at the end of your rope.

You're baby just won't sleep!

You're pulling out your hair in frustration, and what little hair you have left is falling out because of stress and lack of sleep! You're a mess. And so is your baby.

After reading our article on Sleep Solutions you may be thinking there's nothing you can do. You've tried every solution and nothing worked. Well, we have good news, there's still one more technique and it's the big one. Yes, this is the one thing you've been putting off.

Most often it's called The Crying Technique or Sleep Training. Sometimes it's referred to as Ferberization, a term taken from the name of the famous child neurologist and sleep expert Dr. Richard Ferber who wrote the dramatically best selling book Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems in which he explains how the Crying Technique works.

The Crying Technique, though it sounds frightening and cruel, really is the best way to help your child sleep independently and for longer periods of time. We'll take you through the concept step by step and explain how the Crying Technique works—and the biggest pit falls to avoid.

How Many Hours a Day Should Your Baby Sleep?
0 to 11 months: 14 to 15 hours
Toddlers: 12 to 14 hours
Preschoolers: 11 to 13 hours
School-age Kids: 10 to 11 hours
Remember, these numbers are averages, which of course means that some kids sleep more and some kids sleep less.


What is the Crying Technique?

The concept behind the Crying Technique is really very simple. Your child does not know how to fall asleep on her own and cannot stay asleep for very long because she has never been taught how to sleep. Some babies seem to just get it from the beginning, and their parents are very, very lucky indeed. But most babies need to be taught how to sleep.

In order to teach your baby how to sleep you need to set up the sleeping conditions for them ahead of time and then—and here's the hard part—you need to let them fall asleep on their own in those conditions.

What are sleeping conditions? That depends on your home and your lifestyle, but a good definition of sleeping conditions would be the way in which the room will appear when your baby wakes up in the middle of the night all by herself. In other words, that may be a warm, dark, quiet room with your baby snug in her crib and no mommy or daddy around. This may mean that no music will be playing, no TV will be on, no rocking, no soothing, no night light, etc. Just baby and crib.

Once you've decided on your conditions, you need to make sure that your baby falls asleep with those conditions in place. Quiet, dark, no mommy, no bottle, no music. Just baby and crib. This is important because babies learn to rely on these conditions to fall asleep.

If, for example, you always rock your baby to sleep, when she wakes up in her crib with no rocking she will cry and cry until she gets that condition—in this case rocking—back. If she always falls asleep with a pacifier she will cry and cry until she gets that pacifier back. If she falls asleep on her own with no crutches, then she will wake up, notice that everything is the same, and fall back to sleep on her own. I know it sounds impossible, but it's true.

Of course, this is where the crying comes in. You have already trained your baby to fall asleep with modified sleep conditions. This could be nursing, singing, rocking, or any number of other things that help soothe your baby to sleep. You are now going to take that away from your baby and she is not going to like it one bit. She will put up quite a fight. But you need to be firm and stick to your plan.

Next, we'll show you how to develop your sleep plan.


Your Baby's Sleep Plan

  • A wonderful first step in developing your sleep plan is to read Dr. Ferber's book, Solve Your Child's Sleep Problems. He explains what sleep is and why the brain needs it, as well as how to use the Crying Technique successfully.
  • Next, decide on your child's sleep conditions. For us, we chose a dark, quiet room with no music or night lights.
  • Establish a nice bed time routine so your child knows when they are going to bed. For us this means bath, followed by a nice infant massage, bed time story, rocking in the rocking chair while we listen to one lullaby, and then a kiss goodnight and he's down in his crib.
  • Begin your plan when you have lots of time to devote to it, maybe a three-day weekend or beginning of a holiday, because this is going to be work and no one is going to be getting much sleep at first.

    Start by laying your baby down in their crib and saying goodnight. Leave the room for five minutes then come back, pat them on the back and let them know you still love them. Leave them alone again and come back in ten minutes, then fifteen, then twenty. The exact time intervals are not important, just that you stay away from your baby for longer and longer periods of time.

  • Important Note:
    If your baby is blind or visually impaired, being touched or patted on the back may actually make them more angry. Judge your child's response and find what works best. We found that for our son it was better if we didn't speak or touch him at all. We also stayed in the room with him the first few nights to make sure he didn't hurt himself.

  • Once you've started your plan, keep notes about the progress. Chart when your child is laid down, how long they cry, and when they fall asleep. Note how long they sleep before they wake up again. You can download this very useful Sleep Chart developed by Dr. Ferber. This will help you to see that the technique is working.
  • Crying baby
    Photo by Tamaki Sono
  • Establish strict bed time and wake up times based on your child's age and sleep requirements. If your child should get 11 hours of sleep every night, you may decide to lay them down at 8 pm and wake them up at 7 am. Yes, I said wake them up. I know they were up crying all night, but don't let them sleep in! This is very important. You're trying to reset their sleep clock and teach them that night is for sleeping and day for waking. Don't let them sleep more than a normal nap during the day either. You're going to need a sleepy baby at night for this plan to work.
  • Finally, and probably the most important point, Stick with Your Plan!! I know many parents who tried the Crying Technique but couldn't stand hearing their baby cry so they gave in and picked them up. Who's in charge here? If you let your baby cry for two hours then pick him up all you have taught him is that he needs to cry for two hours before you will pick him up. If you try the Crying Technique for two days then give up, you're baby hasn't learned a thing. If you're going to do this you need to do it right. Don't let that crying baby boss you around! Stick with your plan! In the end both you and your baby will benefit greatly from full nights of sleep.


Common Questions about the Crying Technique

When will it work?
Dr. Ferber says in his book that you should see results in about a day or two with complete success in less than two weeks. Maybe so for most children, but I'm here to tell you that for us it took much longer. Maybe that's because our child is blind, or maybe it's because he inherited his mother's stubborn nature, either way we didn't see any real results (longer periods of sleeping and no crying) for about four weeks. He did begin crying less by the second night but he continued to cry himself to sleep (even if he only cried for ten or fifteen minutes) for about a month.

How old should my baby be before we begin?
Dr. Ferber writes in his book that by the time a child is six months old they should be able to fall asleep on their own. However, if your baby has developmental delays you may want to wait a bit longer. You'll have to judge your own child's situation and decide when you think they are cognitively ready to understand that mommy and daddy still love them, they haven't been abandoned, and that even though they are uncomfortable everything will be okay. Also, if you begin the Crying Technique and your child is crying so hard that they vomit, then you should probably consider waiting a couple of months before trying again.

What if my child is already walking? How do I keep him in his crib?
If your child will not stay in their bed or their crib then their entire room will have to serve as their sleep space. This means that their room must be locked in some way so they can't get out (baby gates are a good solution) and the room must be free of distracting toys. Once they are sleeping on their own, then you can return the toys to the room.

How do I know when my child is crying because he needs me?
You'll have to use your best judgement. Remember that babies are good at getting what they want because parents tend to respond to every coo or cry. When you begin the Crying Technique it will feel unnatural for you to not respond to your child's cry and it will seem strange to them that you are ignoring them. Once the technique has worked, though, then you will be back to your normal cry-and-respond routine. So if your baby starts crying in the middle of the night after they have already been sleeping well for a few weeks then of course you should go check on them. But don't let that become a new habit either!



Sleeping baby
Photo by Tamaki Sono

For about a year and a half we did not get any rest. We would rock our son to sleep only to have him wake up about an hour or two later. From then on it was a battle for the rest of the night while he slept for small twenty or thirty minute intervals. It was terrible and we all suffered.

After about a month of listening to our son cry himself to sleep we have finally gained our nights (and our sanity) back! We now lay Ivan down in his crib, kiss him good night, and leave the room. He falls asleep on his own without crying at all. He generally now sleeps about ten to eleven hours a night and wakes up happy. I know he sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night because I hear him make little sounds, but he falls back asleep on his own.

Ivan's mood has improved and he is developing at a faster rate because he is well rested. The Crying Technique did not hurt him or scare him. He is still the same happy little guy who loves his parents but now he has a greater attention span and can handle difficult situations better because he isn't tired or grumpy. I often wonder how our lives would be different if we had tried the Crying Technique sooner, but there's no use worrying about what can't be undone!


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