To Sleep Train or Not to Sleep Train?
Updated: Mar 11
We live in a world that is swarming with a vast array of opinions. This is the best way to raise your child. No, that is the best way. It can be daunting to weave through the "this and thats" and figure out what really is the best way to raise your children. Sadly, we also live in a world where mom shaming is abundant. I am in multiple mom groups on Facebook where there are rules against #momshaming, yet every other post includes a comment where one mom is "kindly" telling another how wrong she is about how she feeds her baby or whether or not she puts shoes on her baby (yes, I've actually witnessed both of those). Can't we all just get along?
At the end of the day, whether you agree with baby-led weaning or traditional weaning, cloth or disposable diapers, sleep training or no sleep training, we are all just trying to do our best to raise our children the right way. No baby is exactly the same as another and no mom is exactly the same as another, so is there just one right way? I really don't think there is. Anyway, I digress.
One of the topics I have seen debated a lot recently is #sleeptraining. I have seen conversations where moms were on complete opposite sides of the spectrum from sleep training is the most wonderful thing in the world to sleep training is selfish and horrible. I can imagine that if a parent is trying to decide whether or not sleep training is right for their child, it can be confusing to do so with all of the differing opinions out there...especially if you are being mom-shamed just for asking questions! Therefore, I want to share some actual research I have done and some views, other than my own, to help parents learn more about sleep training before making a decision about whether or not it is right for them and their child. Here are some real thoughts and opinions I've heard about sleep training and my professional opinion about them.
Four Common Sleep Myths:
1. Sleep training = Cry it Out (CIO) and crying harms your baby.
Crying is probably the number one worry parents have about sleep training. No parent loves to hear their child cry. When we hear our children crying, our natural response is to go to them, assess their needs, and comfort them. Many parents think that if they sleep train their child, they have to just let the child cry and will not be able to meet his needs or offer comfort.
The truth is that #CIO is just one method of sleep training; it is not synonymous with sleep training. The true CIO method has you leave your child alone to cry, sometimes for hours, until he just exhausts himself to sleep. Many sleep consultants don't even use this method. There are other techniques and variations that are more gentle, that do allow you to respond to your child and offer comfort when needed. A well-trained sleep consultant has a vast repertoire of methods up her sleeve and will get to know all about you and your child before deciding what the most effective one will be for your specific child.
With that said, there are certain sleep issues, ages, and habits when some tears may be unavoidable. There is also a difference between crying out of protest, fussing, and crying out of distress. Crying is a form of communication for a child, especially one that doesn't have a large enough vocabulary yet to describe their thoughts and feelings. In sleep training, a child's cry may simply say, "This is different, and I don't like different." Not every cry means that your child is in distress. When a child is first learning to walk, we all know that he doesn't go from crawling to running in one day. He starts off really wobbly, and probably has a few falls while learning. We, as parents, pick our children up, offer comfort, and say, "Try again," because we know the bumps and falls are just part of learning how to walk. It would be silly to pick your child up, comfort him, and then never let him down on the floor to try again, right? You'd still be carrying him around at age 10 if you did that. Crying is sometimes a part of learning, a part of life.
Many parents still question whether or not letting your child cry, even for a little bit, is okay. There is a lot of research out there that proves crying does not damage your child's brain development, nor does it create unnecessary fear, abandonment issues, or other psychological issues. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) did a study with a 5-year follow-up on 326 children that were sleep trained around 7 months of age. They found that the sleep training had no lasting effects on them.
Parents and health professionals can confidently use these techniques [sleep training] to reduce the short- to medium-term burden of infant sleep problems and maternal depression. -AAP
Harvard Medical School did a study where they monitored three groups of families: a group that trained their babies with the graduated extinction method, one that used the bedtime fading method, and a control group that simply received some information on sleep, but had no training. What they found was that the babies and families who were sleep trained slept better, and didn't have any more stress than the babies who were not trained. Crying does not mean your baby is getting stressed out, as some would suggest.
I could go on, but to save time, I'll just provide more links at the end of the post if you want to look more into it. Now, to be objective, I do want to say that there is also some research out there stating that there are lasting effects of letting your child cry. However, the ones I have read all tested babies in more chronic crying situations. Letting your baby cry a little bit for a few nights is not a chronic crying situation. Other ones I have seen only tested the true CIO method. Remember, that method is not synonymous with sleep training and can certainly be avoided while still getting you and your family the rest they need.
2. Sleep training is selfish; it's only for the parents' benefit.
This couldn't be any further from the truth. For one thing, a baby's physical growth and brain development happens while they are sleeping. Our bodies also recharge while we're sleeping, which keeps our immune systems active and ready to fight. When people are sick, it is while they are sleeping that their bodies regenerate and fight the illness. Good, restorative sleep is important for everyone, children and parents alike.
When a baby wakes up multiple times a night, cries, and needs to wait for someone to put him back to sleep, this sleep is not as restorative as it could be. Babies tend to be cranky when they are #overtired. A baby can be in a state of overtired, which is more than just missing a nap. A 6-month old baby, for example, needs 12-15 hours of sleep over the course of 24 hours. If a baby is not getting that much on a daily basis, he could be chronically overtired, which can lead to all sorts of problems. I don't think anyone would disagree with the fact that a baby needs good, restorative sleep.
Let's talk about the parents for a moment. Does sleep training benefit them? Of course! When a baby is getting a full night of healthy, restorative sleep, so are the parents! However, in no way, shape, or form is it selfish for a parent to desire good sleep. As I said above, good, restorative sleep is healthy for everyone. When parents sleep well, it does benefit the children too. Well-rested parents are less likely to lash out or yell at their children, they're less likely to get frustrated and resent their children, they're more likely to enjoy parenthood and family time, and they'll be healthier overall and better able to take care of their children.
There's a very real thing called Perinatal Mental Health Complications, which include Postpartum (PP) depression, PP anxiety, PP OCD, PP PTSD, and PP Psychosis. One or more of these affects every 1 out of 7 mothers and every 1 out of 10 fathers...yes fathers can experience postpartum complications too. These complications can last up to two years after birth. I'm definitely not suggesting that postpartum complications are caused by a lack of sleep, but a prolonged lack of sleep certainly does not help a parent overcome them. It is not only okay to take care of yourself, but is also beneficial to your baby when you are well.
If you think you are suffering from one of these postpartum complications, or just want more information, you can check out Postpartum Support International (PSI) for more information.
I was always against sleep training. I had read all the articles condemning it, convincing poor, sleep deprived mothers that they would ruin their babies if they let them cry. Then the 4 month sleep regression hit our household. Almost to the exact day of my daughter’s birth. My husband tried to convince me we needed to start, but I dug my heels in, convinced that I was a better mom for it. We slogged through 6 weeks of pure misery before I realized that we needed a change. Bedtime had become a 2-3 hour circus act, with my husband and I taking turns bouncing and rocking, me nursing and handing the baby off when I needed a break. I dreaded it every single night. Every night waking took 30-40 min to get her back to sleep, and I was a complete zombie during that time period. My marriage felt like it was falling apart. I snapped at my husband over every little thing, and I was so touched out from the baby, I couldn’t stand any sign of affection from my husband.
After 6 weeks, I said to him, “I think I was wrong, we have to do something.” We decided to use the Ferber method. I was so anxious about hearing her cry, but my husband reminded me that most nights, she was crying in our arms anyway. It only took a week for her to start falling asleep within 10 minutes of being put in her crib, and soon after that the night wakings stopped. I couldn’t believe it! She now goes to bed and wakes up with a smile on her face. When she cries in the middle of the night, I go to her, but I no longer spend hours bouncing, rocking, or praying for a miracle. I wish I hadn’t been so hard on myself in the beginning. I could have saved myself a lot of misery.”
~Victoria K. - Lusby, MD
3. Sleep training isn't necessary, children will eventually grow out of their sleep issues.
I believe the parents who have 6 , 7, even 8-year old children that still refuse to sleep by themselves will beg to differ with the above statement. I have come across a parent or two who tell me that their child sleeps through the night on his own and never had to be sleep trained. Sure, it can happen...but that's usually the exception rather than the norm. And to be honest, most of those parents probably did some form of sleep training without even realizing it. Some children are also just a lot more chill than others. If you have a "go with the flow" kind of child, then it probably won't be as hard to train them. I'm going to assume, because you are reading a post about whether or not you should sleep train your child, that he is not a "go with the flow" type of child who has already sleep trained himself. Am I right? If you are waiting for your child to "grow out of" his sleep issues, you could be waiting a looooooooong time. Good sleep is a skill that needs to be taught.
4. You have to wean your child off of night feedings when sleep training.
Along these lines, I've also heard that breastfed babies can't be sleep trained. On the contrary, my own baby was breastfed (and supplemented with formula), and I was able to sleep train him while still #breastfeeding. Sleep training does not mean you have to give up breastfeeding, or that you aren't allowed to feed your baby at night. As a sleep consultant, I do not give medical advice about if/when your baby is ready to night #wean. I can, however, give you instruction as to how to sleep train while still responding to your child's actual nighttime hunger needs. You don't have to choose one or the other. Many babies will continue waking for feeds that they don't even need anymore just because they're used to it and food is offered. My son gave up the night feeds when he was ready to because he was already trained to continue sleeping if he didn't have a need. You can read more about my sleep training journey, from both my and my husband's point of view on my post, Teach and Do.
Message from Jessica
What I wish all moms knew about ST [sleep training] is that there are so many approaches to it based on you and your baby’s personalities. It’s not a one size fits all CIO marathon. It doesn’t mean that you have to night wean or that you have to stop responding to your baby’s needs. It doesn’t hurt your baby or your bond with him. You are not bad or selfish for not being able to function without sleep. ST is supporting baby in falling asleep independently instead of putting them to sleep with methods that often get less effective and more difficult over time. My baby is so much happier, better rested, and more alert. He can fall asleep and fall back to sleep independently. I feel like I came back from the dead and finally started fully enjoying motherhood. No one has to ST and I encourage all moms to follow their own heart but I hope that with increased understanding of ST we can support mamas and babies who need help with sleep. And I really hope we can stop judging moms for making ST decisions that are best for their families, especially since that shaming often stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of ST, sleep deprivation, and infant sleep in general.
~Jessica E. - Philadelphia, PA
The bottom line is you have to do you, mama; only you can! My hope is that this post may help someone who is unsure about whether or not sleep training is the right choice for their child. If you have any specific questions, feel free to CONTACT ME.
~Ashley Bell, pediatric sleep consultant
*Thank you, Victoria and Jessica, for allowing me to share your thoughts and experiences!