Today we’re going to talk about a very contentious topic in the baby sleep world, but it’s something that is foundational to our understanding and approach — what sleep training is and why I don’t recommend it as a baby sleep and well-being specialist. Because this is such a huge topic and I want to give you as much information as I can reasonably fit into a blog post, I’m breaking this into two parts. So part one is all about diving more into what sleep training is and breaking down and refuting some of the common arguments the sleep training industry makes as to why you need to sleep train your baby.
Now an important disclaimer — in talking about my reasons for being against sleep training, I’m not making any judgment on parents who have made the decision to sleep train. I firmly believe that parents who choose to do this are just trying to do the best they can for their babies, and I am a huge advocate for parents choosing the best path for their baby and their family.
However, I do think that the pressure to sleep train can be really huge, and most parents don’t know 1) the science behind baby sleep (and why sleep training claims are not based in scientific evidence or a real understanding of infant development), and 2) that there is another way to help your baby sleep. So that’s what today’s post is all about. We’re going to talk about what sleep training is, reasons I don’t recommend it, what you can do instead of sleep training, and what to look out for in seeking sleep support from a sleep consultant.
What is sleep training?
A difficult aspect of this conversation is that there really is no one definition for sleep training — and there are a lot of methods out there that masquerade as “gentle baby sleep” or claim not to be sleep training that still include elements of sleep training methods.
When I talk about sleep training, this is what I’m referencing: any technique or method that has the purpose of “teaching” a baby to fall asleep at night or put themselves back to sleep when they wake in the night with less or no parental support. In this, I would also include any technique that suggests withholding comfort or responsiveness from your baby when you’re trying to get them to sleep.
There are tons of variations of this out there, but the two most common techniques are:
- Extinction Cry-It-Out — The gist of this method is that you get your baby ready for bed, put them in their crib, and don’t return until the morning (or until they’ve slept if it’s a nap) unless there’s an “important” need.
- Graduated Cry-It-Out (or the Ferber Method) — This method involves putting your baby in their crib and letting them cry, but checking in to offer comfort at timed intervals (1 minute, 2 minutes, 3 minutes, then every 5 minutes until they fall asleep can be a common suggestion). There is a specific list of do’s and don’t’s usually involved with graduated cry-it-out — such as you can shush your baby or talk to them, but you can’t pick them up or even touch them.
As I said, there are other methods, but since these are the two most common and almost all sleep training methods include some version of these, we’ll just focus on them for now.
Both methods usually promises that with consistency, your child will be sleeping better within a week. Many “experts” also claim that there is no long term harm to extinction cry-it-out and that babies who have been sleep trained sleep better than babies who haven’t. Here are some common reasons sleep trainers give for why parents need to sleep train:
Babies need consolidated sleep in order for their brains to mature.
By four months of age, babies can and should be able to fall back asleep on their own by self-soothing.
Your baby’s cries are just them manipulating you because they don’t want to sleep.
You need to get rid of bad sleep habits or “crutches”.
They should be able to sleep without you.
You have to teach them healthy sleep habits.
It’s the only way to get sleep.
But the reality is, most of these statements are either not giving the full picture or are simply not true. Let’s break some of them down.
Babies need consolidated sleep in order for their brains to mature. Yes, babies need sleep in order for their brains to mature — but it’s not consecutive hours slept (or consolidated sleep) that is necessary here, it’s total sleep. There’s also a wide range for what might be normal as far as how much sleep babies need. In fact, one review of a set of research studies found that, “Despite the fact that all the reviewed cross-sectional studies showed sleep-associated benefits, there were no consistent findings amongst the studies regarding the component of sleep (i.e. sleep duration, sleep efficiency, night awakenings, etc.) that benefitted cognition”1
By four months of age, babies can and should be able to fall back asleep on their own by self-soothing. The ability to regulate one’s own emotions (the idea behind self-soothing) is not even close to developed by four months of age. Regulating your emotions without help from someone else isn’t a skill babies even start practicing until preschool age — and when they’re able to do it depends totally on how their emotions were supported by their caregivers. The way that babies regulate themselves is through co-regulation — where the parent is there to support their emotions and provide comfort. So when a baby wakes in the middle of the night, they actually are not neurologically capable of self-soothing.
Your baby’s cries are just them manipulating you because they don’t want to sleep. One prevalent sleep training “expert” went so far as to say this in a blog post: “Some children may vomit. If this occurs, I recommend going in, cleaning up the child and bed, and leaving. It feels horrible, but you don’t want to reinforce vomiting as a tool to get what you want. Trust me.” The idea of your baby “manipulating” you is very prevalent in sleep training culture, but babies aren’t capable of that either. Manipulating requires complex action from the frontal lobe of the brain — which is not something that fully matures until age 25, much less 4 months. So if your baby is crying, it’s not because they’re “manipulating you” or because they “don’t want to sleep”. It’s because they have a need — and comfort is just as much a need as hunger. And the idea that a baby could force themselves to vomit in order to get what they “want”? It’s literally insane, y’all.
You need to get rid of bad sleep habits or “crutches”. Calling something a sleep “crutch” is putting a negative spin on a certain set of sleep associations (almost all of them involve parental involvement) There is no such thing as a “good” or “bad” sleep association. The most common sleep “crutches” that sleep trainers warn against are nursing to sleep or sharing a sleep space with your baby and laying down with them until they are asleep — so basically, parents are the crutch. But nursing to sleep and sleeping close to baby are both evolutionary normative and instinctual behaviors — parents have done them throughout history. To call those sleep crutches is not only incorrect, but ignoring centuries of human experience.
They should be able to sleep without you. What does that even mean? Does it mean that it’s been scientifically proven that babies are capable of this, or is this just what we expect of our babies, so therefore it’s their obligation to do? Because if you look at biologically normal infant sleep, most experts (you know, the ones with fancy degrees and years of research in this specific area under their belt) would say that babies are not developmentally capable of sleeping independently. It is both normal and protective for babies to need us. Because…you know…they literally can’t do anything without us.
You have to teach them how to sleep. This operates under the assumption that sleep is something we can “teach” children, like we one day teach them how to tie their shoes or solve complex fractions. But sleep isn’t a skill to be mastered, it’s a biological process. And like every other biological process, it is one that matures over time. Also, the way that many sleep trainers suggest we “teach” our babies how to sleep ultimately boils down to leaving them alone to figure it out. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t learn how to solve complex fractions if someone just left me in a room by myself to do it.
It’s the only way to get sleep. This one is my least favorite, and in my opinion the most ridiculous and harmful line of reasoning out there. The sleep training industry will have you believe that you have to sleep train — it’s just the natural thing to do if you ever hope to have your child sleep independently. So even if the thought of cry-it-out makes you weepy or it feels too harsh to you or you don’t want to do it, you are still told that you have to. And that’s simply not true. All babies will learn how to sleep independently — they’re not going to be off at college needing you to rock them to sleep. And you don’t have to just wait it out, either. There are ways to approach sleep that don’t require withholding comfort or separation-focused tactics.
Okay, that was a fire hose of information, but this is a HUGE topic and I want to try and give you all the knowledge you need to understand the big picture here. We have a lot more to talk about, but that’ll come in the Part II. I have linked various sources and studies for those that want to go more in depth, and of course you are welcome to ask questions in the comments or over on my IG page!
1Tham, E. K., Schneider, N., & Broekman, B. F. (2017). Infant sleep and its relation with cognition and growth: a narrative review. Nature and science of sleep, 9, 135–149.
2Winberg, J. (2005). Mother and newborn baby: mutual regulation of physiology and behavior—a selective review. Developmental Psychobiology: The Journal of the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology, 47(3), 217-229.