Ten Reasons to Not Sleep Train Your Baby

Are friends, relatives and professionals telling you that you should sleep train your baby? Warning you of dire consequences if you don’t?

Are you considering sleep training because you are exhausted and desperate for a little more sleep?

Here are ten reasons why you shouldn’t do it!

1. Sleep Training Misunderstands Normal Baby Sleep

Those who advocate sleep training misunderstand what normal baby sleep should look like. Babies and young children do not sleep like adults, they are not meant to and for a very good reason. Nobody sleeps ‘through the night’, whatever their age. We all sleep in chunks of time called a ‘sleep cycle’. For young babies this is around 45 minutes long, for an adult roughly double that. At the end of each sleep cycle we may rouse a little, but not fully, and start a new cycle, unaware that we are transitioning between two cycles. Sometimes we wake fully and find it a little hard to get back to sleep. It is no different for babies. Only their sleep cycles are much shorter than ours and they have the potential to wake around 10-12 times per night. This may be exhausting for parents, however from the baby’s point of view it is a good thing. This frequent waking keeps them safe and protects them against SIDS/cot death. Encouraging deeper/longer sleep is artificial and can have negative consequences.

Babies also have under developed circadian rhythms, or body clocks. The chemical signals of sleep that make us feel alert or drowsy depending on the time of day. Under four months of age babies have no concept of night and day, beyond this their circadian rhythms begin to function on a fairly comparable level to that of an adult, however they are not quite the same and may still be having ‘midnight parties’ until they reach school age, when finally their circadian rhythm is fully established.

Simply put babies are not meant to sleep like adults.

baby brain development, self soothe, self settle, sleep training, baby won't sleep

2. Sleep Training Misunderstands The Capabilities of Babies

Sleep training presumes that babies think like adults, they don’t. When we are scared or anxious we are able to rationalise our emotions and calm ourselves down, or at least most of us can. Some adults don’t have very good emotion regulation skills. I’m sure you know somebody with a short temper?

In order to regulate our emotions a complex chain of neurological events have to take place which presumes a high level of brain functioning. Babies do not possess this high level of brain functioning, their tiny brains take time to develop. This article explains more.

When we leave a baby to ‘self soothe’ or ‘self settle’, as most sleep training advocates, we do so under the mistaken assumption that they are actually regulating their emotions and becoming calmer. This doesn’t happen. Research tells us that the babies remain in a high state of anxiety, they just don’t communicate this. They may be quiet, but they are not calm. They are two very different things. Some babies are naturally calm, but it’s important to not mistake this as ‘self soothing’ as this article explains.

3. Sleep Training Can Have Long Term Negative Consequences 

If babies are sleep trained under the mistaken assumption that they can be taught to ‘self soothe’, does this have long term implications? Of course it does. What happens to an infant brain that is exposed to high levels of stress? Does it mature differently to that of one that grew in a more nurturing environment? Very likely.

A baby who is nurtured in his early years, who has his needs fully met, is more likely to grow a brain that has good emotional regulation skills (aka ‘self soothing’), better memory and even better intelligence. As this research shows.

A baby who is sleep trained is likely to secrete much more cortisol than his nurtured counterpart and too much cortisol is bad for brains. As this article discusses.

baby

4. Sleep Training Does Not Work Long Term

Research looking into the long term outcomes of sleep training is interesting. If you had sleep trained your baby and experienced a short term ‘improvement’ to their sleep you would surely expect the improvement to last more than a couple of months wouldn’t you? This isn’t what investigators have found however. A large scale study looking into the long term effects of sleep training which tried to prove that it had no ill effects (read this article for why it showed anything of the sort though) still found that there was no lasting long term positive effect of sleep training. In other words babies who had – and hadn’t – been sleep trained ultimately slept no differently to each other.

5 Sleep Training Doesn’t Always Work, Even Short Term.

Many seem to believe that sleep training always works. It doesn’t. I work with hundreds of parents a year who often come to me for help after working with a conventional sleep trainer, or having followed a plan from a sleep training book who cannot understand why it didn’t work for their baby.

In many cases the baby’s sleep is made worse by the conventional sleep training and the parents find themselves in a worse position than before they even started. Most sleep training relies on ‘breaking’ the baby’s urge to call out (cry) for their parents if they are lonely, scared, anxious, hungry or uncomfortable. Sometimes however that urge, and indeed the baby’s need, is too strong and the baby doesn’t become quiet (masquerading as ‘soothed’ or ‘settled’), instead they can become more distraught and more desperate to have their needs met. Some may say that their baby become “more clingy” after sleep training.

6. Sleep Training Can Break Your Baby’s Trust in You

As a parent you probably want your baby to grow knowing that they can trust you. You probably want them to know that you will always be there for them and that they can come to you with any problems that they have. How does sleep training show them this? How does sleep training aid their trust in you? Quite the reverse is true. Their cries at night may be exhausting and inconvenient, but they are crying for a reason – they need you. If you do not respond to their cries with the reassurance and actions that they need (and not just a pat or a sshh) then there is a large possibility that you are undermining their trust in you. If they don’t trust that you can help with their problems when they are tiny, how do they know they can trust you with their problems as they get older?

In addition most babies will experience an entirely normal stage known as Separation Anxiety. This stage is actually a very good sign psychologically, even though it may not feel like it when you baby is instantly upset the minute you put them down. What babies needs when in this stage is constant reassurance that they are OK. That you will come back. That you won’t leave them. This is a vital stage for a baby to be able to trust you. If they don’t (because you are not meeting their needs through sleep training) then you are likely to suffer the effects at a later stage.

cry

7. Sleep Training Ignores Real Problems

While interrupted sleep is the norm for all babies, there are some cases where sleep isn’t normal. These cases are often missed with conventional sleep training. Which could create larger problems further down the line.

First there are potential physical reasons: tongue tie, cows milk protein allergy, lactose intolerance, food sensitivities, reflux, disrupted gut flora, cranial compression and birth injuries and sleep apnea.

Then there are potential environmental reasons; too much artificial light, room temperature too high, insufficient bedding, incorrect timings and the like.

Lastly there are potential psychological reasons: the need for more connection (particularly with a mother who works), the need for reassurance during separation anxiety and developmental leaps and stages.

Sleep training misses all of these.

8. Sleep Training May Cause You to Stop Breastfeeding Prematurely

Many sleep ‘experts’ believe that babies do not need night feeds after 6 months of age, some believe that they are unnecessary after only 3-4 months. They are wrong. There is only one person who can tell us if the baby has no need for night feeds. The baby themselves. Breastfed babies tend to need night feeds until at least 12 months of age, sometimes longer. Although their formula fed counterparts may be ready to night wean a little earlier (though not always).

Breastfeeding in particular is not just about food, it provides comfort and also a quick drink. I take a drink to bed with me and often take a sip of water when I wake in the night. Why shouldn’t babies be able to do this?

Night weaning before the baby is ready can have an incredibly detrimental effect on breastfeeding and can cause it to cease before the mother and baby are ready.

For more baby led/gentle night weaning tips read this article.

attachment parenting, gentle parenting, development of independence, sleep training independent, clingy baby, baby won't sleep, shouldn't bedshare, don't cosleep, create clingy, create dependent

9. Sleep Training Misunderstands the Development of Independence

Many parents are scared into sleep training, night weaning and ceasing bedsharing, due to concerns over creating clingy children who will never become independent. This is another gross misunderstanding of much of society. You cannot force a child to be independent. The only way you can raise an independent child is to allow them to be dependent on you for as long as they need. When they feel secure enough they will slowly begin to branch out into the world alone. If you force them to detach from you before they are ready you will actually make them less independent and more anxious. You cannot hold your baby too much. Ever.

I urge everybody reading to watch this fantastic short video for more.

10. Sleep Training is Exhausting and Horrible to Do

I have not met a single parent, who has sleep trained, who has said “it was OK, it was fine”. Every single one of them comments on how hard it was and how distressing it was to see their child crying and not meet their needs. You have parental instincts for a reason. Listen to them. There is a reason that most traditional baby sleep training experts don’t have children themselves. Surely if they knew how it felt to have your heart torn in two then they wouldn’t advocate it?

SO WHAT CAN YOU DO THEN?

1. Rethink your ‘problem’ and try to get as much rest and support as you can to meet your baby’s sleep needs.

2. Keep your expectations age appropriate.

3. Look to the environment to check if all is sleep-friendly.

4. Rule out any physical issues.

5. Rule out any developmental stages.

6. Check out gentle sleep methods, to gently encourage better sleep without the side effects.

7. Wait. Your baby’s sleep will improve naturally in time.

 

Sarah

p.s:  Did you like this post? Want to read more similar content and receive weekly top tips, reader Q&As, hear my take on current parenting research and enter the odd competition? Then why not sign up to my new FREE WEEKLY NEWSLETTER and get the latest in gentle parenting delivered straight to your inbox. I promise I will never share your email with anybody else and if you don’t like what I send you can unsubcribe straight away!

Sign up to my FREE weekly newsletter

Advertisements

About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
This entry was posted in Babies and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Ten Reasons to Not Sleep Train Your Baby

  1. Hana says:

    I’m NOT writing this comment to put down anyone, especially those who are sleep training in whatever form they are doing it. I just feel this article is timely. Family friends of my friend tragically lost a baby to cot death at 7 weeks because they were sleep training their baby. Granted they were also following ill advise that warned against taking a crying baby to soothe him because they thought it would create unhealthy emotional dependence. They struggled with the advise, they had to restrain themselves with all their might not to go to the baby when he cried. They did it out of love, not knowing any better. They trusted someone else’s advise against their own loving parental instinct. Sadly the end was tragic. They shared this last week. The guilt they carry is beyond overwhelming. I know this case is extreme, the advise they followed were extreme. But things like this do happen.

    • Gina Westbrook says:

      How the dickens do they know the two things were connected? Cot death is hard enough without introducing this. I have never heard that there is a casual link.

  2. This article misunderstands what sleep training is, and ignores the thousands of different cases out there.

    There are numerous types of sleep training approaches, and I haven’t seen any of them claiming you should formally sleep-train your baby before the age of 6 months.

    Not all babies have 45min sleep cycles; I know for a fact that my baby and many others I’ve encountered could easily wake up within 15/20min from the moment they feel asleep.

    I sleep trained my baby, starting with a very gentle approach when she was 4 months old, and moving to a more effective one when she was 6 months old. It wasn’t easy, but she is now 2 and a half, happy and well rested, and I have never regretted it for one second.

    She was breastfed until she was a year old, and I never expected her to sleep through the night. Just sleep. When that had been covered, night-weaning was extremely easy and hassle-free, and she pretty much did it herself.

    Bottom line is: I would never tell anyone to discard all forms of sleep training based on a biased article like this one. It does work short-term, it does work long-term, you only need to find the best approach for you and your family, and there are dozens of professionals that can help you finding it.

    Based on my experience, I can give you 10 reasons not to tell a sleep-deprived, depressed, stressed, unhappy parent that they shouldn’t sleep train. If this is not you, then why sleep train in the first place?

  3. Tierney says:

    What do you do when your baby starts crying in the car? Do you pull over and soothe them right away?

  4. Katy says:

    Wonderful article thank you for the reassurance that all will get better in time. If we can’t dedicate ourselves to meeting all our little baby’s needs for such a short time then what has motherhood become? No one is finding it harder than me as mom to a 7 month old who wakes every two hours but I know in my heart it’s normal and I wouldn’t dream of making her meet my needs she didn’t ask to come and needs extra love at night. Nighttime is a funny thing especially to children and I will rest easy in the future knowing my little girl didn’t have to face them with any upset or anxiety.

Would you like to comment on this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s