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.
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.
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.
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.
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.