Is it Possible to do Gentle Sleep Training?


A fashionable buzzword in the ‘sleep training industry’ at the moment. It is everywhere you look. On every sleep trainer’s website, in the blurb on every baby sleep book, in the names the trainers call themselves, or their social media descriptions. Gentle, gentle, gentle, gentle.

On the one hand I am incredibly happy and excited that so many baby trainers have realised that a shift is happening, parents don’t want to leave their babies to cry. Cry-based sleep training is definitely on the wane, gentle is the new order of the day. This makes my heart sing. Perhaps the long overdue compassionate and instinctive paradigm shift is coming? Perhaps even the harshest and coldest of baby trainers is having second thoughts? – A gentle sleep revolution, led by parents, is my dream.

Then comes the cynicism in me. It has a loud and pessimistic voice. GENTLE is a buzzword, a marketing term, a PR dream. Gentle sells where crying once used to. Promise to get a baby sleeping through the night gently? Well surely that’s the miracle recipe? What parent could possibly refuse? Where is the regulation surrounding the use of the word ‘gentle’ in relation to sleep training? Which advertising organisation steps in and questions the gentleness? Sadly in the sleep industry advertising is as ill-regulated as the profession itself. It just doesn’t exist. Why does this matter? Because there are far too many proclaiming that their methods are gentle when they are anything but………they are far, far from gentle. They dupe parents, who only realise that the advice is not as gentle as expected after they have paid for it. By then their money is spent, usually money they could ill afford in the first place. They are left with the same old advice: cry and don’t pick up, reduce contact, put down awake, reduce or stop night feeds and stop bedsharing. Sure they may be told “pat her back”, “rub his stomach”, “stay in the room and speak to her”, “comfort him, but stay firm and don’t pick him up”. None of this is gentle though. It is the same old behaviourist approach wrapped up with a new ribbon and called ‘gentle’ because the parent stays in the room. It means nothing. It is no more gentle than controlled crying or cry it out. Each week I have at least five families contacting me telling me “we paid to work with somebody who said they offered gentle sleep training, but it really wasn’t gentle, it was the same old stuff”. Buyer beware, buyer beware!

I am often asked if it is possible to do ‘gentle sleep training’. Yes, I believe it is, although the use of the word ‘training’ is a little erroneous, for it is really the parent that is being trained (I use the term for my own services purely for SEO reasons). Sleep is a biological development, a milestone, you can no more train a baby to sleep in an age inappropriate way, than you can teach them to walk as a newborn. You can only train them to not signal to their needs to their parents. I don’t believe any parent really wants that.

Is it possible to work with a baby’s sleep gently? Absolutely, because in every case it is not the baby that needs changing or fixing, it is usually something the parent is, or isn’t doing. That said, it is only possible to change sleep gently to a biologically appropriate level. The fact remains that babies don’t sleep through the night, while that may be a problem for parents in our busy world, the reality is there is normally nothing wrong with the baby.

What should you look for when considering  if sleep advice really is gentle? Well, my own beliefs and ethos for my sleep work are as follows:

  • You must start with realistic expectations. Are you looking for sleep that is not normal for the age of your baby? Any true gentle sleep trainer will tell you if what you are looking for at a specific age is not appropriate. I turn as many clients away as I take on for this very reason.
  • The approach needs to be holistic – this means the sleep trainer should consider what is happening in the daytime (classes and activities etc..), what the baby is eating, the birth – and psychological and physiological effects from it, the environment the baby sleeps in during the day and night, naps (where, when, how long), evening routines (not just the bedtime routine), how the parents are feeling and what support they have and more…..if these aren’t mentioned then the advice is not gentle.
  • You should be given realistic expectations in terms of improvement. I always tell my clients they will need to wait 6-8 weeks for a good improvement and in that timeframe they have some hard work to keep up consistently. Gentle sleep work goes at the pace of the baby, slowly. Working with, not against, the baby. If it offers quick results, it is not going at the baby’s pace. It is simply not possible to change sleep gently in less time than this. Anybody who says it is, is not truly  offering gentle advice.
  • True gentle sleep advice does not blame anything, or anybody, for causing sleep problems. You can change sleep gently no matter if the baby is breast or formula fed, bedsharing or cot sleeping, without having to stop doing anything. Babies can still be feeding at night and can still fall asleep at the breast. None of these things are problems, none of these things need to be stopped. Any advice to stop them (especially night feeds and feeding to sleep) isn’t truly gentle.
  • Gentle sleep advice should never, ever, ever encourage the parents to allow the baby to cry. If the baby does cry (which should always be absolutely minimal, seconds or minutes at most) they should always be ‘in arms’. Any advice to ‘settle the baby in the crib’ is not gentle. We know from research that a baby has a very different physiological reaction when they cry being held by their parents. It doesn’t help them if you are standing next to them and patting them if they cry, you need to pick them up!

I can pretty much sum all of this up by saying “if it feels wrong to you, then it probably is”. You have instincts to nurture your baby for a reason, don’t be fooled by an expert who promises that their advice is gentle if your instincts are screaming that they aren’t. When I work with clients I view my role as supporting them, just as much as their babies. True gentle sleep work focusses on helping parents to feel empowered and supported. If you do not feel either of these then you have a right to question the advice you have been given. Please, listen to your instincts and don’t be guilted into anything, however desperate you are, there is always another way. Don’t be sucked in to ‘the gentle trend’, beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The NEWLY UPDATED Gentle Sleep Book – out now! If you would like to understand and learn how to improve your baby, toddler, or pre-schooler’s sleep WITHOUT cry-based conventional sleep training, this is the book for you!


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Please note: I have NEVER trained any sleep consultants and never will, please be wary of anybody who says they have trained with me, at most they have attended a three hour workshop with me intended for parents.

Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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