The subject of infant sleep can be controversial. The word “training” seems to induce a negative reaction when associated with sleep in a way that it simply doesn’t when it comes to other common infant milestones; toilet training for example.
Scan through the comments section on a toilet training post/chat on any social media platform and you are far less likely to see parents getting hot under the collar than you will when someone mentions sleep training. As a Sleep Consultant, this interests me. Why do parents seem to feel almost guilty when looking for a better night’s sleep for their child and also, importantly, themselves.
Why do some parents see sleep training as so inherently wrong? From my own professional experience, being a mother of 3 and from the many, many articles and books on sleep that I have read by professionals on both sides of the fence, here are my thoughts.
Firstly, there seems to be a great deal of confusion about what sleep training actually is. To many parents, sleep training equals cry-it-out. This simply is not the case. Yes, cry-it-out is one method of sleep training. It is still used or at least tried once by many parents. Studies which showed increased levels of stress hormones such as cortisol in infants who were left to cry alone and a modern trend towards gentler parenting have made this method less popular, and certainly as a parent myself I cannot recommend it. But CIO isn’t the only sleep training method, there are other methods such as check-and-console; letting your child cry but doing regular checks to reassure baby.
This is more palatable for parents who cannot stand to leave their baby crying for a long period without checking on them. Some experts feel, however, that parents coming in and out prolongs the length of time that the baby cries for (Weissbluth, 2015). Another method is “fading” which involves the parent supporting their child as they learn to sleep and then gradually reducing the amount of support and physical presence that is involved. This, to me, is the gentlest method and the one that I most frequently use when working with families.
Secondly, there is a huge spectrum of parental opinion on what is a reasonable expectation when it comes to babies’ sleep. Some parents feel that it is not unreasonable to expect a decent night’s sleep after about 6 to 8 months of age (they are right). Other parents will shoot them down and tell them firmly that night waking is normal for babies and children and the right thing to do is to accommodate this, that they should feed or cuddle their baby until they go back to sleep, however long this takes, and accept that this is what is involved with raising babies and young children. Having spoken to many mothers, in tears with frustration, exhaustion and guilt, I don’t agree at all. Parenting is hard; wonderful but hard. It is a great deal harder with hardly any sleep.
What it is important to realise is that sleep is a learned skill. Some babies learn more easily than others. Sometimes parents need to help them to learn, just as they do with potty training or weaning to solid food. Waking frequently at night is necessary for young babies, less than 6 months who require feeding. Once a baby reaches 6 to 8 months, longer periods of sleep are healthy and necessary. It is in a baby’s best interests to sleep well at night. Countless studies have shown that well-rested babies and children do better emotionally, socially and academically. You will not find a single study which shows that gentle sleep training methods have had any negative effects. Usually night waking at this age and after is to do over-tiredness, due to poor napping or down to an ingrained association in relation to feeding (usually very small amounts at night) or parental intervention (in the form of picking up, cuddling, rocking, walking etc.) to get back to sleep. This type of sleep disturbance is not in baby’s best interest and certainly not in a parent’s best interest. Why then would we not seek to find a way to reduce it and resolve it?
Without fail, the families I successfully work with report that many aspects of their lives improve when their child is sleeping better. Parents are better rested, happier and less irritable. Family outings and holidays which were once too much of an effort in an exhausted haze now become a possibility and a pleasure. Most importantly, parents report that their child is happier, more resilient, less cranky and often has a better appetite.
Good sleep is healthy. Families who sleep are healthier and happier.
Gentle sleep training is what I do. It is immensely rewarding and I am passionate about it and the benefits it produces. Almost every day I meet families who are struggling and we begin our journey towards a better night’s sleep. There is simply no better job in the world than helping families achieve that.