4 Things You May Not Know About Sleep Training

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Baby-Sleep-Tummy“Sleep training”: the phrase evokes an image of a screaming baby—and heated discussions among parents. The gulf between those who find sleep training acceptable and those who don’t is vast. It causes arguments and hurt feelings, and it can also be very confusing for parents who feel pulled in both directions. Which is too bad, because there’s more middle ground than is often acknowledged.

I’ll explain. Here are 4 things I wish more people knew about sleep training:

1. Sleep training is compatible with a gentle and responsive parenting style.

The way we talk about sleep training is full of accusation and guilt, even among those who’ve done it:

I hated every second of it, but boy are we sleeping well now.

It is effective but should only be contemplated in really extreme situations such as mine.

The implication is that sleep training is an awful thing to which some parents are driven by desperation. By day, those parents may be doting caregivers, but by night, they become mean monsters who ignore their parenting intuitions and instincts, and they later hate themselves for doing so.

Well, sleep training, when done in a sensitive way, is not awful and mean. It’s not even different from everyday, completely non-contentious parenting practices. Quite simply, sleep training is setting a limit: it’s deciding that you will no longer use certain methods for getting your child to sleep.

Setting a limit is when we say, I know you may not like this, but I insist, because it is important. It’s just like preventing your child from sticking her fingers in an electrical socket or hitting her brother. Limits don’t mean your child has done something wrong or is being punished; in fact, it is probably more accurate to think of sleep limits as limits for yourself, to make sure that your behavior is consistently promoting independent sleep habits, rather than as limits for your child.

Even if you don’t think independent sleep is important enough to make into a limit, that’s all it is. There’s nothing mean or harsh or desperate or guilty about the other limits we set every day, and there doesn’t have to be about sleep training either.

2. The reason there’s so much crying involved in sleep training is NOT necessarily that it’s unnatural or neglectful.

Wait, you say—it’s true that we enforce limits all the time, but when would we ever let our children cry for an hour or more? That extreme response is a red flag alerting us that there’s something wrong with the limit. This goes beyond just being mad about an annoying rule. The child is miserable and may be feeling abandoned.

We can’t know for sure what’s going on in a pre-verbal baby’s mind and heart, but there’s a plausible alternative explanation for all the crying. Sleep training is more painful to enforce than other limits because, in addition to enforcing the limit, you are also trying to allow your child to sleep!

That can rule out many of the ways in which you and your child would likely cope with distress about other limits. For example, letting your child turn her attention to an interesting toy is out of the question, and even a word of reassurance or a cuddle may be so stimulating that it interferes with falling asleep. (Of course, if words of reassurance are not too stimulating for a particular child, then we would hope that the parent would continue to reassure.) In a truly sleep-friendly environment, a child can’t easily finish expressing her indignation and move on, because there’s not much to move on to.

Another thing that contributes to the crying is that it’s challenging to fall asleep in a way you’re not used to. (By the way, this doesn’t mean that independent sleep is a “skill”; it’s more like a habit, like stomach sleeping. A stomach sleeper trying to sleep on his back is not “developmentally unready” to sleep on his back. He’s just used to something else.)

Challenge can be frustrating, and frustration can make a young child cry. But that’s not true distress and doesn’t need “fixing.” It’s just the sound of children figuring it out on their own. But, in the short term, they’re awake when they want to sleep, and that makes it easy to stay mad about the new rules.

3. Sleep training can be flexible and responsive
.

The two best known sleep training programs are what Weissbluth calls full extinction and graduated extinction: you leave your child alone in her room until she’s asleep, or you go in at prescribed time intervals and say comforting words without touching your child.

These methods leave no room to adapt according to how a child is responding. From a behaviorist perspective, that’s good: you don’t want to teach your child that you’ll come when she cries.

…Yikes. Don’t you? This logic rubs me the wrong way, as it does many people. It’s why some people claim that sleep training is really just teaching a child to give up. I would never want my child to give up!

There’s a better way. Thinking of sleep training as a limit allows for great flexibility. No, you don’t want to interfere in the process of falling asleep, but for many children — not all — there are ways of providing comfort that don’t interfere too much. You have to judge based on your knowledge of your own child:

You can choose to enter the room whenever you think her distress is too great, not based on prescribed time intervals.

You can choose to calm your child by singing to her or patting her back or picking her up, and you can stay for just a few moments or until she’s calm (as long as she doesn’t fall asleep that way — stick to your limit!).

Ideally you will help her calm down so she’s less overwhelmed and can re-focus on going to sleep, and meanwhile you’ll be teaching her that you’ll come when she truly needs youall without undermining your limit.

4. Sleep training can be gradual.

Perhaps independent sleep is not important to you, but you just need to stop rocking your child before your arms fall off, or nursing during the night so that you can wean, or bedsharing so you can sleep more comfortably. Or perhaps independent sleep is your goal, but it feels like too big a step from where you are now. It might seem like sleep training is not for you, because the best known programs are all about falling asleep in a crib alone.

Wrong! Not only do you get to decide when and how to comfort your child; you also get to decide what limit you are setting in the first place. The limit could be, She falls asleep only in her bed, but I can be in the room. Or, No more nursing, but anything else goes. It all depends on what problem you are trying to solve and what you think is important enough to set a limit about.

Independent sleep is the most likely to lead to a well-rested family, for reasons you’ve probably heard: a child who can sleep independently does not need to wake up anyone else, or even fully wake up herself, when transitioning between sleep cycles. That’s why most sleep training programs emphasize independent sleep.

But if that’s not for you, you can adopt a different goal. Some “gentle” sleep training programs, such as those associated with Kim West (The Sleep Lady) and Dr. Jay Gordon, begin with intermediate limits and work gradually toward more independence.

Why do I categorize these as “sleep training”? — because they still involve limits. They involve a parent saying, I insist, even if it upsets you. Though “gentle,” they can still provoke extremely strong reactions and lots of crying. In that sense, they are deeply similar to Weissbluth and Ferber’s methods, and only superficially different.

I hope this has helped you to see sleep training in a new way:

It is NOT black-or-white, Wait It Out vs. Cry It Out. There is lots of grey area, lots of room for responsiveness and parental discretion. The amount of crying it involves does NOT prove that it harms the parent-child bond.  And it is NOT the dark and horrible last resort of a mean and selfish parent.

At its best, sleep training involves a reasoned decision that not everything goes when it comes to sleep—that there are limits. We can still be there for our children if the limits distress them (in whatever way is actually helpful and not interfering), but we stick to our guns, because we’ve decided that it’s important.

Do some parents choose to leave their young infants alone just because they feel they are supposed to and don’t know any other options? Unfortunately, yes. For some reason, the default form of sleep training according to much mainstream advice is the more extreme versions, like leaving your child and not interrupting at all. For many children, this is not necessary or helpful, because it is possible to respond with comfort in a way that does not interfere too much with sleep.

Parents should instead be encouraged to trust their instincts about what will actually help and not hinder the process. But in this conversation, “trust your instincts” has become synonymous with “never leave your child to cry.” It shouldn’t be that way. We can set firm limits around sleep in a way that honors our parental instincts and leaves room for responsiveness.

When you think of sleep training as just another limit, like all the other decisions about limits that parents of all stripes make every day, in all parts of their parenting lives, you can see that it has nothing to do with whether we are securely-attached or neglectful, angels or devils.

(If you would like support from like-minded parents, there is a Facebook group for discussing respectful sleep learning.)


2 thoughts on “4 Things You May Not Know About Sleep Training

  1. Dear Dawn,

    One of my clients sent me to your post.

    Thank you so much for so beautifully covering the grey area of sleep “training”.
    There is no one right way. What works for one family does not work for all.
    Making incremental and gentle changes can help greatly. However, babies still have their opinions about change. So do I. Change quite often makes me cry as well.

    It is unfortunate that there is so much fear and judgment about the whole process. Our human-ness can really get in the way of quality sleep.

    Thank you for your respectful and kind voice. It feels like a cool breeze on this very hot subject.

    Warm regards,
    Eileen Henry, RIE Associate, Compassionate Sleep Solutions

    • Thank you so much, Eileen! I am a big fan of your writing on sleep as well, so your kind words mean a lot.

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