These are my thoughts on sleep training. There are LOTS of opinions on whether or not sleep training works, is necessary, or is harmful. The science tells us that sleep is usually really, really good for parents and babies. How and when to sleep train depends on a variety of factors, and there are tons of great methods that can work for lots of families.
It happens with 90% of new clients that I see.
We work through how things have been going, how pregnancy and childbirth went, why and how they came to be sitting across from me, either in a gray chair, on a green couch, or through a screen, these days. They are probably nervous. Sometimes I'm nervous. Meeting new people can be nerve-wracking.
We get to the question about sleep. "How are you and baby sleeping," I usually say, or some variation on that theme.
And the apologies start to rollllllll right in. "You're going to not like this," "I know it's bad but," "It's been better this week than last," and on and on these women go, battered physically and emotionally by new motherhood, made all the worse by their ONE natural coping skill, sleep, being torn from them. They're getting precious little sleep, unsafe sleep when they do (being exhausted and curling up on a couch with a newborn accidentally is unsafe, and, yes, I've done it), and feeling guilty about THAT when it happens.
And then the goddamn internet gets in their head. "That influencer says their baby didn't sleep for a year! She seems fine!" "I want to be the mom that can do it all!" "Other moms can do it, why can't I?"
To that last one, I don't know. It's true, some people tolerate lack of sleep better than others. And, as you well know, some people fake it.
Here is what I do know, though. Parenting involves a very special set of challenges. A constant sense of desire to do well, to be better, that actions have consequences, coupled with the sickening realization that kids with parents who do EVERYTHING right could end up addicts, bullies, unemployed, or dead. A love that is indescribable, maddening and endearing and joyous and desperate all at once.
And so, when it comes to letting our children cry themselves to sleep, even if only for a day or two, we have a really really hard time doing that. Because what if THAT IS THE THING that tears them from us, a night or two or seven of crying?
Is Sleep Training Bad for Babies?
No. You know it, I know it, research supports it. And yet, I completely understand the hesitation. We carry these babies in our bodies, or use so much money and science to get them, or pray for adoptions to go through. There is NO easy way to get a baby and so, when ~it~ works, why on earth would we ever do anything to them that feels hard or scary or abandoning, even for ten minutes?
but, But, BUT. That's just part of the story, I usually say. Because maybe there is anxiety, or maybe a relative that is very ill, or maybe you are just a person that needs to sleep, no matter how much you love your kid or how hard you worked to get them.
Humans need sleep. Lack of sleep is used as an instrument of torture.
The mothers that I see often are struggling with anxiety, depression, and very scary intrusive thoughts about things happening to themselves and their babies. Lack of sleep makes this so, so much worse. And, when these wonderful mothers start sleeping more, their symptoms almost always improve and become manageable to the point where they can decrease their therapy sessions.
Does sleep cure these people? Honestly, sometimes. It's not magic, just like there is no magic pill for mental health issues. But strong self care boundaries, including sleep, is one of the most important factors in being able to successfully manage anxiety and depression, in combination with medication and therapy (different for each person, where applicable, the point is that you need to sleep).
So. Believing that humans need sleep, I very strongly believe that babies should be taught to sleep at an early age. How that happens? Honestly it can go a million ways. There are LOTS of good sleep training programs, and usually they work about the same in effectiveness with consistency from the grownups, very boring parenting advice there, yes I know.
NOW. I know there is some dissent among certain groups about sleep training as barbaric, making babies feel abandoned, or being unnatural for mammals. In terms of development and attachment, though, there is no research to support that.
Parents Who Sleep Train Are Happier
There is, however, research that supports the notion that while there is NO DIFFERENCE in attachment to parents in babies that are sleep trained vs not, there is a higher level of SATISFACTION IN PARENTING found in families that sleep train.
And, honestly, here is where I lose a lot of people. A lot of parents are really stuck in a belief that because parenting is hard it must also be miserable, and I simply do not subscribe to that belief. Because....we DID work so hard for this, however the path to parenthood presented itself, so why not try to enjoy it? Will we enjoy everything? No. But, if we care for ourselves and make some sort of effort to combat things that do.not.have.to.be.so.hard, we might then enjoy parenting in general a little bit more.
I always tell this to moms (Dads, too, but I work more with mamas): Don't you want to show your kids that parenting can be fun? Don't you want to show your baby what a well-rounded adult looks like, I say? (with empathy and compassion and zero judgement)
Because, of course, duh, these women aren't monsters. OF COURSE I WANT TO SHOW THEM A GOOD ADULT THAT'S WHY I SHOULDN'T NEED TO SLEEP.
It's not funny, in the moment, but it's a little funny when you think about it that way. We need sleep and food and air and water and shelter and fresh air, to some degree or another, all of us, all the time. And so to behave as though one just isn't important anymore now that I am a parent makes no sense.
I think there is a general misunderstanding of sleep training. Why we do it, when it's age appropriate, that there are different methods of doing so. In GENERAL, babies do really well with some good sleep skills from birth (with no crying, just practicing and having good routines), and then can actually learn to sleep alone through the night after about 5 months. There are lots of factors here including eating and weight gain and LIFE.
A massive, major benefit of sleep training:
One of the biggest stressors of parenting is Not Knowing What Is Wrong with baby. They cry, we assume...colic? gas? they don't like us? hunger? emotional issues? All of the above. In GENERAL, exhaustion in babies can look like many of the above list. I always remind people of the consistency that sleep training brings. IF you know your kid is a good sleeper and THEN they wake up screaming in the middle of the night you will likely feel more confident that yes, they are teething or getting sick or have something actually wrong.
Kids who don't sleep well honestly send really, really confusing signals because they're generally so tired. Knowing at least that this one thing is consistent can be so helpful in building confidence in parenting.
The predictability of KNOWING your baby will sleep is also really, really good for parents of kids of all ages. Parenting can feel relentless in the sheer number of things kids need from you, and having a set end time is so beneficial. I have so many mothers who absolutely dread bedtime and nighttime because they have no clue how it's going to go, and that kind of unpredictability can, again, feel like torture.
Knowing that your baby will go to sleep and stay asleep when you put them down means: predictable alone time, a knowledge that you'll know if something is wrong, and an end to parenting each evening, even if it's for just 30 minutes before you yourself go to bed.
Kids also do really well on a schedule because, (wait for it) kids are people! Back to that LOVE theme, if we know that we do well on a schedule, and we know that kids do well on a schedule, how great is it that we can offer them AND ourselves something that is so predictable and helpful.
Sleep Training Is Selfish (and that's a great thing!)
I also hear a lot that parents feel like they love their kids less if they sleep train babies, are extra selfish because they sleep train, and frankly that is just garbage thinking. Let's break those two down:
Looking long term, don't you want your kids to know how to sleep on their own? Isn't teaching them hard things love? We are raising adults, after all. Adults that can put themselves back to sleep when they wake up in the night to pee, adults that don't require a ten thousand step process filled with manipulation (babies aren't manipulative, but you bet your ass that a 4 year old that was never sleep trained and thinks they run the household is) and anger and excuses before crashing out of sheer exhaustion. It is very loving to spend time teaching our kids hard but important life skills.
Is it selfish to sleep train a baby? Sure! In nature, the most selfish animals survive. There's no two ways about it. We have all seen National Geographic or similar, and the narrator NEVER says "here is Nathan the jaguar offering some dead carcass to his direct competitor, Earl." By being selfish and teaching your baby to sleep, you are selfishly taking back a very important health component for yourself. You are ensuring your survival and the growth and development of your baby's wonderful brain. Sleep is important for babies AND adults, but the adults almost always have to be the one to ~selfishly~ set the stage for everyone to sleep enough to stay healthy and well.
Be selfish, and allow your entire family to get sleep. If calling it selfish allows that to happen, I'm alllll for it.
I do think that there is plenty of merit in researching different options for sleep training - starting early with no-cry methods works really well for some families, while others prefer to tough it tough it out until 6-8 months when they go for a quicker but more, let's say, LOUD, method. Both work great!
Researching these methods with an open mind is hard but important; learning about a few methods and taking bits that feel natural to your family can work really well.
Overall, though, my quest is to remind parents that you are still people with needs, whether or not your baby seems to ~like~ sleeping alone. Your baby is a baby, it doesn't LIKE anything. It is not a failure or abandonment or selfish to see your own needs and ensure that they are met.
Also. Read for 5 seconds on brain development and baby sleep and, like, yeah.
Sleep Training for President!
(thank you so much for reaching to the end of this. sleep for families is something I am so, so passionate about, and I'd be really grateful if you'd share or Pin this!)