Before I became a mother I had never heard of baby sleep training. I had absolutely no idea that up and down the country there are thousands of babies being “trained to sleep”. Being left to cry night after night, either through the so-called extinction method (being left to cry until they stop, also known as Cry It Out/CIO) or the graduated method known as “controlled crying” (being left to cry for increasingly long stretches of time).
Table of Contents
- Get your free sleep regression survival kit – what to expect & how to cope with every one
- 1. Psychological damage to your baby
- 2. Ignores your baby’s night-time needs
- 3. May increase the risk of SIDS
- 4. It can negatively impact breastfeeding
- 6. Assumes that all babies have the same needs
- 6. Punishes babies for normal behaviour
- 7. Destroys baby’s trust and damages mother-baby bond
- 8. Causes stress and anxiety to the parents
- 9. May cause personality and behavioural disorders
- 10. Places the wants of adults over the needs of babies
- 11. Baby is trained to not call for help
- 12. It doesn’t even work long-term!
My first introduction to the tearful world of sleep training was at a baby group when a self-proclaimed “expert” offering very expensive “baby sleep consulting” paid us a visit. Before I knew it I found myself surrounded by a group of mothers discussing how long they leave their babies to cry as part of their baby sleep “schedule”. I was completely horrified.
It seemed alien and unnatural to me: leave your baby to cry and not DO something about it?? I politely raised what seemed to me like the obvious point that when babies cry it’s because they need something, so as their carers we need to respond to their need so that they have their need fulfilled. Then they’ll stop crying.
I was quickly shut down by a woman who crossly informed me that, “Sometimes what a baby needs is to SLEEP, whether they like it or not. Besides, it’s usually just fake crying anyway”, to which everyone nodded and agreed. Fake crying?! A young baby with an underdeveloped brain and absolutely zero critical thinking capacity is somehow plotting against me and “fake crying”?!? At that moment it was very clear that I was the alien here. Looking back I wish I’d just got up and left in protest, but I’m ashamed to say I didn’t have the nerve.
Afterwards, one woman shyly shuffled up to me and thanked me for what I had said: “I respond to my baby’s cries too”, she whispered guiltily, so the other mums couldn’t hear. It seems so sad to me that a mother would be too embarrassed to openly admit to a group of other mothers that she picks up and holds her baby when he cries. To me it just seems so obvious and instinctive that this is what you would do with a helpless, dependent baby (by the way, all the babies at this group were under a year old, and the majority were less than 6 months old).
Sadly, the attitude our society takes towards children appears to be stuck in the Victorian era and mothers who follow their instinct to hold their babies are told we are “mollycoddling” or “spoiling” them, or “rewarding them for crying”. These ideas are rooted in false Victorian beliefs about babies needing to cry for alleged health purposes, and from the work of male (i.e. non-baby-birthing) writers such as Truby King (1858-1938) who famously said “children should be seen and not heard”. King set out a strict daily schedule for babies that meant they could be held for no longer than 10 minutes a day.
In the last 50 years we have made leaps and bounds in the development of attachment theory and we now understand that crying is communicating for babies. Yet these outdated attitudes persist. They get passed down from one generation to the next and have become stubbornly ingrained in the fabric of our society despite overwhelming evidence that responsive parenting (i.e. responding to all your baby’s needs) is absolutely the right thing to do.
Since that experience at the baby group I’ve come to learn the grim reality that sleep training is a mainstream and widely accepted part of Western society’s parenting ethos. This blog post is a fully referenced, evidence-based list of the main reasons why the epidemic of sleep training is causing terrible damage to our babies, their mothers, and family relationships.
My main purpose in writing it is to provide mothers who want to avoid sleep training with the confidence they may need to stick with their instincts despite external pressure. I also wanted to write it as a summary of the main arguments against sleep training to send to well-meaning loved-ones who would like to see the evidence against this practice and what alternatives there are. Just to be clear, I’m not going to weigh up the pros and cons or reference arguments in favour of sleep training as I’m making what I believe is the compelling case against it.
Definition of “sleep training”: Throughout this blog I use the phrase “sleep training” to refer to any form of intervention or effort to encourage sleep in babies, infants and toddlers that involves the systematic withholding of comfort. This may be the Cry It Out (CIO) method, “controlled” crying such as the Ferber method, and even alleged “gentle sleep training methods” (such as Pick Up Put Down, Sleep Lady Shuffle or Gradual Retreat), all of which encourage the gradual withdrawal of comfort, attention and presence. The latter claim to be gentle approaches to sleep but they still deny the child sustained maternal or parental soothing and responsiveness, which is ultimately what I believe to be harmful.
1. Psychological damage to your baby
One of the primary concerns for those opposed to sleep training is the effect that the stress hormone cortisol has on a young and rapidly developing brain. High levels of cortisol are released during times of distress and trauma. Since sleep training methods such as CIO and controlled crying techniques such as the Ferber method intentionally leave babies in a state of distress for prolonged periods of time, babies who endure sleep training experience intense periods of time when cortisol floods their developing brains. Cortisol in small amounts is usually no problem, but in higher quantities, regular doses and in the vulnerable, developing brain of an infant it has the potential to cause lasting damage to the brain.
In one of the most famous studies on sleep training and cortisol levels (Middlemiss et al 2012), the researchers found that elevated levels of cortisol were present in infants long after any crying has ceased following a period of (extinction) training. This demonstrated that the babies had not learned to “self soothe” (which is what sleep training advocates claim to be part of the purpose) but instead remained distressed and yet had given up on crying – simply put, they had not learned to comfort themselves, they had just learned that no-one was coming to comfort them.
The long-term impact of cortisol on a developing brain remains unknown since there have been no long-term studies that have accurately and consistently demonstrated the consequences. However, multiple studies including the ones below have raised enough concerns about the harmful psychological impact of sleep training, crying or chronic stress that, for the sake of a few more hours of parental sleep, it hardly seems worth the gamble.
The possible long-term side effects of regular states of distress include stunted growth of the hippocampi (the area of the brain responsible for cognition and memory), chronic disease including lung and cardiovascular disease, and behavioural problems later in childhood. As a mother, I can categorically say that I would happily trade a full night’s sleep now in return for protecting my daughter from enduring any of these side effects in the future.
Kaufman, Joan & Charney, Dennis. (2001). Effects of early stress on brain structure and function: Implications for understanding the relationship between child maltreatment and depression. Development and psychopathology. 13. 451-71. 10.1017/S0954579401003030.
Kyle J.J. McLachlan, Catharine R. Gale. (2018). The effects of psychological distress and its interaction with socioeconomic position on risk of developing four chronic diseases. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Volume 109,Pages 79-85,
Middlemiss W, Granger DA, Goldberg WA, Nathans L. (2012). Asynchrony of mother-infant hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity following extinction of infant crying responses induced during the transition to sleep. Early Human Development 88: 227-32.
Smarius, L., Strieder, T., Loomans, E., Doreleijers, T., Vrijkotte, T., Gemke, R. and van Eijsden, M. (2016). Excessive infant crying doubles the risk of mood and behavioral problems at age 5: evidence for mediation by maternal characteristics. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, [online] 26(3), pp.293-302.
2. Ignores your baby’s night-time needs
One of the goals of baby sleep training is to teach babies to “sleep through the night”. There are a couple of problems with this:
1) No-one “sleeps through the night”. Even adults have short periods of wakefulness at the end of their sleep cycle, but we generally don’t realise it.
We only wake fully and become aware of our waking if we have a problem that needs solving, for example needing to go to the toilet, feeling thirsty or needing to settle after having a bad dream. The main difference between us and babies is that we can fulfill our own night-time needs, which brings me to point number…
2) Just as babies need their carers to fulfill their daytime needs, so they need us to fulfill their night-time needs. These needs might be physiological such as feeling hungry or thirsty, needing a nappy change, or being too hot or cold, or they might be emotional. They may have had a bad dream but they don’t have the cognitive understanding or ability to tell themselves “it’s just a dream” like adults can. They might wake up wondering where their mother or father is and feel scared that they may have been abandoned.
From an evolutionary point of view, this is a very real and justified fear for a creature as utterly dependent and vulnerable as a human baby – for thousands of years, waking up in a dark cave in the middle of the night without their mother nearby could very much mean imminent death for an infant at risk from predators, starvation, freezing to death and so on. No wonder babies like sleeping near their mums: for them we are literally the difference between life and death. This is why it makes perfect sense to me that co-sleeping (sharing either a bed or simply a bedroom with babies and young children) is the societal norm for 90% of the world’s population, and the 200 year-old practice in Western society of trying to train babies to sleep independently is so unnatural and at odds with both mother and baby’s biological needs.
In aiming to artificially force an infant to sleep alone and through the night without asking for help when they need it, sleep training goes against the biologically normative and developmentally beneficial approach of being a responsive and nurturing caregiver. For decades, infant and child development specialists have shown that responsive caregiving which attends to a young infant’s needs as and when they arise (yes, even at 3 o’clock in the morning!) is the best approach to take.
Relevant research and articles:
Australian Association For Infant Mental Health (2002, reviewed 2013). Controlled Crying Position Paper 1
BASIS (Baby Sleep Information Source) Brains, biology & sleep: Vulnerable human babies and their large brains
Ludington, Susan & Cong, Xiaomei & Hashemi, Fariba. (2002). Infant Crying: Nature, Physiologic Consequences, and Select Interventions. Neonatal network : NN. 21. 29-36. 10.1891/0730-0822.214.171.124.
World Health Organisation (2006) Responsive parenting: interventions and outcomes Bulletin of the World Health Organisation
3. May increase the risk of SIDS
Although no direct causation link between sleep training and SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) exists, the process of (and ideology behind) sleep training practices usually relies on the baby sleeping in a separate room to their parents. The main goal of sleep training is to end up with a baby who “self soothes”, can fall asleep independently and, crucially, who doesn’t disturb their parents when they wake in the night (again, they do in fact wake in the night even after sleep training – they have just been trained to not let you know).
In order to achieve all that, putting the baby in their own room is the most common approach to sleep training. If a parent is “training” their baby via the Cry-It-Out method, for example, which basically just involves ignoring (neglecting) the baby’s cries for help, having that baby in the parent’s room isn’t going to work out. Even the less brutal sleep training methods rely on leaving the baby to sleep alone, as a wakeful but trained baby will risk disturbing their parents in the night. This is not necessarily SIDS safe sleep for baby.
SIDS is defined as the sudden and unexpected death of an infant under 12 months of age, which can’t be explained by any other health conditions. Once over 12 months, it stops being “infant death” purely by definition, but the risk of sudden death syndrome (SDS) is always present to some extent, even into adulthood.
Here in the UK, the recommendation is for babies to sleep in the same room as an adult (for ALL of their sleeping time, not just nighttime) for the first 6 months of life, but the American Association of Pediatricians (AAP) recommend increasing this to the 12 months. Although this might seem inconvenient, there is a very important physiological reason behind this, namely that the carbon monoxide the adult/s in the room breathe out triggers a regular breathing response in the infant. In other words, simply by staying in the same room as your baby while they sleep you are literally helping to make sure they keep breathing. 88% of UK SIDS deaths occur in the first 6 months of life, hence the advice to only carry on the same room recommendation for the first half a year. However, given that 92.6% of Sudden Unexplained Deaths of Children (SUDC) under 2 years of age occur in the first 12 months of life, you can see why it may be safer to keep your baby sleeping in the same room for longer.
In addition, the University of Durham research project into infant sleep BASIS states that encouraging babies (especially those under 6 months) to sleep longer than is developmentally and biologically natural may increase the risk of SIDS. An unnaturally long and deep sleep is associated with SIDS risk, and the increased likelihood of sleeping alone only compounds this risk.
Relevant research and articles:
Mosko et al (1998) Maternal proximity and infant CO2 environment during bedsharing and possible implications for SIDS research
The Lullaby Trust Safer Sleep For Babies: A guide for parents
4. It can negatively impact breastfeeding
Important: I want to let you know that I’m very aware that not all women are able to breastfeed for a great many reasons. I myself had a long and traumatic breastfeeding journey, as I was physically unable to produce enough milk due to a long-term medical condition. I ended up combination-feeding Ursula approximately 70/30 formula/breast milk, so rest assured there is absolutely NO JUDGEMENT from me towards women who cannot, or do not want to, breastfeed. This section is for women who either exclusively or partially breastfeed, so if that’s not you, move onto point 5 if you don’t want to risk feeling any difficult emotions surrounding infant feeding.
The many benefits of breastfeeding for both infant and mother are well-documented and, as such, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommend 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding and then extended breastfeeding for at least the first two years of life – even beyond if possible. Just some of the positives effects of breastfeeding include:
- Breast milk helps protect your child from infections and diseases including asthma and diabetes
- Reduces baby’s risk of SIDS
Reduces your child’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease in adulthood
- Increases mother-infant bonding and attachment development
- Helps protect mother against diseases including breast cancer, osteoporosis, ovarian cancer and cardiovascular disease
Once again, the separation of mother and baby in the night is usually one of the inevitabilities of sleep training, along with the attempt to make the baby sleep (or at least not disrupt their parents’ sleep) for longer, and both have major health costs. When parents sleep train, night-time breastfeeding is reduced, interrupting and jeopardising the overall supply of breastmilk. Meanwhile, the baby no longer has access to sustenance in the night, which is a crucial aspect to their continued development.
Furthermore and very ironically, the almost magical properties of breastmilk actually HELP infant sleep in the wider scheme of things, since it contains melatonin to make baby drift off easily and helps to regulate their circadian rhythms, meaning sleep and wake windows become more consistent and attuned to night and day. While many sleep training advocates abhor the natural habit of breastfeeding your baby to sleep, breastmilk and the entire process of nursing is part of the solution to helping your baby sleep. It’s certainly NOT any kind of a problem as widely renowned and respected gentle parenting author Sarah Ockwell-Smith explains:
In following the ambitions of sleep training methods, which seek to eliminate night feeds and nursing to sleep, the physical and emotional health and wellbeing of the baby is put at risk, since they no longer have access to an important portion of their milk supply and the comfort that comes with nursing.
Relevant research and articles:
Kent, J.C PhD et al (2005) Volume and Frequency of Breastfeedings and Fat Content of Breast Milk Throughout the Day
6. Assumes that all babies have the same needs
The methodology of sleep training programs, whether it’s Cry-It-Out at the most extreme end of the spectrum or the allegedly “gentle” sleep training approaches such as Sleep Lady Shuffle, all have one fundamental flaw: they give you step-by-step instructions on how to “teach” your baby to sleep (as if they couldn’t possibly do it without you showing them how!) and assume that it will work for all babies, no matter their genetics or unique sleep needs. If it doesn’t, you probably did it wrong and need to try harder.
Because you’re taking the decision to override and ignore your baby’s needs (the ones they’re waking up to have fulfilled), there is no room for responsiveness to an individual baby’s response to these methods. You just have to plough through the system and keep going until your baby either gives up or you lose your mind.
But what if you’re try the Shush/Pat method, which tells you to “reassure” your baby by shushing and patting them (but not picking them up) and your baby is crying their eyes out because actually what they need is for you to cuddle or nurse them (both very reasonable requests for a small baby to make)?
Sleep training methodology and culture tells you to just leave your baby there, shushing and patting away despite the fact they are clearly communicating to them that they need something else. Otherwise the dreaded monster called BAD HABITS might break into your home and start rocking, breastfeeding and cuddling your baby straight to Hell and back.
This is what makes even so-called “gentle” methods of sleep training not at all gentle or ethical: they are instructing you to be unresponsive to your individual baby’s needs and prioritise the hallowed system methodology over the relationship between you and your unique child. Instead, you could just pick up your lovely sweet baby and follow your and their primal, biological instincts to hold and be held.
6. Punishes babies for normal behaviour
How many times have you as a mother been asked if your baby is “sleeping through the night yet”? A million times, right? And does it make you second guess yourself each and every time, wondering why your baby is “still” waking up at night?
Or, if you’re a father or grandparent who has been sent this article by a mother who wants you to understand their reasons for not sleep training, at what age do you think a baby should be sleeping through the night? A year? 6 months? 3 months, even?
Let’s look at the facts:
- The average 3-month old baby wakes 2.7 times each night* The average 6-month old wakes 3.1 times* (Note the increase – infant sleep is NOT a linear process)
- Most babies hit sleep “regressions” (I prefer the term progressions, as they are not actually regressing even if it feels like it) at 4-5m, 8-10m, 12m, 18m and 24-months, spending several weeks waking up multiple times in the night. This is developmentally normal.
- Over half of all 12-month olds wake during the night and half of them need to parental input to go back to sleep**
- Only 55% of child are sleeping all night long by the time they are 2 years old*
So really, if you’ve got a 6-month old that isn’t “sleeping through the night yet”, well meh, of course you haven’t – why would you? It’s not normal, natural or even, as we’ll discuss later) desirable (hang in there with me on that one!) to have a small baby sleep all night without waking. As we know, there are SIDS risks involved with lengthy and deep sleeping in infants under 12-months, but also babies simply have night time needs.
Just as many adults wake up during the night because they need the loo, a drink of water, got cold when their duvet fell off or are overheating in a heat wave, so babies wake up with their own needs. Many of these are physical and therefore more obvious (hunger, thirst, soiled nappy etc), but just as importantly they have emotional needs too. They often wake up needing the loving presence of their primary caregivers (usually the birth mother for purely biological reasons) and only a cuddle and closeness will do to alleviate the anxiety that comes with parental separation.
Far from creating any kind of crutch or “bad habit”, this is completely biologically normal and it fosters and encourages strong attachment between infant and caregiver (we’ll discuss the importance of secure attachment in the next point).
In teaching the baby not to bother their parents during the night, sleep training ultimately punishes them for their very normal, natural behaviour and their biological needs. You wouldn’t deny your baby food, drink or cuddles in the daytime, so why on Earth would you do that at night?
Referenced studies and articles:
* Burnham, M.M et al (2002), ‘Night-time sleep-wake patterns and self-soothing from birth to one year of age: a longitudinal intervention study’, J Child Psychol Psychiatry, 43(6), pp.713-725
Ockwell-Smith, S. (2017) The Rollercoaster of Real Baby Sleep
** Price, A.M et al (2014), ‘Children’s sleep patterns from 0 to 9 years: Australian population longitudinal study’, Arch Dis Child, 99(2), pp.119-125
7. Destroys baby’s trust and damages mother-baby bond
Since the development of attachment theory by John Bowlby, in which he demonstrated the instinctive and primal nature of the emotional bond between mother and infant, we have come to learn a great deal about how babies learn, communicate and develop the foundations of their personal sense of security.
Older generations have been taught by the likes of Truby King that holding a baby “too much” will ‘mollycoddle and spoil’ them. However, we now know that it is crucial to the fully-rounded emotional and psychological wellbeing of a child to respond to their needs and hold them closely as babies. Far from creating spoilt brats, this approach of responsive, attachment-focused baby-raising has been shown to result in children and adults who are more emotionally secure, independent, and confident. Mothers who respond to their baby’s nighttime needs have more securely attached babies, who will then grow up to be more secure adults.
Meanwhile, when a small child’s emotional needs are neglected (including in the nighttime through sleep training practices that ignore cries for comfort) it causes long-lasting damage to the attachment between infant and carer. The first three years of life in particular are crucial, when the brain rapidly develops to 90% of the size of an adult brain and lays down the deepest and most fundamental structures that will form the basis of the child’s behavioural, emotional, social and psychological self-expression. It is vital that these first three years are filled with regular opportunities for bonding and attachment-building in order for the brain and personality to develop in an emotionally healthy and psychologically stable way. Emotional neglect and during childhood, even if it is “only” at nighttime, puts the development of that mother-infant attachment at risk.
And it isn’t just a lovey-dovey, emotional bond that is put at risk. There is a body of research demonstrating that there are powerful, physiological bonds between baby and birth mother. These deep hormonal bonds are responsible for all sorts of wonderful things, including producing just the right amount and right nutritional quality of breastmilk, having a soothing impact just through touch or speech, and making the mother instinctively sleep in a protective position when the baby lies next to them.
To put it quite bluntly, these hormonal, physiological bonds between mother and baby are severed through the process of sleep training, with studies suggesting that mothers are no longer as biologically connected with their babies once sleep training has been completed. I don’t know about you but the deep, biological and hormonally-driven emotional connection I feel with my daughter is without a doubt the single most precious thing in my life, and absolutely no amount of sleep is worth losing it.
Higley, E., & Dozier, M. (2009). Nighttime maternal responsiveness and infant attachment at one year. Attachment & human development, 11(4), 347–363.
Hofer, M.A. (1983). The Mother-Infant Interaction as a Regulator of Infant Physiology and Behavior. 10.1007/978-1-4684-4565-7_4.
Hofer, M. A. (2006). Psychobiological Roots of Early Attachment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15(2), 84–88. doi:10.1111/j.0963-7214.2006.00412.x
Middlemiss W, Granger DA, Goldberg WA, Nathans L. (2012). Asynchrony of mother-infant hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity following extinction of infant crying responses induced during the transition to sleep. Early Human Development 88: 227-32.
8. Causes stress and anxiety to the parents
This might sound like a simple and minor point, but it is an incredibly important one. So far we have mostly focused on the impact sleep training has on your baby, but the impact it has on the parents is also a potentially incredibly harmful one.
The stress and anxiety sleep training practices cause the parents (particularly the birth mother for the biological reasons discussed above) has a huge impact and must be taken into consideration. Extinction methods in particular are deeply unpleasant and stressful to inflict upon your household. But even the insidious back-door-sleep-training methods like Sleep Lady Shuffle cause stress by trying to impose strict, often unrealistic regimes on young infants and their carers.
Sleep training can also cause arguments and rifts in once-smitten, loved-up couples who often end up experiencing deep tension and terrible arguments due to their differing opinions on how to approach sleep. If it weren’t for sleep training culture and all the various “shoulds” and “should-nots” it tries to impose on babies and their parents, we might actually live in a society where we could trust the mother or other carers of the baby to respond to their child’s needs. Ultimately we need to reassure parents that their bundles of joy will reach the point of being able to fall asleep by themselves and sleep through the night when they are biologically and developmentally ready and capable of doing so.
9. May cause personality and behavioural disorders
As we discussed earlier, sleep training negatively impacts the attachment between babies and their caregivers through a process of deliberate withdrawal of responsiveness to the child’s needs. The consequence of a disrupted attachment bond at this crucial period of brain development in the first three years of life is that there is a risk of longer-term personality and behavioural disorders including:
- Developmental delays – children who have suffered from a severed attachment bond may miss out on the normal cognitive development processes that aid areas such as speech and language, social behaviour and emotional self-regulation
- Disordered eating – children with attachment problems often engage in disordered eating practices such as binge eating, food hoarding, secretly pocketing food and eating too quickly and beyond fullness
- Harmful self-soothing practices – this is an extreme response but a very real one nonetheless. I remember as a child seeing footage of the insides of orphanages in Romania at the height of the crisis there. The babies and infants had been left in their cots for so long with little to no comfort and had taken to rocking back and forth or banging their heads on the cots to try and comfort themselves. Even in less extreme cases, children whose emotional needs go unmet can turn to habitual practices such as these and other obsessive behaviours
- Aggression – some children who have had their emotional needs unmet will lash out in an unholy alliance of a lack of empathy and a lack of impulse control. Due to not having their own emotions responded to consistently, they may take out their feelings of frustration, anger and insecurity on others, then lack the capacity for empathy and understanding of the other person’s emotional response
These are some of the longer-terms risks associated with the emotional neglect that goes hand-in-hand with nighttime comfort withdrawal, but there may be short-term personality changes as well.
This mother, for example, tells her story of going to a “sleep school” with her baby who endured an intensive sleep training experience. He subsequently displayed signs of stress, anxiety and fear at being fed to sleep, put down anywhere, taken into his bedroom and at the sight of his mother leaving the room. She describes how he was no longer his previous, happy self and that it took 6 months for him to trust her to leave his sight.
Lacey, E (2019), My Sleep School Experience: My Biggest Regret, The Beyond Sleep Training Project
Perry, B.D (1999), Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children: Consequences of Emotional Neglect in Childhood, The Child Trauma Academy
10. Places the wants of adults over the needs of babies
As we start to approach the end of this list of why sleep training your baby is harmful, I feel it’s time to address the question of why parents sleep train at all. For me, looking at each of the points above, it would be easy to wonder why anyone would engage in sleep training practices. But, like every parent to an infant, I also know what it’s like to be sleep deprived and pulling out my hair at 4 o’clock in the morning trying to get my baby back to sleep, or lying next to her for hours willing her to just close her eyes and drift off so I can go and have some time to myself.
Even as one of the most fiercely anti-sleep training people you’ll ever meet, I too have had those moments where I’ve just wanted to put my daughter down and walk away. But I haven’t. Not so much because of all the research I’ve done into why sleep training is harmful, but because of my deep maternal instinct that drives me to soothe and comfort my child when she needs me. At those moments when I’m driven almost to the limits of my capacity, I just about manage to remember this simple fact: I am a self-sufficient adult, she is a dependent, vulnerable infant. My wants do not trump her needs.
The thing about sleep training is that it prioritises the desires of an adult (for more sleep, more evening time, an easier life come bedtime) over the very real biological needs of the infant. Now I am not for one minute trying to tell you that your desire for some downtime at the end of a long day, or more than two hours sleep at a time are not valid wants that should be listened to and respected. Not at all. I want all those things too and I’m not here to tell you you’re wrong for wanting them. What I am saying, though, is that you are a self-sufficient adult who can find alternative solutions to those issues that don’t come at the cost of your baby’s emotional and psychological wellbeing and their right to have their basic human needs met.
Granted it may not be simple, but you have the cognitive capacity to think of ways to get some more downtime, a bit more sleep or an easier bedtime, whereas your baby can’t do anything other than rely on you. Babies are dependent by nature and trying to force independence on them before they’re developmentally capable of it is neither ethical nor biologically appropriate. It is a parent’s job to fulfill their baby’s needs and, if some of the parent’s wants (or even needs) are going unmet in the process, then they need to work out a way to resolve that problem without deprioritising their baby.
After all, “having” a baby is not the same as “having” a car – when you become a parent you commit to being with your baby, even during times when it’s inconvenient. Parenting doesn’t stop at 7pm and it needs to happen at nighttime too. The key is to work out how to keep your levels of energy and patience up high enough to do the world’s most important job 24/7.
11. Baby is trained to not call for help
Here’s a tragic, depressingly true story for you from a member of a gentle sleep-related Facebook group I’m in:
The original poster (OP) and her friend both had toddlers of the same age, 2.5, who both got ill with a tummy bug that was going around. The mothers were chatting and comparing sick notes, as they often do, and the OP described her (non-sleep trained) daughter crying out in the night so she went to see what was wrong. Her daughter said she felt sick and promptly vomited all over the bed. The OP then cleaned up her daughter and the bed, then brought her daughter into her own bed to sleep with her for the rest of the night.
The friend, however, had sleep trained her daughter at 4 months old. Her daughter had the same tummy bug and had also woken up in the night and vomited all over the bed. She then lay back down to sleep rather than disturb her parents (which is what she had been trained to do) and her mother went into her room in the morning to find her sleeping in her own dried up vomit.
Obviously the friend was devastated that her daughter had spent the night like that and had not called out for help but, sadly, this is what she had trained her daughter to do – just lie down and go back to sleep, no matter what the problem is.
This is the basic consequence of teaching your child not to disturb you in the night: they learn not to disturb you in the night even when they really really need to and really really SHOULD. They won’t know or understand the difference between what you deem to be a “superficial” problem and an “important” problem, because to them it is ALL important.
That’s such an important point I’m going to make it again:
All their nighttime needs are important
Responding to every single wake up for the last 3 years has been hard work but entirely worth it for this simple fact: I can sleep soundly knowing that my daughter will never EVER be so “well trained” that she’ll have to sleep in her own vomit.
12. It doesn’t even work long-term!
Given all the stress, heartache and effort you need to go to in order to ‘successfully’ implement a sleep training regime, you’d think it would be worth the effort. You’d think your child would then sleep better than all the babies of us homemade-rod-in-back chumps who are being mollycoddled to sleep, wouldn’t you? Well, you’d be WRONG.
A study that sought to prove the long-term effectiveness of sleep training performed randomised follow ups to sleep trained and non-sleep trained children and found there was absolutely no difference in how well or poorly they slept at night. So one really needs to wonder, why put yourself and your baby through all that trauma for something that won’t even make their lives better in the long-term?
Perhaps the answer is that it works in the short-term and that’s good enough. Well take a look through any regular Facebook mum-group and you’ll find dozens of stories about parents needing to “retrain” their babies and toddlers all over again because perfectly normal events that cause bumps in the road of sleep (house moves, new siblings, sleep progressions, potty training, illness, teething and so on) have undone all that training.
Sleep training may be sold to you as ‘a few difficult nights’ that you plough through and then it’s over, but in reality you’ll probably need to revisit those tearful nights again and again for months or even years to come
Relevant studies and articles:
Price, A.M.H, et al, (2012), Five-Year Follow-up of Harms and Benefits of Behavioral Infant Sleep Intervention: Randomized Trial Pediatrics 130 (4) 643-651
I wrote this blog for those mothers who are facing sleep training pressure from partners, family members or other mothers. I want you to know that you are right to be wary of sleep training, right to want to respond to your baby, and completely and utterly 100% entitled to make the decisions about how to nurture your baby. As mothers we are constantly being undermined and made to doubt ourselves and our abilities, but deep down you know exactly what your baby needs – mostly what your baby needs is YOU. I hope this blog helps to remind you of that.
If you have ever attempted or considered sleep training yourself, I want you to know I genuinely do not judge you as a bad person for doing so. Like I said, I’ve been almost to the brink myself and I know how hard it is. The thing is, there ARE alternatives that are much more ethical and developmentally supportive to your baby. I’ve got a blog post on my top gentle sleep techniques here and a free guide to surviving sleep regressions (or progressions, as I prefer).
And finally, in the face of endless sleep training culture, I was incredibly relieved to find the Facebook group The Beyond Sleep Training Project, which has (at the time of writing) over 112,000 members worldwide. It is a rapidly growing evidence-based resource and support network for parents wishing to find baby and infant sleep solutions that don’t involve leaving our babies to cry.
This group shows that there is a growing resistance to baby sleep training and sleep training culture, and it’s an oasis of love, peer-to-peer support, and responsive parenting, led by a deeply committed admin team who help every single person that posts in there. I highly recommend joining the group if you would need further support in your sleep journey with your child – tell them Ecofeminist Mama sent you!