Have you been told that sleep training will harm your baby? Worried about whether crying will damage your bond with your child? I’ve got answers!
As a child sleep consultant, I get questions all the time from nervous parents about sleep training. So, in this week’s blog I’m going to break down some of the most common questions (and misconceptions) about sleep training.
Is sleep training just “cry it out”?
If the term “sleep training” makes you think of putting your baby in the crib, saying “good luck,” and shutting the door, allow me to reframe that image. Yes, sleep training will involve a method for teaching your baby or child to fall asleep on her own. But method is a small part of the overall process.
It’s helpful to think about sleep as a puzzle – there are many pieces that fit together. For your baby to fall asleep easily, she needs to be tired, but not overtired. She should have a good nap schedule for her age, and a reasonably early bedtime. She needs time before sleep to relax and unwind, so the right bedtime routine is important. The environment where she sleeps needs to be right – It’s hard to sleep when it’s too warm or cold, or the room is too noisy or bright. True “sleep training” means fitting together all the puzzle pieces, so that sleep happens easily.
Let me put it to you another way: the sleep plans I put together for families are, on average, about 8 pages long. The sleep training “method” is about 2 pages. That’s it! About 25% of the plan to get a baby or child sleeping better is the method. The other 75% is about all the other puzzle pieces – sleep environment, nap schedules, watching your child for sleepy signs, routines, etc.
Can you tell I don’t like to use the term “cry it out”? It implies just putting baby to bed and shutting the door. There’s so much more to it than that!
Is there such a thing as a “no cry” method?
When it comes to sleep training, there are gentler methods and more direct ones. Ultimately, the method you select boils down to your comfort level and parenting style. All methods can work if you are consistent.
But there is no such thing as a “no cry” method. Even so-called “gentle” sleep training methods involve some crying. Why? Because you are asking your child to learn something new, and that can be hard. And because no one likes to change when it first happens! Think about the last new job you started. There was likely a learning curve, and you probably remember feeling very frustrated at times. Sleep is a learned skill, too.
Crying is your baby’s way of working through this change. She should be allowed to have a voice, right? Plus, remember your baby or child may be overtired if she is sleeping poorly. Overtired babies and children cry more!
Will crying hurt my child?
I’ll start by saying this: It depends on why your child is crying. Overtired babies cry more (I’m talking about in general, not during sleep training) and being chronically overtired is linked to several health problems among both children and adults. So, in that sense, you could argue that lots of crying could be harmful in the long run. But…it’s not the crying, but the condition of being sleep-deprived that’s the problem.
I agree that prolonged crying without purpose is not in anyone’s best interest. That’s why we want to fix allthe things that may be causing your child to be overtired – bad schedules, too-late bedtimes, bright & noisy sleep environment, etc.
However, opponents of sleep training often cite studies that “prove” crying during sleep training is harmful, or that it breaks parent-child attachment. If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find problems with how these studies were designed or what they were measuring. If you read some of these studies you might be surprised to find that they didn’t specifically look at crying in the context of sleep training, or that the authors jumped to some pretty far-reaching conclusions with their findings. Some didn’t even use human babies as subjects!
In short…you’ll have trouble finding a well-designed research study that links temporary, controlled crying during sleep training with developmental harm or long-term damage to attachment. On the other hand, there are studies that show the long-term damage to children (and adults) from not getting the sleep they need.
But is it fair to expect my baby to sleep through the night?
To clarify, for this question we’re talking about babies over 4 months of age. Babies younger than 4 months still need help to return to sleep, and they usually need to be fed several times overnight.
Now, no one, including us adults, sleeps all the way through the night. We all wake up periodically to get comfortable and make sure things are OK around us. Babies and children do the same; we don’t notice these wakeups if they have independent sleep skills.
However, if a child is struggling to return to sleep, they will cry or call out. This happens if they haven’t learned how to return to sleep on their own. When a child needs to be “helped” back to sleep several times each night, the quality of their sleep is affected. And over time, this can lead to a chronically overtired child and family.
Over 4 months of age, your baby has the biological ability to sleep through the night meaning, if she wakes overnight, she can put herself back to sleep. Of course, your baby may still need 1 or 2 feeds overnight. That leads to the next question I often get…
Can I nurse/feed my baby while sleep training?
This is another common concern from parents, but let me reassure you: Yes, you can still nurse or feed your baby while sleep training.
While some babies are ready to drop night feeds by 4 or 5 months of age, most are not. Regardless, this is always a decision that I leave to the parents and their pediatrician. Before we start formal sleep training your pediatrician can advise you on how many night feeds are needed, and then we build those feeds into the sleep plan.
This also extends to other needs, by the way. We always want to meet your baby or child’s needs – whether it be illness, hunger, or a safety concern.
Am I a bad parent for wanting to sleep better?
It might be appropriate to flip this question on its head: Is it wrong to want your baby to get consolidated sleep, and to get enough sleep yourself so you can show up for your child?
If your child is waking overnight and needs help to return to sleep, their (and your) sleep is fragmented. This can cause a sleep debt to build and start a vicious cycle. Being sleep-deprived is hazardous to your health; estimates are that 100,000 car crashes per year are due to driver fatigue. And sadly, some children who never learned independent sleep will experience lifelong sleep problems.
And consider this: When you teach your child independent sleep, you are giving her a precious gift. You are teaching her a skill that she will need for the rest of her life.
The bottom line: A lack of sleep hurts more than sleep training
A popular misconception about sleep training is that it is just “cry it out.” But nothing could be further from the truth. “Sleep training” refers to all the components that make up healthy sleep for your baby or child. When it comes to methods, there is no such thing as a “no cry” method, but there are gentler and more direct methods. The amount of crying involved is often dependent on both the method and how overtired your baby or child is. However, there is no evidence that crying during sleep training is harmful.
What questions do you have about sleep training? Tell me in the comments!