Is Sleep Training safe?
Written by guest writer Karen Bramall, founder of Baby Sleep the Night Ltd.
The thing about having a baby is that everyone will tell you how you’re doing things wrong and how to do them ‘properly’.
This is where the question ‘Is sleep training safe for my baby’ comes from… someone telling you how sleep training will damage your child permanently.
Absolutely everyone who has had a child has an opinion on parenting (and they too absolutely have that right to it). But I don't agree with when those judgements and opinions get rammed down other peoples' throats!
I have worked with thousands of struggling sleep-deprived families over the last decade and let me tell you…
You are doing a great job as a parent.
Sleep training is perfectly safe for your child.
Whether you want to opt for it or not is your choice, and no one else has the right to make that decision for you (or judge you for it), but you are not harming your child if you do decide to sleep train him or her.
Here are my counter-arguments to all the misconceptions people spread around about sleep training:
Can Sleep Training Affect the Health of my Baby?
Teaching children healthy sleep habits that enable them to get a really good night’s sleep is actually incredibly beneficial to both the child’s physical and mental health and that of their parents.
Babies who sleep well are healthier, happier, and develop lots of other great habits as a result. A great appetite is just one of many beneficial side effects of sleep training – if it’s done absolutely right.
Sleep is AS important for a baby’s health and well-being as food and water.
It is for all of us. Totally deprived of sleep, we would actually die! Our bodies are really very clever at knowing what is good for them and the ‘switching off’ that we are designed to do for a large part of our existence is for our very survival. That’s why we do it for a whopping third of our lives!
We sleep due to our fundamental NEED for it. If you want to get technical, it’s down to the Sleep-Wake Homeostasis – The tendency of a system, especially the physiological system of higher animals to maintain internal stability, owing to the coordinated response of its parts.
A bit of a mouthful, right?
In layman’s terms, our bodies NEED rest to function properly on so many biological and mental levels – it is essential and when it is compromised, so are we!
Have you ever uttered the words ‘there just aren’t enough hours in the day’? We all have! If there was an option to just borrow 4 or 5 extra hours of ‘day’ from the ‘night’ with no consequence, wouldn’t we? But there are very real consequences of doing that, so we don’t – this highlights the huge difference between wants and needs.
Your child has even more of a need for sleep in their formative years than we do as adults. Deep phase sleep is the REALLY important bit that they should have more of in the first two years of life than in any other years that follow. We’re biologically designed that way.
It’s where the old adage ‘sleep like a baby’ comes from. They need more of it as their bodies have a huge amount of work to do in those early years that won’t be repeated once fully-grown and developed.
But sleep-deprived children (and parents!) are usually sorely lacking in deep phase sleep.
Why Is Deep Phase Sleep Necessary for Children?
Deep Phase Sleep is when essential bone and muscle growth occurs, when neurotransmitters in the brain form connections, and your child commits to memory things that they have learned in the day.
It’s also when the immune system recharges. I have worked with SO many families who go from bug to bug to bug in their household because their immune systems are all on their knees.
So, it’s hugely important.
As for parents:
Sleep deprivation in parents is the leading cause of postpartum depression, with mothers of babies who don’t sleep through the night being three times more likely to be depressed. I have watched this depression lift within under a week when working with a family COUNTLESS times.
(Sleep deprivation is used as a torture method for a reason!)
What’s more, over-tired parents have fallen asleep while their babies were in the shower, while their babies are feeding, and even while driving. This last one particularly resonates with me because I almost crashed MY car with all three of my daughters in it back when I was a walking sleep-deprived zombie who didn’t know that teaching your child to sleep soundly was even possible.
Lack of sleep also leads to poor decision-making, crankiness, irritability, forgetfulness, and an inability to concentrate. If you’re brave enough take a look at some of these global disasters caused by lack of sleep, it’s actually terrifying! Most of these were after a few sleepless nights… parents often have to suffer for months or even years of sleep deprivation if they don’t seek intervention!
Is Crying Bad For My Baby?
FACT: All babies cry, and what’s more, it’s completely normal for them to cry.
Dr Thomas Berry Brazelton, a hugely respected doctor who developed neonatal scales used in hospitals worldwide actually determined that crying in infants is actually NECESSARY.
Children, especially babies, cry for many reasons.
When they are born, they cry because they are overwhelmed by the sensory overload – funnily, everyone is delighted to hear that cry, it actually is a sign to parents and doctors that the baby is healthy.
There are also some ‘needs’ that they would cry for, to request assistance as they cannot provide these things for themselves. But how many times have you fed, changed, and cuddled the baby and yet they are still crying? Or fed the baby to sleep only for them to wake screaming 45 minutes later only to be satisfied by another feed?
Ponder over that one if you will – if it were one of those needs, and you satisfied it, surely it wouldn’t come up again so quickly?
Of course, it wouldn’t!
Babies also cry when tired and, ironically, just want to sleep!
The HUGE difference with this one?
Babies actually have NATURAL internal skills that can satisfy this need with, and it’s as parents that we so often inadvertently confuse them on this one because the sound of crying bothers us!
Crying, when rediscovering those internal skills, is not going to have any nasty repercussions on your child as long as your baby’s NEEDS are met and she knows you love her. So long as you reassure them in these times, that you’re right there supporting them – but not so much that you totally do it for them – then they will develop wonderful healthy sleep habits that will be the strongest foundation for them to thrive on.
So why do people claim that sleep training is bad? Aside from the need to feel like perfect parents for their own choices?
They Claim Sleep Training Creates Cortisol
Our brains produce a hormone called cortisol when stressed. The studies that scare people are all related to cortisol as this can indeed affect a baby’s overall health, as well as the parents.
Cortisol is absolutely essential for our survival. It’s present in every day life, and is also the thing that floods our bodies in stressful situations due to our ‘fight or flight reflex’ and is there to protect us.
A child who is exhausted and just wants desperately to go to sleep produces cortisol while crying (among many other times!).
But, will your child produce cortisol during sleep training? It’s highly likely.
They have convinced themselves that they need you to feed/cuddle/rock them to sleep due to the conditioning that we accidentally create with the best and most loving of intentions.
When we attempt to correct that, they react to the change with protest, and, with a child, their form of protest normally involves at least a few tears. And yes, when they cry due to any form of stress, they produce cortisol.
Does Sleep Training Result in Cortisol Production?
I’m not arguing that or that cortisol is not present when a child or anyone of any age cries. I make no bones about it. Cortisol is the stress hormone, and none of us enjoys stress much.
The naysayers that scare people around sleep training are those misreading studies related to Cortisol and its effects on the brain. It’s understandable; excessive stress can affect all of our brains negatively!
Which parent of a toddler hasn’t been there when they have had the hugest meltdown at not getting what they want?? My daughter kicked and screamed for a solid hour once when she was 3 years old when I refused to let her cut up her own cheese on toast with a sharp knife! (She’s 22, I still remind her of it now!)
Were her cortisol levels raised? You betcha they were, she was LIVID!
The huge difference with sleep training is that it makes us feel guilty, as in the moment, we might actually be able to salve that crying faster and help them get to sleep, due to our self-created associations – though, in the long run, we are actually creating more and more stress for them which can go on for a very long time.
It’s a catch-22 situation.
Why does a child often cry when Sleep Training?
In sleep training, we’re just working on reminding the child that they have their own internal skills for this vital process, which is ultimately what we need to be great independent sleepers, and it’s entirely possible to do this in a completely supportive and safe way.
When teaching children who have made unhealthy associations to ‘props’ to sleep well, you may see them protest, and there may be real tears. This is because we are ALL very protective about our sleep environment, and don't like change. (If you got in bed tonight and there was no pillow..or even just a different one to normal, you would notice it instantly and you’d complain too right…? My husband steals mine all the time!)
My methods allow their parents to be right beside them, helping them throughout the process of learning. My methods are the gentlest possible whilst still being effective and allowing the child room to learn. They enable you to comfort, touch and talk to the baby throughout the process, building their independence gradually and in a supported way.
Now, for the kicker….do you know who has really high levels of the cortisol stress hormone?
A child who is chronically sleep-deprived!
Who has built up cumulative sleep debt by being awake even an hour each night (that’s 7 hours in the matter of just a week of missed sleep), produces MUCH more Cortisol than a child who cries for a short time whilst getting used to a change.
So, stress causes short-term cortisol production, and sleep debt causes chronic long-term cortisol production, which is far worse for all concerned. This is why I tell parents how important I believe it is for children to learn to get themselves to sleep and to stay asleep.
Why is it Important For a Child to Self-Soothe?
A baby who can self-soothe will have far fewer nights where they are crying, as they won’t want to be rocked or fed to sleep.
They will learn to snuggle down and drift off really happily, with a big smile on their faces, and get all the vital nourishing sleep that they need and as a result, be happier and healthier. It’s wonderful.
There is also the lovely by-product of having happy, healthy, energised parents who usually can’t wait to see their children’s little smiling faces in the morning, rather than parents who almost weep at the sound of the grumpy overtired wakeup cry…(probably coming from both parties who have been up half the night!)
Babies wake during the night… it is completely normal. However, when your baby wakes up in the middle of the night and is not hungry, or in discomfort, then the healthy thing for her to do is go back to sleep as quickly as possible. She might make a bit of noise, but if she has learned to self-soothe, she will go back to sleep without you having to do anything.
If, on the other hand, she can only go to sleep when rocked or held, that’s what she will expect. So it’s not that your child is physically incapable of going to sleep without your help; she is simply responding to what she has learned.
Adults do it too…they’ll say they CAN’T sleep without their favourite pillow, the TV on, etc. The truth of the matter is yes, they CAN, and yes, they will. It simply takes a bit of getting used to.
Will Sleep Training Destroy the Bond Between My Child and Me?
On the contrary, sleep training will make your relationship stronger. When your child sleeps through the night, you aren’t sleep deprived during the day. This means you are happier, healthier, and more alert and responsive to the needs of your baby during the day… when she needs it the most!
People will claim that babies need contact and that’s what they are waking up for, ask any parent who has held their screaming child for hours on end desperately trying to ‘help’ them get to sleep and that argument falls rather flat.
Of course, babies want and indeed need contact, we all do! But when it comes to falling asleep and staying asleep, contact is not what they are crying for. It’s the desire to go to sleep and not knowing how to get there that they are frustrated about.
If they have been conditioned to cuddle to sleep, the good news is that this can be fixed as our brains have neuroplasticity.
Should I Not Cuddle My Baby At All?
Babies should be given ALL the cuddles and contact in the world. I adore cuddles!! But, only during the day, when it’s the right time for cuddles and contact and not interfering with sleep.
Babies and children are incredibly aware of your body language. Even if you do give them contact, but you’re tired, tense, or irritated, they will notice it. If you’re tired because you haven’t slept properly, your hugs will reflect that and just might not have the right bonding effect.
Loving contact and hugs release oxytocin, which is a hormone that strengthens the feeling of love and bonding between parents and child. If you and your child share a lot of happy hugs and physical contact during the day, your bond will grow stronger.
I’ll let you into a secret…I love cuddles so much that I don’t deny that I feel a bit sorry for my children as they don’t get to cuddle as I do in the night with my husband. But you know what?
It’s ok for Mummy and Daddy’s bed to be Mummy and Daddy’s bed, our relationship matters too!
Is Co-Sleeping Bad?
Not if you have researched the safest way of doing it, and not just doing it ‘by desperation’. I should point out that co-sleeping is against SIDS guidelines, so please look into the safest possible way to do it, if that is your choice.
If you choose to co-sleep and have the children in bed with you, good for you! That is your choice and I’m not anti-co-sleeping AT ALL if it works for families. It’s not my place to, I wouldn’t dream of judging. There are enough parent-bashing and judgement out there, that’s for sure!
So Why IS My Baby Waking At Night?
Of course, a small baby needs feeding in the night, as their tummies are just not big enough to take enough nutrition to sustain them for 12 hours.
But if a baby is over 6 months, has doubled birth weight, and is still waking in the night for food, it is highly likely habitual and about comforting back to sleep in some way, not hunger…even if they guzzle three full bottles per night!
When it comes to babies or children waking up at night, 99.9% of the thousands of cases I have worked with have Sleep Onset Association Disorder (SOAD). These are habitual, association-related wakes that can be easily solved.
There are cases where the baby could be waking up for medical reasons. I will always recommend you rule those out before you seek sleep training. However, in my experience, those issues are very rarely the cause of night crying for most babies.
But ‘Why Is Crying’ It Out So Hotly Debated?
The reason that crying it out, and any other sleep training methods for that matter, are misunderstood and judged negatively by some people is that the most vocal advocates and critics know less about the subject than they claim! Astonishingly the vast majority of critics of every sleep training method have never even read the books that explain them!
Sleep training has been around for well over a century! This isn’t anything new. The term CIO actually came about in 1894(!) From a rather brusque-sounding man called Luther Emmet Holt, who said:
“How is an infant to be managed that cries from temper, habit, or to be indulged?
It should simply be allowed to “cry it out.” Such discipline is not to be carried out unless one is sure as to the cause of the habitual crying.”
Now I’m not the hugest fan of his tone (he sounds very warm, doesn’t he!), but that was the language of his time, I guess, and we of course know that though there are far more supportive ways to bring about the change than the way he made it sound.
I should say that Holt was spot on in his observations as he went on to document that objection usually improves drastically after the first night and often is minimal by night 3 (true), and that you must:
‘Pay close attention to the infant lest you miss an important cause of the crying that might not be “temper, habit, or to be indulged”’
So he really wasn’t uncaring, just could have done with some TLC, which certainly Baby Sleep The Night certified sleep consultants would tell you we’re massive advocates of!
The idea of it being bad for your baby came about from the Romanian orphanages where people saw rows and rows of babies, lying in cots, not making a sound.
These babies knew that no one would come if they cried, so they just gave up.
It is absolutely heart-breaking to think of them…but your baby is not in the same situation at all.
You love your baby and want them to grow up into a healthy, happy, calm, independent person.
You hug them and cuddle them and play with them during the day.
You never ignore a cry if they are hungry, or cold, or in pain, which, if you work with an expert, they can show you how to take the guesswork out of.
You wouldn’t EVER leave them to cry for hours, for days on end.
You will be right beside them, comforting then through the discovery of those internal skills, not in a pit of lions, but in a warm safe cot, with you in sight, comforting and talking to them as they learn.
Your child won’t grow up to be emotionally disturbed. Instead, they will learn to sleep independently – the healthy way.
Should I Sleep Train My Baby?
I am not telling you how you should raise your child or how to get her to sleep. You are the parent, and it is completely YOUR decision; No one has the right to tell you what to do.
However, I will say this:
I have worked with thousands of babies, toddlers, and children, and the parents of ALL of them have said their lives were transformed within a matter of days when they all got some decent sleep. I have also seen so many marriages break up, jobs lost, and parents desperately depressed as a result of sleep deprivation.
The facts are, sleep is important, crying is normal, and babies learn very quickly how to sleep independently if you do it exactly right.
Sleep training your baby will not harm them. What it will do is give you and your child the sleep that you both need.
If that doesn’t reassure you, consider this:
Would you let your baby play with a sharp knife? Or toddle into a road? No? Not even if she cries for it?
Because you know the knife is dangerous, the road is dangerous and the baby doesn’t know any better and needs your intervention for her own good.
If it’s okay to let your child cry because you don’t want her to get hurt because you care about her health, then how is it different from letting her cry for a short time temporarily to get her to sleep adequately, which is SO important for overall health?
Yet the judgemental unqualified would have you believe it is the other way around – On the contrary!
The methods I practice are designed to avoid a whole lot of unnecessary crying, which very often goes on for years and years.
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If you are considering sleep training your child, get in touch with one of the sleep consultants certified by Baby Sleep the Night™. Not only will they help you design the perfect sleep plan for your child but they will also ensure that it is in line with your parenting style.