Sleep Training Babies: Why it is not for me

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For Shar

The early days with a very bald baby

What is sleep training?

Sleep training- the term you will become very familiar with when you enter parenthood. It involves teaching your child to “self soothe” and to have the ability to put themselves to sleep without your help. If they wake up in the middle of the night, you would expect that they be able to go back to sleep without calling out for you. This often involves letting them “cry it out” where you do not respond to their cries straightaway so they learn to sort themselves out without you.

In the Western world, sleep training is pretty much the norm. So much so that there are even ‘sleep schools’ where professionals help you get your baby to sleep. SIDS awareness is also high here and it is expected that baby sleeps in a bassinette or cot from the start. Amongst new mothers there almost seems to be an unspoken race to get their babies to sleep through the night. Most people seem to expect that babies are sleeping through by their first birthday. If not then you will likely get plenty of (usually well-meaning) friends and family members telling you you should let them cry it out or hinting that you are spoiling your child and creating “unhealthy sleep habits” for them if you continue holding them, patting them, feeding them at night etc.

Why I chose not to sleep train my child 

Miss A is nearly 2.5 years old and has still never slept through the night. We have never sleep trained her and likely never will. This is why:

It feels unnatural

There is a reason why most of us feel highly uncomfortable when a baby cries – you are designed to respond! I often hear people say you shouldn’t respond immediately to a baby’s cry because then they “learn to manipulate you and get their way”. Erm..believe me no newborn has the capability to think about manipulating you. They are crying because they want you, their primary caregiver. It is a primal instinct. They want to be close to you all the time because they are dependent on you. You are their source of food, warmth, comfort, and security. To be apart from you means danger and even death to them. They can’t understand that you are tired or need to use the bathroom – they just want you!

If you were to call out for your partner and he or she didn’t respond, would you not feel upset? After a few nights of letting baby cry they may stop crying out for you simply because they’ve learned there is no point if you won’t respond. My back story is that I was a sleep trained baby and it didn’t turn out well. (Side note: My parents are fantastic and I have a good relationship with them. I do not blame them – they were simply made by others to feel that crying it out was the “right” way to make a child sleep and did what they thought was best.) Even after being left to cry it out though I continued to wake through the night. Sleep training can curb the crying but not the wakings. All I learned was that no one would come and rescue me. My mum would tell me that as a young child, I often did not cry or tell them when I had hurt myself until they discovered the injury on me themselves.

There are people out there who will say leaving a baby to cry won’t affect their psychological development. That crying is just something “babies do”. I really don’t believe this is true. Babies cry to communicate, not to piss you off. A baby crying because he thinks he or she has been abandoned – that’s like you crying after a breakup. Does it feel good? No.

Night wakings are normal

Babies are biologically programmed to wake constantly. In fact, we all are. We all go through light and deep phases of sleep in a cycle. Between these cycles are usually when you will toss and turn in bed. As adults though many of us just do not remember these rousings because we are so used to putting ourselves back to sleep without help and also most of us in modern society are chronically sleep-deprived.

Babies have shorter sleep cycles and a lot more light/active (REM) sleep than adults hence why they have a higher tendency to wake. The amount of time spent in active sleep decreases as they grow older. Active sleep is likely important for brain development as well as for plain survival. Babies need to wake constantly to feed in the early months for healthy weight gain. In fact, the hormone prolactin which is responsible for lactation is more abundant at night meaning night feeds for breastfeeding infants are essential for establishing and maintaining your milk supply in the first few months. Also, if newborns slept heavily from the start they would sleep through life threatening events and health conditions such as sleep apnoea.

Even though we’re already past the infant and the teething stage, I can see my toddler is still going through so much mental and physical development. I think it’s very natural for sleep to be disrupted when they are going through so many changes. Some days she will sleep better than others and after a period of bad days she will usually magically show a new level of comprehension or improvement in a skill.

I believe all kids do things in their own time and the time will come soon enough when she doesn’t need me to help her sleep. I see so many mums out there tearing their hair out over sleeping issues and have personally felt the pressure that comes from other mothers a well as health professionals to get baby to snooze 12 hours a night straight, so I just wanted to put out the flip side and say hey, you don’t really need to sleep train if you don’t want to. It’s NORMAL for babies and young children to not sleep through the night. It’s NORMAL for them to cry out for their caregiver. It’s a NORMAL biological response for you to feel like responding cries. It’s NORMAL for them to breastfeed at night. And there ARE mums out there like me who no longer have an infant but are still waking up at night.

Not sleep training doesn’t mean your kids are undisciplined

Not sleep training doesn’t mean you’re creating “bad habits” or an unruly child. All children become independent in their own time. Have you ever heard of anyone having to shush their 16-year-old to sleep in the middle of the night? Didn’t think so. A good routine is important for all kids so they know when to start winding down for bed. A typical bedtime routine usually involves a nice bath, pajamas, milk, brushing teeth, and a story or song. Sometimes this may involve rocking, patting or shushing and that’s okay. They won’t need it forever.

A child needing a parent is not a bad habit. Your child knowing you will be there when they need you has nothing to do with how disciplined they are. In fact, it builds relationship and trust with them. I don’t want my children to not ask for help because they think I won’t come to them. I want them to know that if I can be there, I will. This doesn’t mean they are spoiled or will never learn to be independent. There will be plenty of times when I obviously can’t be there e.g. when they have to go to daycare/school or I have work or a function, but I want them to know if I can be there, I will.

I have heard of people worrying that night wakings affect brain development. There is no scientific evidence for this because as I’ve mentioned before, night wakings are normal for our species. Babies who “sleep through the night” are not technically konking out from 7pm-7am, they are simply not calling out for you or needing your help if they do wake. I personally have always been able to recall waking up a few times a night and I think my intelligence turned out fine thank you very much! I think what is more important is how much sleep your child gets overall. You can gauge this by watching how they act during the day. If they are constantly cranky or are having trouble focusing on tasks then they may need more overall sleep. If older children are sleep deprived then it could certainly be an issue for their learning at school.

Miss A can wake up heaps through the night and still be cheery as anything throughout the day so clearly the waking alone is not bothering her and the amount of sleep she gets overall is sufficient. I have always had trouble sleeping because my mind races and I think she just may be like her mummy. Honestly, if you have a non-sleeper I think you have to worry more about having a deep thinker on your hands rather than a child who is not keeping up with their peers.

Not sleep training doesn’t mean you have to suffer

Waking up to your child at night is not easy, especially when the weeks stretch into months and even years. If you cannot cope, then certainly you do not need to suffer in silence. Try getting your partner to help or practicing safe co-sleeping. Sleeping together does mean you can all get more sleep overall, especially if you’re breastfeeding.

If you are completely exasperated and baby won’t stop crying, it’s alright to leave them in a safe place like their cot for a few minutes while you step out of the room to catch a breather. In this case, the risk of you snapping is far greater than the risk of letting them cry in a safe place for a little bit.

All kids are different

I have to make this clear – I am not saying sleep training is wrong. I have many friends who have sleep trained and their babies have responded well. The majority of parents around me have attended sleep school. These days most households have double incomes and it’s important for everyone to get a good night’s rest. I know there are also single parents and plenty of people who don’t have the help and support of extended family and it can be tough to carry through the sleepless nights even if you wish to.

But do keep in mind that every child is different and you should consider what method of sleep training is likely to work for your child if you do choose to go down that path. Do you think they would cry for long if you left them to themselves? Do you think a gentler approach of picking them up when they are crying and putting them down when they are calm will be successful in the end? Do you have the time and patience to go through this? Does your baby have a suitable personality for sleep training? There are babies who will just whimper for a little bit and then go to sleep and then there are others who will launch into a full-on cry for an hour until they are vomiting. The latter case is clearly not healthy in any aspect. If they continue to cry for very long periods after a week of sleep training, then you may have to consider that it’s not the right solution for your sleep woes.

Above all, your baby needs to be old enough for you to sleep train. Night feeds in the early months are very important for baby’s healthy weight gain as well as your milk supply. If you do want to sleep train, experts recommend setting up a good bedtime routine first then moving on to sleep training at 4 to 6 months. This should only be if your baby is healthy, meeting milestones and showing natural signs of self soothing such as rocking themselves or sucking their thumbs. There are also infants who naturally progress to putting themselves to sleep without need for much intervention. Some babies stop wanting to be held early on or start to lose interest in night feeds once they are eating solids well during the day. Like I said, they all do things in their own time. Some do it earlier and some later. But they all get to the same place in the end.

At this stage, we are looking to expand our family so it is likely we will start encouraging Miss A to sleep in her own room. At her age though we are able to verbally encourage her and she also has that natural toddler desire to be independent so I’m hoping it will all happen quite organically. If it doesn’t though…well, we might just end up with two kids in our bed.

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