After reading many articles written by sleep trainers and so-called sleep experts, I have concluded that they all use some version of the same script to sell their services, courses and products. Most of their claims are not backed by research or evidence at all, and the claims that are, are based on studies and methods that are either outdated or studies with poor methodology. They also take some research findings out of context and apply it to situations that are not applicable.
Here are some of the most commonly used claims, and why I don’t agree with them:
Sleep is a skill that you need to teach your baby
Sleep is a biological function – not a skill to be taught. You can teach your baby sleep about as well as you can teach them to breathe. Your baby was able to sleep in utero (with no training needed) and babies have a wonderful way of getting the sleep they need, even if you don’t feel all that rested.
Your baby wakes through the night, because they are babies. Not because they don't know how to sleep.
Babies sleep are biologically and neurologically different from adults. This is a good thing, and actually serves as a protective factor against SIDS. Additionally, they have needs that need to be met – hungry, thirsty, uncomfortable, they may need a diaper change or a cuddle – needs they cannot meet themselves.
Think about it this way: Sleep training became a “thing” in the mid 1900… which means that for centuries people were able to “learn to sleep” without sleep training.
Your baby wakes through the night, because they can’t fall asleep independently
This is based on the idea of self-soothing and all sleep training methods have “self-soothing” as one of their main goals.
Self-soothing is a term coined by Dr Tom Anders, who has continuously spoken out to correct the assumption that self soothing is a skill that needs to be taught. He was researching and writing about temperament and how some babies are naturally ‘self soothers” while others could be described as “signallers”.
In the world of sleep training, self-soothing = self regulation.
Babies and children cannot self regulate. They cannot regulate themselves down from a place of distress to a place of calm. They are neurologically incapable of this. Babies and children co-regulate with their trusted attachment figure /caregiver. They need your calm to be able to come down from a place of distress.
So, what happens in the brain of the baby who is “self soothing”?
After being left to cry (and cry and cry and cry) their bodies are flooded with cortisol – the stress hormone. They are now in fight or flight mode and their body diverts ALL its energy to survival. At some point the baby will fall asleep, NOT because they have soothed themselves, but because they are passing out from exhaustion.
“It’s the brains last mechanism for protecting itself from severe energy depletion” (dr. Stuart Shanker)
As mentioned above, there are babies who naturally self-soothe. But they don’t need to be “taught” how to do that.
Sleep deprivation is causing your mental health issues (Or you need to sleep train for your mental health)
Sleep and mental health are unquestionably intertwined. Mental health issues have a negative effect on sleep and sleep deprivation can exacerbate mental health issues. Keeping this in mind, it can be easy to blame your mental health challenges (PMAD’s) on your baby’s disrupted sleep, but did you know that studies have shown that maternal anxiety and depression can actually be contributing more to your sleep deprivation than your baby’s very normal night wakes? It’s also been shown that maternal anxiety and depression can lead to increased night waking and more disrupted sleep.
So, should we be looking at your mental health first, and then see how we can optimise your rest and possibly improve your baby’s sleep?
The other thing to consider is this: “Responding to an infant’s cry is an instinctive behaviour of human mothers. To resist the urge to approach her crying infant is emotionally and physiologically stressful for mothers. Leaving an infant to cry is evolutionarily inappropriate and biologically detrimental to both mother and baby” – Professor Helen Ball
Which begs the question: how is sleep training contributing to your mental health challenges?
I have a whole blog post on PMAD’s (and sleep) that you can check out for more information on this.
Disrupted (poor) sleep can hinder development and later academic success
First of all, babies are MEANT to wake at night. Many babies will wake and go back to sleep quickly after their need has been met (be it a physical need or an emotional one). This is not indicative of fragmented or disrupted sleep. Most parents who bedshare will report that their babies rouse briefly and feed back to sleep. That is not fragmented sleep.
The studies that these claims are based on are actually referring to school-aged children. And yes, a 12 year old waking 3 times a night and having a hard time getting back to sleep will obviously experience exhaustion and struggle at school – especially if it’s prolonged. But this cannot be applied to babies and young children. Their sleep needs are different and their sleep biology is different.
True sleep deprivation can absolutely hinder development, but we need to view sleep in the context of the child. We also need to realise that a child who is truly sleep deprived is most likely to suffer from an underlying cause, and sleep training will not fix that. So you, as a parent, may experience more consolidated sleep, but your child will not.
There are ways you can tell if your baby is sleep deprived, its not just about how many times they are waking and how many hours they are sleeping.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that all babies are born broken somehow… If babies were meant to sleep through the night from a young age, don’t you think they all would?
I get it! As parents we wish we could just get the recipe for success for raising kids. And most of these sleep training programs sound like really solid recipes. A step-by-step plan set out by experts. But, our children are not robots – they’re human. They have unique personalities, temperaments and needs. They aren’t one-size-fits-all, so generalised step-by-step plans can not work for everyone.
Especially when these plans and programs are based on half-truths and focus more on behaviour modification than it focuses on development.
Do you feel you need support with your childs sleep? Support that respects your baby's development, your maternal intuition and empowers you to confidently make decisions for your unique family?
Then, I'm your girl!
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