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  • Taylor Kulik

Thoughts on whether sleep training actually helps babies get more sleep

Image credit: Alannah Morton Photography

"But what about the effects of sleep deprivation? Sleep is important for development, and sleep training helps babies get more sleep." These kinds of arguments are common when talking about whether or not babies should be or need to be sleep trained. The problem is, they are too simplistic, and we really need more depth and context to be able to talk about sleep deprivation and sleep training. Here are 2 reasons why I disagree with this point.

First of all, this reasoning is based on the implication that babies sleep like adults, and that a full night's rest (sleeping through the night) should be the goal for babies. But, babies do NOT sleep like adults. They are designed to wake at night. They spend much more of their sleep time in lighter,active stages of sleep, which is actually of benefit to them! We WANT them to be able to wake if something is wrong- if they are cold, hot, hungry, or stop breathing. Additionally, there is more blood flow to the brain during these lighter stages of sleep, so this is actually ideal for brain development.

Sleep IS important. We do not want sleep deprived babies or parents, but we need to be talking about sleep deprivation from the context of what is normal for infant sleep (the range of sleep that infants need is anywhere from 10-18 hours a day! It really varies so much with each baby), and what we can be doing to help support parents through the tough year or two when sleep is often interrupted.

Now, there are definitely situations where a baby is waking too much or really struggling with sleep, which brings me to point #2:

Sleep training does not teach baby the skill of falling asleep. You cannot teach or force sleep. Sleep is a biological function. We are all born knowing how to sleep. The ability to sleep can be impacted by SO many different factors, and if there is a reason that baby's sleep is affected, leaving them alone when distressed in the hopes that they will self-regulate will not solve these underlying issues. Think about it: as adults, we often have difficulty sleeping if something else is going on. Why don't we talk about sleep training adults who have insomnia? Many babies who have been sleep trained will actually still wake up frequently during the night, but the difference is that they won't signal to their parents. Research shows us that babies who are sleep trained are often still waking at night just as much as babies that had no intervention, but parents are not always aware of these wakes due to decreased signaling. So, if you feel like it is your job to teach your baby the skill of falling asleep, and you think the only way to do this is to gradually withdraw responsiveness, fear not. This is an illusion. The best way we can support our children to sleep is by creating an environment conducive to relaxation and sleep through meeting their connection & attachment needs and helping them to feel secure and safe.

I also want to point out that, for those parents that have a baby who wakes 10+ times a night, there is often an underlying medical issues (tongue/lip tie, food intolerance or other digestive issue, structural abnormality that impacts breathing etc.) We should not just be encouraging these parents to sleep train these babies because it will not address the underlying issue! Which means, we may either be forcing this baby to sleep deeper than they safely should be (due to the medical issue), or we are just teaching them not signal when they wake, and they may still be waking 10 times a night because the underlying issue hasn't been addressed. The lack of signaling does not mean they have learned to self-regulate (see prior posts to learn why self-regulation in babies is a myth). If you need holistic support with your child's sleep in a way that validates your instinct and treats your child as the unique individual that they are, please reach out to me!

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