A Closer Look at Sleep Training Promises

All over social media, we’ve been seeing a big push to sleep train for reasons beyond the obvious one of getting more sleep. We polled our audience to ask what the top reasons they see sleep training being sold as the answer to, and today we want to explore what the research behind these claims truly says. Now this is not to shame anyone who chose to sleep train, but rather we want to empower you in your choice not to sleep train. You shouldn’t be pressured into sleep training because you feel like you need to “teach” your baby how to sleep or give them the gift of sleep, or any other reason! 

Promise 1: “Sleep training will teach your child to self-soothe” Let’s start here because this is one of the biggest ones we hear all the time. The promise of self-regulation from infancy. Before we get to the science on this one, we want to ask you, how well can you self-soothe from a heightened state of stress? If you’re anything like us, you probably can recognize yourself getting escalated and if you’re lucky acknowledge those feelings before lashing out and doing something you don’t mean to do (raise your voice, say something you don’t mean, or even do something you don’t want to do). Most of the time however, we find that we cannot fully come back to calm ourselves, without some form of connection and interaction with someone we feel close to. We vent to each other, our partners, our parents, anyone we trust, which helps us to down regulate back to calm. Alternatively we might go out for a walk, focus that frustration into a chore or task, or try to distract ourselves out of that feeling. We very rarely self-soothe without some form of external input. If as adults we struggle with this, we find it completely ridiculous that we expect a baby, who may not be able to sit up independently, to regulate their own emotions. The promise of self-soothing is just not possible in infancy. 

Now what does the research say? 

“According to the internalization model of emotional development, infants initially possess precursor emotions that need to be regulated interpersonally (Holodynski/Friedlmeier 2006; see also Calkins/Hill 2007; Sroufe 1996). More specifically, before infants integrate the components of an emotion (i.e. appraisal, physical reaction, expression, and feeling) and their contextual embedment (i.e. cause, action) into a fully functioning system, care-givers co-regulate the infant’s emotional behavior and experience.” (Silkenbeumer, Et Al, 2016). 

“Self-regulation develops in the context of social relationships and is dependent on “co- regulation” provided by parents or other caregiving adults.” (Murray, Et Al, 2015). 

We can see that the expectation of self regulation or self-soothing from infancy is just not realistic. It’s not something that infants can do on their own. They rely on us to co-regulate with them, then after many, many, instances of being soothed by us, they will eventually develop the capacity to soothe themselves. 

Promise 2: You need to sleep train to be a good mom. You don’t need to sleep train to be a good mom because you ALREADY are a good mom! Could you be better able to show up with energy and excitement if you were a little better rested, maybe. But what does your baby really need? Not a whole lot other than you. They want to know you’re close and they need their needs to be met; both physical needs and those for comfort, closeness, and connection. 

If you do feel like you need more rest to be the parent you want to be, we’re ALL for rested, healthy parents! The amazing thing here is that sleep training isn’t the only answer for how you can get more sleep. We help families to shift daytime and nighttime sleep patterns, to improve their family’s sleep, all while staying close and connected to your child. If sleep training doesn’t align with your values as a parent, you never have to resort to it to get more sleep! We’ve supported hundreds of families to get more sleep, without ever using any form of sleep training. 

Promise 3: Your baby needs sleep to be healthy/for their development. Does your baby need sleep? Absolutely. Are we our best selves when we’re rested? Of course we are. Are babies who are waking often through the night but are quickly soothed back to sleep, sleep deprived? Nope! Babies have been waking at night forever. It’s nothing new. We’re tired because we’re up rocking or feeding them for 20-30 minutes at a time, but most babies are back to sleep as soon as we pick them up, or feed them (or very soon after).

We all have partial arousals in our sleep where we wake up for a moment, before returning to sleep. For us as adults, we may check our alarm clock, adjust our blankets, use the bathroom, or simply roll over and continue sleeping. For our babies, they may need some form of support to get back to sleep, or for a need to be met, but once those needs are met they are just as quickly back to sleep as well. 

Promise 4: Sleep Training is a “gift” we give our children. This is one of the newer ones but a lot of you said that this was one of the things you felt pressured around, so let’s talk it out. The idea here is that you’re giving your baby the lifelong gift of sleep. Now there’s no denying that sleep is wonderful and we all benefit from it, but for this to be true, the opposite also has to be true. That is, the absence of sleep training does not give our children the “gift of sleep”. We know this is simply untrue. Babies who are not sleep trained can still sleep, because it’s a biological function. Just like babies don’t need to be taught to eat or eliminate, they don’t need to be taught to sleep. Many babies require a lot of support to fall asleep and even stay asleep in the early days, but this tends to reduce as they grow up, just as the need to be carried everywhere reduces as they learn to crawl and walk. 

So instead of focusing on giving our children the “gift of sleep training” we should shift our focus to a different gift we can give them. Tina Payne Bryson says, “The science indicates that one of the best predictors for how well our children turn out is that they have secure attachment to at least one person.” So instead of focusing on sleep, should we not be placing more emphasis on attachment? Similarly, Dr Deborah MacNamara suggests that “The greatest gift we have to offer a child is an invitation to rest in our care. This isn’t the type of rest that comes from sleeping but from an enduring invitation for contact and closeness, a sense of significance and mattering, as well as a sense of belonging and being known by the people a child is most attached to.”

We know that babies cannot self soothe, you don’t need to sleep train to be a good parent (you already are a good parent), your baby is meant to wake at night and is quickly returning to sleep so getting all the sleep they need, and that secure attachment is the best gift we can give our children. We hope that by taking the time to go over these few things you are feeling more confident in your choice not to sleep train and that you feel reaffirmed in following your instincts. The final thing we want you to know is that if you ever do feel like you need more sleep that does not mean you are left with the option to sleep train. You can make changes to get more sleep for your family all while staying close and connected to your child.

Studies Referenced: 

Silkenbeumer, Judith, Schiller, Eva-Maria, Holodynski, Manfred, & Kärtner, Joscha “The Role of Co-regulation for the Development of Social-Emotional Competence.” Journal of Self-Regulation and Regulation, Volume 2 (2016)

Murray, Desiree W., Rosanbalm, Katie, & Christopoulos, Christina. (2015). Self- Regulation and Toxic Stress Report 4: Implications for Programs and Practice. OPRE Report # 2016-97, Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Categories: : Sleep Support, Sleep Without Sleep Training