When having a baby, mothers usually conglomerate to exchange tips, horror stories and, quite frankly, to get out of the house. Thankfully, I’m in quite a few lovely mothers’ groups and it is always interesting what other parents do/don’t do. Over the course of these meetings, reading books and exchanging information in Facebook groups, I can thank many other parents for their generous advice, fantastic support and positive parenting tips.
However, I must also say that I have read incredibly much about parenting strategies which simply baffle me and make me wonder how they can still be a thing in 2021. With the wealth of research available, innumerable studies at hand and shared advice from big organisations like the NHS, La Leche League and the WHO, I have delved deep into various topics like sleep trainings, pacifiers, the carriers versus pram debate, when to start giving supplementary foods, digital media and more. From these topics, I want to concentrate on the one most engaging me (negatively, I must say), which is sleep training. I have written about it previously, but upon reading numerous books on the subject matter, there is just so much more to share.
By sharing my personal opinion on this matter, I don’t mean to discredit individual parents – I don’t know your whole story, I don’t know what you’ve been through, I don’t know what led you to the decisions you've made. However, as a whole with the research and personal experience in mind, there is no doubt for me why I cannot get behind this method, and I will share why.
A Definition of Sleep Training
Sleep training is one of the biggest no-goes for me when it comes to parenting. In my eyes it’s cruel, counteracts bonding and breastfeeding, and it is, in most cases, futile. Still, many parents in predominantly Anglophone cultures swear by it until today, but what do I mean when I’m talking about Sleep Training in this post? What I am referring to is predominantly the “cry-it-out” method, as well as Richard Ferber Method and its descendants.
Ferber proposed his method in his 1985 book Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems, in which he takes a proposedly less cruel stance on the “cry-it-out” method. He proposes to leave the baby crying for an interval of time (three minutes in the beginning, going up to ten minutes), then walk back in and soothe the baby – but only verbally, don’t pick him up, feed or cuddle him. Comfort for two-three minutes and then leave the baby alone again.
It is understandable that many parents prefer the modified Ferber sleep training over the “cry-it-out” method, where you just let your baby cry until it falls asleep – sometimes until it vomits – and don’t react to its cries. It is the cry-it-out method which I cannot describe as anything but utterly cruel, and which basically teaches the child a crucial – and terrible – first lesson in life: when I need someone, I am on my own and I have to “self-soothe”, i.e. find solutions on my own. No wonder we live in a society where people have trouble asking for help. Outlined below, I have subcategorised the most important issues related to sleep trainings, starting from immediate responses to long-lasting issues.
Distressed In Their Own Room
With the short definition of sleep training in mind, I want to get into the reasons why sleep training is not only unnecessary, but also how it counteracts the natural protective systems babies have in place.
Firstly, I sympathise with parents who are overly tired, who say, “I can’t do this anymore”, who have a crier and who just need them to sleep to keep sane. Having a child isn’t a piece of cake, any parent can attest to that; however, sleep training isn’t the way to fix your baby’s “sleep problems”. Why? Because a majority of babies do not have sleep problems. Plenty of these “problems” seem to stem from incorrect expectations parents hold, sold by marketers and blurry memories of other mothers (who tend to remember the good things about their children, but not the long nights with the crying on both parts).
Many sleep-trained babies are expected to sleep in their own bed, often even in their own room. Over the millennia we have become accustomed to a certain luxury standard with safe housing and cuddly beds; however, babies are primal creatures and they don’t know that their crib is in a safe building with you in the next room. All they know is that they will die if no one protects them during the night. Crying is their only means to communicate fear of being eaten by wolves, and closeness to a parent alleviates this fear and lets baby sink into Morpheus’s arms better. So the first reason why your baby isn’t falling asleep advertisement-style in their crib, is because their survival depends on you being there. This protection scheme is also the reason why they wake up regularly during the night to reassure themselves that they are still protected. When you have them close-by to you, they may only need to smell or hear you, turn around satisfied, and keep sleeping. However, if they sense your absence, they go into alert mode and start crying.
There are many reasons why bed-sharing with your baby makes sense and renders sleep training unnecessary. First of all, your milk supply is regulated better when baby is close-by, and you and baby form a “breastfeeding dyad”. Early weaning is closely related to babies sleeping in different beds/rooms. Secondly, baby wakes up more regularly, which is good, as it means they don’t fall into the dangerous deep sleep that is associated with increased risk of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). So to all the parents who lament their babies don’t sleep through the night by three months – don’t worry, that’s normal and protective!
When babies don’t sleep close to their mothers, they also have to rouse completely, get into distress and start crying to get comfort. I sense the smallest of Lily’s motions and offer her my breast long before either she or I are fully awake – hence I am not ripped from deep sleep as our sleeping cycles have synched up, too. In addition, babies who sleep with their mothers drink more often during the night and get the sleeping hormones melatonin from their mother’s milk – making them sleepier.
Sleep studies by James McKenna have proven that bed-sharing, breastfeeding mothers, despite their babies waking more often, get more sleep than mothers in any other sleeping constellation (although even I sometimes have to doubt that on particularly challenging nights). It’s also worth noting that the WHO recommends sleeping in the same room as baby at least for the first six months to lower the risk of SIDS.
Why “Controlled Crying” Doesn’t Work
“But we don’t let him cry it out – we walk back in after a few minutes and soothe him.” You may come across such sentences when you talk about sleep training with other parents. As mentioned in the introduction, Ferber’s method is a supposedly kinder version of the cry-it-out method; however, ultimately it doesn’t work. Ferber proposed to put children in bed when “drowsy but still awake”, so they wouldn’t associate sleep with the closeness to their parents, breastfeeding or body touch. His theory was that babies need to learn to “self-soothe”, so they also wouldn’t need their parents to comfort them when they woke up in the middle of the night. Hence, parents were forbidden to pick the child up and soothe them when they cried, but just talk soothingly.
While adults can be soothed by voice, babies cannot. Babies need touch and body closeness to calm down and be soothed. Which is why falling asleep while breastfeeding is the best option you can give them. It emulates how life was in the belly almost perfectly. The baby can smell you, hear you, doesn’t feel hunger, has the sucking motion and feels tucked in. It’s the perfect cocktail to make a baby sleep. So why disturb it and “cure” your baby’s invented sleeping problems with cruel methods that male doctors invented in the 18th century because they felt “child-rearing couldn’t be left to emotional women.”?
It is worth noting here that all babies are born prematurely. Our brains are so big that, by the time babies would be ripe for the world, the head wouldn’t be able to get out. Until the age of 15-18 months, everything is biologically intended to happen in utero, and, as psychologist and teaching specialist Vera Birkenbihl stated: “If you do any kind of training before the age of 15-18 months, you’re committing a sin.”
Babies are born perfect, in my opinion. We don’t have to teach them how to sleep (except for very rare exceptions), not more than to breathe, walk or poop. Their “sleep issues” are inherently our sleep issues, and instead of pushing our babies into a forced sleeping pattern that goes against their and our nature as mothers, we should adapt our life habits to enable the baby to feel secure. Sleep trainings, if anything, foster sleep problems – note that they are mostly done in Western and predominantly Anglophone cultures, and these cultures are known for sleep problems and insomnia at all ages, so I wouldn’t trust the Western world to teach how to sleep soundly, would you?
"He Has To Learn He Cannot Manipulate Us"
What so-called “sleep experts” don’t tell you when they take your money to “make your baby sleep” is that sleep trainings, predominantly, are futile. A survey of Today’s Parents found that 43% of the surveyed parents had to redo the training at least once more – and this survey didn’t even count the couples who gave up sleep training because they deemed it cruel or not working.
Sleep trainings derive from the lectures of Behaviourism, the notion that children need to be shaped, formed and molded into perfect little beings. When it comes to sleep training and the people who propose them, one argument is often: “Children need to learn they cannot manipulate us with their crying”, or “they need to learn that crying won’t get them the attention.” In one of the most popular sleep training books Every Child Can Learn to Sleep, it says, “The angrier the child, the shorter you stay.”
Why would anyone think that a baby in need of comfort is angry? Why not sad, frustrated, desperate or scared? Babies cannot manipulate, especially not before the 15-18 months, which should be in utero, have passed. Babies have very simple needs: love, warmth, food, clean butt. They cannot express themselves in verbally nuanced ways, all they can do is cry. Imagine you only had one device to make yourself heard and the only people who could help you chose to ignore you. How would you feel? Would you feel more independent and self-confident? I severely doubt it.
“But Sleep Training Worked For Our Baby”
If sleep training didn’t work to some extent, people would have given up on it a long time ago. However, what do you mean by “work”? When you let a baby scream, it will go silent eventually; however not because it has learnt that crying doesn’t get the parents’ attention, but because humans are built to response with flight when fight doesn’t work. Babies who go silent do so because if no one will protect them, they at least stay quiet, so the wolves don’t find them as quickly. Babies who appear to be sleeping soundly are often awake, paralysed with fear. And even if they eventually fall asleep, studies have shown that the cortisol levels of sleep-trained babies remained high long after the training was over. Heightened cortisol levels and increased stress can lead to impaired brain development, high blood pressure, heightened heart rate and problems to focus. Parents who claim their child will learn to be independent by sleep training should know that the exact opposite is achieved by such trainings (also, why does a little baby already have to be independent?).
Apart from the physical implications of sleep trainings, there are also educational issues. In Sweet Sleep: Nighttime and Naptime Strategies for the Breastfeeding Family, it is stated “model kindness, and children learn kindness. Model distance, and they learn distance.” If you want a caring child who doesn’t look away from people in pain, you have to start with how you treat your children. In Schlaf gut, Baby! the authors also point out that older siblings who experience the sleep training of their younger sister or brother, may find the experience traumatic. All day long they’re being taught to care for and nurture the little baby, and then she cries and cries and screams and no one takes care of her. A toddler or young child cannot understand “logical reasoning” like we do to justify such means, all it sees is that her sibling in distress is not helped – and now imagine what kind of security that behaviour proposes to such a child!
Another point mentioned in Schlaf gut, Baby! is that just because something works, it doesn’t have to make it right. Not too long ago, babies were given droplets of alcohol to make them sleep and it worked wonderfully – still, we’d frown upon such methods today, even if they are efficient.
So What To Do?
Sleep is an issue in every mother’s group I’ve been so far. We all think about it, stress about it and, sometimes, battle with it. I am no saint, either. I’ve had my moments when I left the room, tears in my eyes, and let Lily cry for a minute or two – not because she needed to learn a lesson, but because I was completely over it myself.
By criticising sleep training, I also don’t mean to attack parents who, out of sheer desperation, once let their baby cry while they probably cried in the next room. Most of us have been there, but what matters is whether we heal these cracks that happen over time (and they do happen, regardless how much you try to prevent them). I’ve had my doubts about my system hundreds of times, but for me the question of sleep training is a mute one, as I could never go through with it. Hearing Lily cry for even a minute makes my heart rip in two – doing it consciously and deliberately is something I cannot even start to comprehend.
For me the question of baby sleep hinges on two main posts: Attitude and Environment. First of all, I need to realise that babies don’t “sleep like a baby”, but have shorter sleep cycles that help them reassure they’re still protected, and decrease the risk of SIDS. When you realise that “sleeping through” is not normal during the first years of your child (it comes and goes with their development), you are less likely to feel your baby has “sleep problems” if he doesn’t sleep through yet.
Another aspect of Attitude is the fact that each baby is different. You wouldn’t question whether something is wrong with you just because you prefer climbing and your friend prefers riding horses, would you? Or that your husband goes to bed late and you are up at the crack of dawn – because you are different people. Babies are the same. Just because your friend’s baby has this and that sleep cycle, it doesn’t mean it’s the right fit for you – and this is the main and major issue with sleep trainings. Just the idea that you can devise a training that fits every individual child is preposterous. You know your baby best and what she needs, so it’s time to listen to the voice within instead of all the voices from the people around.
The second post is Environment. For me the best environment for the whole family is bed-sharing. Of course parents are tired if they have to get up ten times at night! Lily sleeps right next to me, and we both sleep sounder for it. I can regularly check if she’s still breathing, and she doesn’t have to get to crying to find comfort and food. Bed-sharing is the most natural, intimate and logical constellation in my opinion. It is the safest option, too, contrary to what many paediatricians still say. If you are concerned how to bed-share safely, I highly recommend reading Sweet Sleep: Nighttime and Naptime Strategies for the Breastfeeding Family by La Leche League (it’s not exclusively for breastfeeding mothers).
Part of Environment is also asking for help in time. I understand that in the Western cultures, the family structures are not as tight-knit as they are elsewhere; however, there is usually a wealth of support available in some way or other. Rope in your partner, midwife, friends, parents, or even someone you pay. I feel part of why our babies have to “function” so early on is to fit into our perfectly manicured lives, but having a child is messy. Adapt your environment to the baby, not vice versa. The baby cannot adapt to the circumstances as well as you can, and you can ask for help in many more ways than he can.
I understand that there are single mothers out there, women who live in countries where you have to be back at work a few months after birth (or even weeks), and I don’t mean to impose a fairy-tale version of motherhood. But in my opinion, letting you baby cry should be the very last resort, happening in moments of sheer desperation and frustration. As parents, I feel it is our duty to a) not let it come so far if possible by asking for help, and b) to find kinder solutions for our children. Because a baby needs her mother, and that is a truth no expert can talk away. They need us, so let us be there for them.
This has been a long post, packed with information, but I feel it’s important for me to talk about the studies and research that’s being done on sleep trainings. Having read a few books “from the other side”, I couldn’t help noticing that they are never supported by hard science. Authors suggest merely that children will become more independent if they have to sleep independently; however, that has not been (to my knowledge) proven by any long-term studies. Parents have to decide themselves how to proceed and treat babies and their sleep. Yet, if you decide to employ such a radical method (and the reasons may be understandable), it should still be crucial to at least know what is happening to your child during such a training. And, of course these children also predominantly grow up to be healthy, friendly adults – but you can never know how much happier and further they might have come in their development if they’d experienced unconditional love, closeness and intimacy from the very beginning and beyond – all day long, not just two thirds of the way.
Renz-Polster, Herbert & Nora Imlau. Schlaf gut, Baby! Der ruhige Weg zu sanften Nächten. Gräfe und Unzer Verlag, 2016. Print.
Schmidt Nicola. Artgerecht: Das andere Baby-Buch. Verlagsgruppe Random House. 9th edition, 2020. Print.
La Leche League International (Diane Wiessinger et al.). Sweet Sleep: Nighttime and Naptime Strategies for the Breastfeeding Family. Ballantine Books, 2014. E-book.