Urban Legends about Baby Sleep Training
For a new parent, getting a good night’s sleep is like finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow — elusive, possibly mythical, but enough to support you through the next 24 hours with your kid (or bender with a leprechaun). Which is why sleep training is so appealing.
But there are a lot of urban legends dancing around out there, keeping parents from deciding if and which version of sleep training is right for their family. So let’s break them down.
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Myth #1: Sleep training means your child will sleep through the night without waking.
The point of sleep training your baby is not to get your child to sleep uninterrupted through the night; training a baby to sleep through the night without waking is impossible. (Adults can’t even do that.)
Rather, the goal of sleep training is to get her to soothe herself back to sleep independently when she wakes up. She may even wake you up when she wakes up, but she won’t need you in order to fall back to sleep.
Myth #2: You never need to worry about your child’s sleep again.
As children grow and develop, their sleep needs and patterns change. Regressions may occur naturally, or they may be the result of a transition like a shift to a new home or a new sibling. It’s possible you may need to remind your child of how to self-soothe in the future.
Myth #3: Sleep training a baby doesn’t jive with attachment parenting.
Most of the criticism levied at sleep training comes from attachment parenting proponents, who specifically reject the Cry It Out method for teaching children “learned helplessness.”
But sleep training is a spectrum, and Cry It Out is only one of many methods. Other versions allow for more attention from parents. Child-led methods like Fading or Pick-Up/Put-Down, which allow for close, responsive contact between parent and child, are most closely aligned with the values of attachment parenting.
Myth #4: Your success depends on strictly adhering to a specific method.
There are many different methods for sleep training, and each give explicit directions on how to get your child to self-soothe. But a study by Lynn Loutzenhiser, a psychologist at the University of Regina, and John Hoffman suggests that parents’ attitude going into sleep training impacts success. Sleep training a baby is about what works for your child and for you — and you are the only one who can decide that.
Myth #5: Sleep training only happens at night.
The golden rule of all baby sleep training methods is consistency. How you respond to your child in the middle of the night should be the same way you respond to your child if he or she wakes in the middle of a nap.
Myth #6: Sleep training harms the baby.
This is perhaps the biggest myth circulating about baby sleep training. Studies — most notably one in Australia just this year — have shown that sleep training has no long-term negative effect on parent-child attachment or babies’ emotional and behavioural wellbeing.
And in the short term, the cortisol (stress hormone) levels of babies in the Cry It Out group, the Fading group, and the no-sleep-training control group all fell within normal range. (Over time, actually, the sleep-trained babies experienced lower levels of cortisol than the control group).
That sleep training negatively affects babies “is a concern that has been expressed by many parents, which is interesting to me as a scientist, as there is no compelling evidence to support this claim,” said the study’s lead author, Michael Gradisar, associate professor of psychology at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia to CNN in May.
Myth #7: Sleep training can only be started at 6 months.
Efforts to prevent babies’ sleep difficulties “should focus in the first 3 months, beginning as early as 1 month …” wrote Dr. Jacki Henderson, professor of psychology of the University of Canterbury in Canterbury, New Zealand, in the conclusion of her 2010 study of infant sleep patterns.
This means parents of babies as young as 1 month can begin to give their babies subtle clues that will help them learn to self-soothe and sleep through the night on their own. (Note that it is not recommended to let babies ‘cry it out’ at this age.)
Called sleep cues – routine actions like dimming the lights, rocking, swaddling, and putting the baby in her crib drowsy but awake, etc. – these signs tell the baby it’s time for sleep.
Myth #8: It works better if the baby is very tired from not napping or staying up late.
Naps are an important part of a baby’s sleep cycle. Not napping actually stresses a baby out, making it more difficult to sleep train a baby at night, not less.
“When you or your baby becomes overtired, the body is stressed. Chemical changes then occur to fight the fatigue, and this interferes with the ability to easily fall asleep and stay asleep — that is, the baby gets a second wind,” writes Dr. Marc Wiessbluth in his book, Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child.