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Can you train a baby to sleep? Should you?

I always like to dive into topics that are constantly on my mind, but might be a bit controversial too. Maybe I’m bored. Ha! Not trying to stir the pot. But, if no one talks about this stuff… how will we ever make change? Am I right?

In the mom world we know the question is always – to sleep train, or not to sleep train?

Sleep is a normal biological function. We are all born with the ability to fall asleep, and stay asleep. Although when it comes to babies, it doesn’t always feel this way. And truthfully, sometimes in an attempt to “help” our babies sleep, we take away some of this natural ability from them. Oops!

Sleep is something that DOES mature over time. An adult’s sleep cycles are different from that of a newborn baby. And a newborn baby’s sleep cycles will differ from their 6 month old little buddy.

Newborn babies sleep very lightly, and very erratically, for good reason. They have to be able to come out of sleep quickly and easily. They are designed to survive the first year of their lives at all costs, and for this reason, nature made their sleep super eventful, and far less peaceful than an older child’s will be.

With every week that passes, every month that passes, a child’s sleep matures. Sleep IS largely a developmental milestone. Sure, there are things we can do to hurry it along. And sleep training is one of those things. Heck! The sleep coaching I do is also one of those things and I would not consider it sleep training. But for the most part, every family will have a child who sleeps through the night before their 5th birthday, regardless of any sleep training, coaching, or shaping that is done.

And even then – if you take one baby of one particular age, and compare it to a baby of the exact same developmental age and stage, their sleep would be much like comparing apples to watermelons. Sure, they’re both fruit! But, in my mind, they are entirely different. And no two babies will ever sleep the exact same. Sleep training or not.

So.. if sleep is a normal biological function.. Can you train a baby to sleep?

I suppose the answer to this question is… yes. Sleep is the outcome of most traditional forms of “sleep training”, but what exactly was achieved through that training process is highly debated.

When you “sleep train” a baby, you are often asked to do things that feel pretty unnatural. Ignore your baby’s cry, don’t touch them, or pick them up, or offer them a sip of water. You are training them for a half marathon after-all! Oh no wait.. Sorry.. We are training them to sleep in their beds, without physical human contact or connection, for 11 – 12 hours. Are they actually sleeping that whole time? Good question! Studies have actually shown that babies who are “sleep trained” wake up the same number of times per night as their non sleep trained counterparts, but they no longer signal for attention. This might be because they have learned to put themselves back to sleep, or it might be because they have learned no one is coming. It really depends what was done or not done in achieving the returning to sleep part of the sleep training. 

I think of us as in a relationship with our children for a lifetime – 24 hours a day, 7 days per week. So I do worry about what happens to that relationship when a child’s physical and emotional needs are largely ignored overnight.

Now, I will say.. I am not “anti” sleep training. I personally do not subscribe to any kind of controlled crying or ferber sleep training. You can read my personal story of why I don’t use controlled crying here, if you are curious. I will say I definitely used to “dabble” in these methods – but realized they were not for me a little more than a year ago.

But I think the more important question here is; should you sleep train your baby?

I do believe it is important, as parents.. That we always put the “oxygen mask” on ourselves first. If you are suffering so greatly from sleep deprivation – perhaps sleep training is the right answer for you. But, I would ask you to explore a few other options as well.

Might there be another way to reach your goals, without changing the way your child sleeps? Might there be another way to change the way your child sleeps, without any formal sleep training?

  • Is your partner helping you with the responsibility of putting baby to bed?
  • Do you have support during the day?
  • Are you chatting with a diverse group of parents each day? Not just those who sleep train, OR those who don’t?
  • Have you spoken to your doctor about your sleep concerns?
  • Are you trading off with your partner in the middle of the night to both get some rest?

In a previous blog post I talked a bit about sleep personalities. Just like you and your partner likely have different sleep habits, and personalities, our babies do as well. And if you’re interested in reading more about sleep personalities, check that one out here.

But I think the thing I find the MOST interesting about baby sleep is… how impatient we can be in waiting for our children to sleep through the night.

You wouldn’t be upset with your baby if they didn’t crawl by the time they were 9 months, would you? Would you be frustrated if your child took til 17 months to walk? What if they hadn’t babbled their first word before age 1?

We are SO patient as parents in waiting for all of these other developmental milestones to occur.

We know our children need to put the building blocks of these skills together. Their little brains are firing so many synapses! Their muscles are growing and strengthening, and eventually they will get there. But with sleep – we just can’t wait! And I know it might sound contrary to what I do for a living that I am proposing that we wait to see this milestone happen too.

Aren’t you a sleep trainer, Lara?

No. Actually I am not. Have I wrote a blog post on that one yet? Haha. I feel like I did once upon a time. 

I want families to know that there are alternatives to sleep training. That sometimes the resolution to your child’s very sleep “issue” is within you to discover, and it might be very unique. If you’d like some examples of things I might do to help a family achieve more sleep, check this post out here. 

But, sometimes the answer truly is – more time. And please, no sleep training of babies younger than 6 months of age at the very least. They are just not ready for the “push” that will accompany any form of sleep training, shaping, or coaching. 

If you want help to explore the other options that exist – book a discovery call with me. It is an opportunity for us to get to know each other better, and see if I am part of the solution you are seeking. 

Ultimately, please know you are doing the best you can with the tools you’ve got at this particular time. And really, that is okay! This post is not meant to guilt or shame anyone – just hoping we might all take a little look and see things a bit differently than perhaps we normally do. 

XO

Lara

Thank you as always to Stacie-Lynn Photography for this beautiful photo… interestingly, the mama here, Karly, is a talented mama and the owner of Mully’s Handcrafted. 🙂 

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Is sleep training the magic ticket for mom’s anxiety?

I’ve been wanting to blog about this for a while. But it is such a sensitive subject, I have struggled to figure out how!

I would say I was inspired by my friend and colleague Lauren Alysha Heffernan of Isla-Grace, and her post on “Wake Windows and Sleep Schedules”. She addresses an issue, that many of us in the sleep coaching industry have been somewhat ignoring. And one that is so important for us to bring attention to.

The “too lazy did not read” of this post is… Sleep training will not eliminate your postpartum depression or anxiety. 😉

Now, it may give you a focal point. A place to put your attention. A subject to think about and busy your mind with. All of those things happened for me when I was experiencing postpartum anxiety with my daughter. And it may decrease your depression and anxiety for a little while. But, it also may not. And in fact, it also might make it worse. Something very few people talk about. 

I remember telling my sleep consultant at the time, “If I could just get this baby sleeping… I am sure my anxiety would be so much lower.”

Now, if I had a dollar for every time I have heard that line since… I would probably have $50 or so. 😉

I ask every family that I work with, “is anyone in the family experiencing anxiety or depression?”. 90% of the families I work with reply. “Yes”. I then ask, “has it been diagnosed by a medical professional?” And 75% then answer, “No”.

In our consultation I always ask why this is… and many parents say that they are certain once their baby starts sleeping better, they will no longer experience these levels of depression or anxiety.  

Now, there might be some truth to this.

We know that lack of sleep is certainly related to a decrease in overall mood, and mental wellness. Experiencing regular, repetitive sleep deprivation is certainly met with increased levels of clinical depression and anxiety. We know that babies and toddlers deprive us of sleep! So making the correlation that regular sleep disruption, night wakings, and insomnia, rob us of our mental health… is a fair one to make! And one that can be statistically proven as well.

But the relationship between sleep, and postpartum mood, is a very complex one. Add in the hormonal changes, and HUGE mental shift in becoming a new mother, or mother for the second or third time, and you’ve got a bit of a crazy cocktail.

Now in Lauren’s piece, she draws attention to a new mom’s obsession with awake times, scheduling, and finding the best possible sleep schedule for their baby. She asks mothers to consider what type of person they were prior to having a baby, and how this might be presenting itself in their parenting. Were you someone who was high achieving, who set goals and could easily achieve them with the right methodologies and practice? If yes, you will likely find a lot of comfort and solace in a baby sleep schedule. *Hint – this was me at 5 months postpartum with my daughter*.

But, what about when your baby does not follow that regular predictable schedule that all other babies seem to be able to follow? It can make you feel like a total failure. *Hint – this was also me at 7.5 months postpartum*. And I have actually had moms tell me they cannot work with me because they were unable to follow the awake times I was asking of them in our consultation without feeling defeat. (Of course, I can almost always tweak things to help them feel some level of success). But, this is anxiety at work my friends! And it is a scary hairy beast! Not one to be ignored. And bringing attention to it BEFORE sleep work, can actually improve your baby’s sleep, while improving your mental health! More on that to come.

Did you know, a recently published study in The Journal of Early Child Development and Care found a positive correlation between the use of infant books that promote strict routines and increased levels of maternal depression, and decreased levels of self efficacy? (Please don’t hand your new mom friends Babywise… yes I might get some backlash for that). But it can feel like you are trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. And often new moms can’t handle this level of pressure! Heck… many experienced mamas can’t handle it either.

Now some level of sleep training, or sleep coaching, or sleep shaping, or whatever route you so choose, may help your family get more sleep. And as a result, you might start sleeping more.. And you might find you are better mentally fit to work through any remaining feelings of depression or anxiety you are experiencing. Or, you might find that yes… poof.. They are gone with the wind!

But I can tell you – for many, sleep coaching is not a magic ticket out of anxiety.  

I have worked with MANY families, and with every family I have worked with.. I have been able to increase the amount their child does sleep. But I can tell you, this doesn’t always mean that mom and dad begin sleeping well. For some, the anxiety and depression remains just as high as before we started. And for many, this is a defeating moment as well.

Now I have a sleeping baby, and I can’t sleep?! What the f*ck is wrong with me now?

Or their baby starts to sleep, but they are still analyzing every movement their baby makes in the night. Obsessing over every little detail, because it brings some level of comfort and confidence to analyze and problem solve. Two habits leftover from a successful pre-child adult life, and leftover from having a baby who DOES NOT SLEEP.

Now what I will tell you, is working on getting your anxiety or depression medically diagnosed and supported, can actually help your baby start to sleep better.

Hey now, what now?! Working on my own mental health might actually help my baby sleep better? Even without any form of sleep coaching or behavioural intervention?!

Yes.

Yes, it may!

You grew that baby for 10 months. It is connected to you on a cellular level, and it feels every feel in which you feel. Now, I am not trying to say you are projecting your anxiety on your baby (although a few of you might be nodding along now going.. Um… yup.. I’m totally doing that..), but what I am trying to say is.. If you are anxious about your baby going to sleep, they know that. If you are holding and rocking your baby in arms, riddled with anxiety about it going to sleep, it will feel that anxiety, and then also become anxious about transitioning from awake to asleep, and then not sleep, and the negative feedback loop continues!

But the good news here… making small changes to your own mental health and well-being, may help baby go to sleep more easily. It may help your expectations become a bit more realistic, and as a result, you might even enjoy that little 14 pound cutie a little bit more than you already do. You are feeling the love, baby is feeling the love, and bada bing bada boom.. Baby’s sleep improves.

Now, the intention of this blog is NOT to guilt anyone who did sleep train their baby in direct response to the anxiety they were experiencing. (I’m raising my hand here guys.. I was that girl!). And if sleep training did help alleviate all of your postpartum stress or woes – good for you, more power to you!

But, the purpose and outcome I am hoping to achieve here is that no new mother will put all of their “eggs” into the “sleep training” basket. You can’t pour from an empty cup.

Take care of YOU first, and baby will follow. 

If you do need some postpartum support, and you are in the Vancouver area, I recommend the Pacific Postpartum Support Society as your first touch point.

Thank you to my girl @stacielynnphotography for the beautiful photos you see here. 

XO

Lara