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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