Eight Reasons To Not Sleep Train Your Baby

Photography: Fran Jorgensen Photography

By Sarah Ockwell-Smith

Are you considering sleep training your baby because of all the recent media reports claiming it is safe? Here are eight reasons why you shouldn’t do it!

  1. Sleep Training Misunderstands Normal Baby Sleep

Those who advocate sleep training misunderstand what normal baby sleep should look like. Babies and young children do not sleep like adults, they are not meant to and for a very good reason. Nobody sleeps “through the night”, whatever their age. We all sleep in chunks of time called a “sleep cycle”. For young babies this is around 45 minutes long, for an adult roughly double that. At the end of each sleep cycle we may rouse a little, but not fully, and start a new cycle, unaware that we are transitioning between two cycles. Sometimes we wake fully and find it a little hard to get back to sleep. It is no different for babies. Only their sleep cycles are much shorter than ours and they have the potential to wake around 10-12 times per night. This may be exhausting for parents, however from the baby’s point of view it is a good thing. This frequent waking keeps them safe and protects them against SIDS/cot death. Encouraging deeper/longer sleep is artificial and can have negative consequences.

Babies also have underdeveloped circadian rhythms, or body clocks. The chemical signals of sleep that make us feel alert or drowsy depending on the time of day. Under four months of age, babies have no concept of night and day. Beyond this, their circadian rhythms begin to function on a fairly comparable level to that of an adult, however they are not quite the same and may still be having “midnight parties” until they reach school age, when finally their circadian rhythm is fully established.

Simply put, babies are not meant to sleep like adults.

  1. Sleep Training Misunderstands The Capabilities of Babies

Sleep training presumes that babies think like adults; they don’t. When we are scared or anxious we are able to rationalise our emotions and calm ourselves down, or at least most of us can. Some adults don’t have very good emotion regulation skills. I’m sure you know somebody with a short temper?

In order to regulate our emotions, a complex chain of neurological events have to take place which presumes a high level of brain functioning. Babies do not possess this high level of brain functioning, their tiny brains take time to develop. When we leave a baby to “self soothe” or “self settle”, as most sleep training advocates, we do so under the mistaken assumption that they are actually regulating their emotions and becoming calmer. This doesn’t happen. Babies remain in a high state of anxiety, they just don’t communicate this. They may be quiet, but they are not calm. They are two very different things. Some babies are naturally calm, but it’s important to not mistake this as “self soothing” as this article explains.

  1. Sleep Training Does Not Work Long Term

Research looking into the long term outcomes of sleep training is interesting. If you had sleep trained your baby and experienced a short term “improvement” to their sleep, you would surely expect the improvement to last more than a couple of months wouldn’t you? This isn’t what investigators have found however. A large scale study looking into the long term effects of sleep training, which tried to prove that it had no ill effects, still found that there was no lasting long term positive effect of sleep training. In other words, babies who had – and hadn’t – been sleep trained ultimately slept no differently to each other.

  1. Sleep Training Doesn’t Always Work, Even Short Term.

Many seem to believe that sleep training always works. It doesn’t. I work with hundreds of parents a year who often come to me for help after working with a conventional sleep trainer, or having followed a plan from a sleep training book who cannot understand why it didn’t work for their baby.

In many cases, the baby’s sleep is made worse by the conventional sleep training and the parents find themselves in a worse position than before they even started. Most sleep training relies on “breaking” the baby’s urge to call out (cry) for their parents if they are lonely, scared, anxious, hungry or uncomfortable. Sometimes, however, that urge, and indeed the baby’s need, is too strong and the baby doesn’t become quiet (masquerading as “soothed” or “settled”). Instead they can become more distraught and more desperate to have their needs met. Some may say that their baby become “more clingy” after sleep training.

See next page for more great reasons why not to sleep train your baby…

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