“How is she sleeping?”
“Does he sleep through the night?”
“Are you getting any sleep?”
“Don’t rock/carry/co-sleep/nurse to sleep or you’ll create bad habits.”
“Oh, she’s still not sleeping through the night?”
“Babies who don’t sleep have poor later life outcomes.”
If you’re a parent, you’ve more than likely been faced with these comments. Our society has become so hyper focused on babies and sleep. It’s easy to get sucked into the obsession, to compare our baby to others, to wonder if there’s something wrong with our baby, to worry about their health and well-being, and to suffer from sleep deprivation. As a result, we begin to research ways to get our baby to sleep, we ask our family and friends for advice, we buy books on baby sleep, we seek out sleep consultants, and we may even schedule an appointment with our paediatrician just to make sure nothing’s wrong. Regardless of where we turn, the answer is usually the same: sleep train, but what does that mean?
WHAT IS SLEEP TRAINING?
The term “sleep training,” to the best of my knowledge, does not have an official definition. Rather, it seems to be somewhat subjective. Some describe it as any means or interventions to get your child to sleep. This could be letting your baby cry it out or simply rocking them to the sleep. Some view sleep training as cry it out methods only. Before I offer my definition, let’s examine what sleep training does. In other words, what does one do when they sleep train their child?
“Training” is defined as “the action of teaching a person or animal a particular skill or behaviour ().” Methods used to train are often rooted in behaviourism. Behaviourism is a psychological theory which argues that human beings are shaped by their environment. Supporters of this theory believe that if you alter the environment, you can alter the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours of an individual. This is done using rewards and punishments which aim to elicit or extinct some behaviour. With respect to sleep training, this may look like withholding food or affection/comfort until the baby stops crying, goes to sleep, and stays asleep.
With all of that said, sleep training is teaching a baby how to sleep. The thing is, sleep is part of the autonomic nervous system. A system that acts unconsciously much like our heart beating, breathing, and digestion. Our bodies just know how to do these things without any type of training. Babies are not robots. They are not born blank slates who don’t feel pain, have emotions, have needs, a working memory, or physiological response. They are people. Think about it, aren’t there times when you’re more hungry than others? Aren’t there days when you need more emotional support from your partner? Aren’t there times where your sleep is disrupted? Babies aren’t immune to these things any more than you are. Why? We’re all people and people have complex needs.
With that said, I define sleep training as teaching or training a baby to sleep, and by association, to eat, wake, and be comforted based on some timeline that goes against their, and your, natural patterns and rhythms.
TO SLEEP TRAIN OR NOT?
I want to state that I do NOT condone sleep training. I do NOT advocate for sleep training. I am a sleep specialist, however, I do NOT use sleep training strategies in my work. Yet, I am aware of the immense pressure parents feel to get their child sleeping. I am aware of the unrealistic expectations that are placed on parents by society that are not conducive to parenting (e.g., returning to work after only 6 weeks, lack of parenting support, lack of a village…). I am aware of the effects of sleep deprivation. I am aware of the copious amounts information out there that makes parenting confusing. I know how easy it is to compare your baby to another and the doubts that the result. I also know how others tend to judge parents based on how their baby sleeps. Trust me, I know sleep training is tempting. I know that, on the surface, it works and works fast. Before you make a choice, I would like to pose four questions:
- What message do you think these techniques and strategies are sending to your child? Are they messages you want to convey? Are they messages you would want sent to you?
- Do these techniques and strategies feel good to you? Are they inline with your parenting goals and instincts?
- This is a hard one, whose needs are you putting first? Yours? Your baby’s? Your partner’s? Your friends and family? What, or who, is the driving force?
- Do you feel well-versed in normal infant sleep? Could you learn more? Would doing so change your perspective on what needs to, or should, be happening with respect your baby’s sleep?
Now, these questions may seem loaded or leading. However, reflective questions are not meant to be comfortable. They are meant to get the root and uncover what’s truly going on. They are meant to go beyond the surface. They are meant to make you think, question, and research.
If you’ve answered these questions and feel your answers align with sleep training, then you have your answer. No judgment. If not, there is another way. You can get sleep without sleep training. You can make changes without going against your instincts or without giving up the things that you love about nighttime parenting. My approach to sleep is rooted in responsive parenting, builds connected relationships, respects natural development and unique needs, and supports the well-being of parents.
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