There’s no such thing as gentle sleep training

There's no such thing as gentle sleep training

Baby standing at the side of his crib. There are tears in his eyes

First of all, let's define sleep training

Sleep training, as I define it, is fixing your child’s “sleep problems” with routines and separation based approaches. We’re talking: “cry it out”, the “Ferber method”, and “gradual extinction”. These approaches involve reducing your response to your baby’s cues, usually by leaving them to cry alone for a prescribed length of time. The assumption is that if you do this, your baby will learn to self-soothe, and fall asleep on their own. You will be told this is the only way to get your baby to sleep through the night.

There are three assumptions behind sleep training:

  1. Your child should be sleeping through the night, and if they aren’t, then they have a sleep problem. 
  2. You can alter your child’s behaviour and decrease their need for you at night time. 
  3. In order for your child to sleep well at night, you have to sleep train. Otherwise, they will never sleep well.

Gentle sleep training is still sleep training

“Gentle” sleep training is just a modified version of the “cry it out” method. Perhaps you’re been told you can go and comfort your child, but to wait a minute or two. Perhaps you’ve even been told you can lift and cuddle them after a few minutes.

However, those core beliefs are still there: there is a sleep problem that needs to be fixed and your child needs to learn to self-soothe/self-settle. Often, parents sign up for “gentle” sleep training only to discover that the only strategy being offered is this modified “cry it out”. If you want to make changes to your child’s sleep, it’s important that you discuss this very clearly with the sleep consultant, especially if you want a responsive approach.

Mom and toddler lying in bed together.

A truly gentle approach to sleep

The middle ground between “wait it out” and “cry it out”

Most of the parents I’ve worked with over the last few years do not want to sleep train their baby. They believe that being responsive to their child is beneficial, and that parenting is a 24/7 job. Parents want to be available to their child round the clock, and they know that NOT responding to their child will can be harmful. They know that eventually their baby/toddler/preschooler will sleep through the night and not need them so much. 

However, they are also pretty exhausted!

The thing is, there is a balance to be had. There is a middle ground between cry it out and waiting it out. That middle ground is NOT “gentle” sleep training. What we need is something much more radical. 

Let’s start by radically, fundamentally, changing our attitude to babies’ sleep.

Waking at night is normal

As a society we misunderstand what normal baby/toddler sleep looks like. Waking at night is normal. If your baby is waking there probably isn’t a problem that is making your baby wake up. Infant sleep “experts”, even so called “gentle” ones, talk about sleep problems in terms of waking during the night and/or needing support to fall asleep (Mindel and Owens, 2015; West, 2020; Wolfe, 2017). Even the NHS website suggests that babies should be sleeping through the night by six months, and if babies do wake at night it’s because of teething, growth spurts and illness. Of course, those things CAN increase waking in babies! But night waking is normal – it isn’t a problem to be fixed. The underlying assumption behind so much of the literature on sleep is that babies should be sleeping through the night. 

Babies wake frequently at night because they are babies. Babies need support to fall asleep, and fall back to sleep because they are babies. They need night feeds because they are babies. There are actually a few large scale studies that show just how normal this is! (Galland et al, 2012; Paavonen et al, 2020; Pennestri et al, 2020) So, if your baby is waking frequently at night time you’re not doing anything wrong. It’s also highly unlikely that there is anything wrong with your baby. They are just behaving like a baby! 

Not even adults sleep through the night!

Incidentally, even adults can wake up at the end of a sleep cycle. (Mendelson, 2017). We may not even be aware of waking, as we are able to go back to sleep on our own. We can adjust our position, get a drink of water, pull the covers up if we are too warm, take a layer off if we are too cold. If, as adults, we don’t sleep through the night, why do we expect our children to? 

If your baby sleeps 2-3 hour stretches, then they ARE linking some sleep cycles. The average sleep cycle for a baby/toddler is somewhere between 50 to 90 minutes, depending on their age. So every 2-3 sleep cycles, your child wakes enough to need some support to go back to sleep.

Babies can’t self-soothe

The myth of self-soothing is a pervasive one. Our babies have very immature brains. Initially, the only part of their brain that is actually wired and active is the part of the brain responsible for survival. As we respond to babies and soothe them, the pathways in the brain that are linked to emotional development become more consolidated. With time, they become more able to self-soothe, as they develop neural pathways in the prefrontal cortex. It is usually not until they are closer to school age that there is any real capacity for self-soothing, because their brain just isn’t wired for that yet! Until that age, they depend very much on us for emotional regulation. (Sunderland, 2016)

Bedtime is a time of separation

A child that is alone at night will naturally want to know that their parents are nearby and seek out comfort. After all, bedtime is a time of separation. (Neufeld, sleep webinar, 2021) During the day, we are either supervising our children, or we entrust their care to another responsible adult. And yet, at night time, we expect them to be able to sleep all night, and either not have needs to be met, or to meet their own needs! When you actually think about it logically, it doesn’t make sense, does it? At what age, realistically, can your child meet their own needs during the day? Unless they can meet them during the day, they can’t meet them at night. 

Sleep training doesn’t help children sleep better

The irony is that sleep training doesn’t help children sleep better. Babies still wake with sleep training, they just go back to sleep on their own because they have learned that there is no point crying: no one is coming to meet their needs at night time. They aren’t self-soothing, or self-setting, they are just alone and have given up calling for their parents. 

Sleep training can be harmful 

There is a lot of debate about whether sleep training causes psychological damage. I do think there is good evidence that anything that reduces our responsiveness to our children has the potential to harm their emotional development (Sunderland, 2016; Perry, 2019). The bottom line for most parents is that they want their child to trust them and know that they’ll always be there for them. 

Exhausted mum sits next to a crib of a baby that is waking at night.

So… what’s the solution? 

If we work from the premise that babies need our support at night to sleep and that night waking is normal, well, these aren’t sleep problems. They don’t need to be fixed. So, one approach is to find the path of least resistance. For many parents, this will be to co-sleep safely. Your baby can sleep next to you, and any minor adjustments that you need to make to your child’s sleep can be done quickly and most importantly, usually without having to get out of bed. Babies rarely cry, parents rouse briefly and then get back to sleep quickly. 

Too radical for you, or you are currently in this position and it’s just not working for you? 

There is another option!

Responsive, gentle sleep coaching

You can usually improve your child’s sleep by using sleep biology principles. By improving your baby’s circadian rhythm and increasing sleep pressure at night time, most parents see an improvement in night waking. If you want to read more about night waking, and how to improve it, read my article here: Rebecca Scott Pillai | Baby waking at night?

There are also ways to continue to support your child overnight without co-sleeping, or walking the floors, rocking them every time they wake. We can absolutely make night time more sustainable without ignoring your child’s cues and their need for support. I cover this extensively, both in my sleep courses, and during a one to one consultation. The idea isn’t to “train” your child to need less connection with you, but to meet that need for connection fully. When your child is calm, feels safe and secure and knows that you are there for them, they will sleep better. If you want to find out more, please get in touch to discuss your child’s sleep needs!

References

Galland et al, (2012) Normal sleep patterns in infants and children: A systematic review of observational studies, Sleep Medicine Reviews, 16: 213-222

Mendelson, W, (2017) The Science of Sleep, Ivy Press, Brighton

Mendell, J and Owens, J (2015) A Clinical Guide to Pediatric Sleep Diagnosis and Management of Sleep Problems, Wolters Kluwer, Philadelphia  

Neufeld, G, (2021) Webinar Part 1: Bridging the Night – providing continuous connection, accessed 10/11/21

Paavonen et al (2020) Normal sleep development in infants: findings from two large birth cohorts, Sleep Medicine, 69: 145-154

Pennestri et al, (2020) Sleeping through the night or sleeping through the nights? Sleep Medicine, https:doi.org/10/1016/j.sleep.2020.10.005

Perry P, (2019) The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read, Penguin Life, Milton Keynes

Sunderland, M (2016) The Science of Parenting, DK Publishing, New York

West, K (2020) The Sleep Lady’s Good Night, Sleep Tight, Hatchett Books, New York 

Wolfe, L (2019) The Baby Sleep Solution, Headline Publishing Group, London

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