If you’re reading this, you’re probably wondering, “Do you have to sleep train a child? Is sleep training the only option?”

Alright folks. It’s time to unleash the Cry-it-Out / Sleep Train Your Child debate!

I am guessing that by now you have at least heard about sleep training.

Maybe you’ve come across the term while Googling some sleep tips after a particularly difficult night. Or, maybe a well-meaning friend or family member is nagging at you to get on with it already. 

A little disclaimer for anyone who has used or tried sleep training in the past. I get it! I really do. The sleep world is so H-A-R-D! This is not meant to make you feel bad, or regretful, or doubt your parenting skills in any way. In fact, I think the fact that you are reading this makes you just the savvy parent that is going to raise a wonderful kiddo!

New to Sleep Training? Here’s What You Need to Know

There are a number of names and variations for sleep training toddlers and babies, including cry-it-out (CIO), extinction, graduated retreat, timed checks, Ferber method, and more.

You might also encounter terms like gentle sleep training, responsive sleep training, or sleep teaching. These gentler terms are becoming more popular to comfort and reassure parents, but often involve similar methods to traditional sleep training. 

What is Sleep Training Really About?

Most sleep training methods share a common goal: for your child to sleep independently, typically in a crib, in a separate bedroom from you, with minimal, or no parental response during the night – even if your child is crying.  

In essence, sleep training involves setting limits or boundaries on what you will (or won’t) do to help your child fall asleep. However, these limits are decided by the parent (or sleep coach) WITHOUT factoring in the child’s actual and very real NEEDS for connection, emotional regulation and security (feeling safe and stable during stressful times). 

Sleep training often involves doing the absolute bare minimum (or nothing at all!) to help your child to fall asleep. Sleep trainers often use the argument that you’re teaching your child to self soothe, so that they can themselves to sleep (and back to sleep) independently. Usually, there is a push for them to sleep in their own room. (which, let’s be honest, sounds pretty amazing!)

What We Know (and Don’t Know) About Sleep Training

Traditional sleep training methods were developed decades ago based on behavioral theories.  Back then, there were some big names in childcare and parenting literature that promoted sleep training which added to its growing popularity… despite its flaws. 

Coaches who support sleep training promise a quick and effective solution to your sleep child’s problems. Opponents (like myself) are not quite convinced. 

Let’s imagine for a moment that sleep training does work. Even then, the question remains: at what cost? Are there any potential downsides? Is sleep training harmful? Is it necessary? What happens if you don’t sleep train. 

The truth is we really don’t know! Because we don’t have all the answers.

This is where informed consent comes in. It’s about knowing all the risks and benefits before making a decision on whether or not you wish to sleep train your child.

So, today, we’ll explore what we actually DO know about sleep training, and what research hasn’t yet caught up on.

And to answer your burning question: Do you have to sleep train your child?

No, you absolutely don’t have to sleep to train your child! There are alternatives methods… Keep reading to learn about my holistic approaches for sleep.

 

Do you have to sleep train featuring child in crib.

10 Reasons Why I Won’t Sleep Train

1) Sleep Training For Kids Has Crap Research

The first problem is that we do not have enough quality research. Sure, there have been studies looking at sleep training. The problem is that this research has been highly flawed. It’s true that there is no such thing as perfect research, but the best studies looking at sleep training have serious challenges, like: high dropout rates, small sample sizes, and poor comparison groups. One study looking at the relationship between sleep training and stress even tested the wrong type of cortisol (apparently there are two different types, who knew!?).

2) Sleep Training Doesn’t Always Work and It’s Not a Long Term Solution

Advocates of sleep training commonly cite these flawed studies when convincing parents that sleep training is the best option. What doesn’t quite make sense to me is how they drew this conclusion though. Some of the studies show no benefit, and of the ones that do, show a modest benefit (as in a mere 20 mins in 24 hours!). To make matters worse, any benefit gained tended to be lost following any change in development or circumstance (i.e. nap transition, teething) requiring the sleep training process to be repeated multiple times. Talk about stressful!

Related: Is My Toddler Going Through the 2 Year Sleep Regression?

3) Sleep Training Stresses Kids Out

The part that sticks with me the most is the results of one particular study that showed heightened cortisol levels in babies – even after the babies stopped crying! This research tells us that when sleep training, the babies remain stressed and anxious even if they are quiet and seemingly calm. 

So as it turns out, this self soothing or self settling thing that often is the key selling point for parents when deciding whether to sleep train their child is actually a myth. The more appropriate term for this would be self regulation. Which does not even start to be developmentally possible until the age of 4, and continues on developing until the mid to late TWENTIES!

You could add this all together to say that sleep training is essentially training your child to stop signaling (i.e. crying) for their parents. So instead they lay alone and stressed until they fall asleep out of exhaustion, and/or maxed out sleep pressure.

It’s a pretty bold statement, that hits home a little too hard for some (including me!)

What is sleep training a toddler featuring mom with toddler in crib.

4) Too Much Stress is Bad

Research tells us two things about our parental response. 1) That children who have been parented with a nurturing, responsive approach tend to develop more gluticorisoid receptors (which is a good thing). This helps them to respond better to stress and to get over things more quickly – even into adulthood! 2) That children who have been parented by non-responsive parents tend to have fewer gluticortisoid receptors which can lead to a heightened stress response and a slower recovery from stress – again into adulthood. Scary right? Problem is…

5) We Don’t Know Where to Draw the Line

How much is too much?  Does sleep training cause psychological damage? The fact is we just don’t know. There are some who equate sleep training with child neglect (a form of child abuse) which has the potential to cause physiological (i.e. biological), psychiatric, and psychological harm. Personally I think that this is a bit of a stretch to equate sleep training with the type of long term, devastating neglect seen by social workers. However, the fact remains that all babies, toddlers and children are individual. They have their own unique set of protective factors, genetic predispositions, and vulnerabilities. I do not doubt for one minute that some little ones are harmed more than others. It’s just not worth the risk!

6) Sleep Training Can Actually Make Sleep Worse

It is not uncommon for parents to report a worsening of sleep following sleep training. This is in part because we have broken our child’s trust. Children thrive on consistency. It helps them to feel SAFE. When we don’t respond to them in the way that they expect and require, they can become anxious or develop separation difficulties. Parents often notice that their kids become more clingy in the days and weeks following sleep training. This is likely related to our innate need to repair any rupture in attachment. Which makes sense, babies especially are 100% reliant on their parents. They NEED that relationship to work. 

Here’s another sciencey tidbit about attachment and sleep. Research tells us that kids with a secure attachment tend to sleep better. This includes having less difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, AND their sleep tends to be of better quality overall. These benefits last into adulthood!

So by attending to your child responsively, and developing that secure attachment you are increasing your chances at having a good sleeper for life!

What happens if you don't sleep train featuring child in crib.

7) It’s not Biologically Normal

This might surprise you, but contrary to societal expectation, babies (and even toddlers and preschoolers!) are NOT actually meant to sleep through the night. Nope afraid not! They are biologically hardwired to sleep the way they do. This is, in short, shallow sleep cycles. Part of this is to ensure they get adequate milk. But, we also now know that this is protective against SIDS. Their circadian rhythm is actually quite a bit different than adults, so we probably shouldn’t be expecting them to sleep like adults. Hmm. 

8) It Makes Sleep a Scapegoat

Sleep is not always the problem. There are SO many reasons why kids wake at night. Think feeding issues, torticollis, reflux, sleep apnea, teething, gas pains, environmental stressors, hunger, discomfort, itchiness, etc etc etc. The list goes on. Focusing entirely on correcting sleep without looking to the why ignores the cause. The problem is, that if the cause is not actually a sleep issue, the solution will not work! (they don’t tell you this in the sleep training books do they!?) Think about it though, if your little one is in pain, or has sleep apnea for example how is this going to help them sleep better?

This is why I am a big fan of holistic sleep support. The goal is to find the cause, and work on a solution….and let me tell you, it’s rarely just about sleep!

9) Parents Hate Sleep Training

Parents don’t tend to want to do CIO. And, why would they? There are alllll of the negatives discussed above PLUS it’s incredibly stressful and exhausting. Even sleep training without CIO can be nerve-wracking. As parents, and especially Mothers…we are biologically hardwired to react when our babies cry! This is adaptive genetics at its finest and it’s basically so we don’t end up abandoning our child and leaving them to the wolves in the wild whenever we need a break. Thus, it is incredibly hard to listen to a child cry while doing nothing.

No parent really wants this. They just want to to know that their child is normal, that they are doing the right thing as parents AND of course they want to feel more rested

And if all of that is not enough, here is my last point. I should have probably mentioned it first, because it’s an important one that I don’t think many parents realize. 

But…

10) You CAN help your child sleep better WITHOUT sleep training!

There’s a whole world of support out there for parents who choose a path other than sleep training… A path where it’s okay to embrace the snuggles, respond to your baby’s cues, and trust your instincts.

Not only is it possible, but most parents prefer following more gentle alternatives to sleep training

View my holistic sleep coaching services here!

Conclusion: So, is Sleep Training Bad?

The truth is, there’s no definitive answer. It can work for some families, but it’s not a magic bullet. Like many parenting decisions, it comes down to personal choice. But with so many potential downsides, why take the risk?

What Happens if You Don’t Sleep Train?

The good news is, skipping sleep training doesn’t mean that you’re doomed to sleepless nights forever. Sleep will improve naturally as your child gets older – so if you’re not in a dire crisis, waiting-it-out is an option!

However there are plenty of gentle and holistic alternatives to sleep training that are not only effective, but less stressful for you and your child.  

Gentle Alternatives and Holistic Solutions

If the idea of waiting-it-out feels impossible, then click here to schedule a FREE discovery call where I can learn more about your situation and you can get a better idea on what working with me looks like!

My heart-centered and holistic sleep coaching program uses a whole toolbox of truly gentle sleep strategies. 

We’ll work together to create a personalized plan that addresses your child’s unique needs, all while supporting normal, biological sleep development, attachment theory, positive parenting practices – while considering YOUR needs and wants as well. 

Imagine a world where you actually enjoyed bedtime? Where you woke up feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day?

Better sleep = better everything ;)

XO Maisie

PS – If you are tired and want to give my Ultimate Guide to Bedtime Routines a try CLICK HERE!

Selected References: 

Gradisar, M., Jackson, K., Spurrier, N. J., Gibson, J., Whitham, J., Williams, A. S., … & Kennaway, D. J. (2016). Behavioral interventions for infant sleep problems: a randomized controlled trial. Pediatrics, 137(6), e20151486.

Hiscock, H., Bayer, J. K., Hampton, A., Ukoumunne, O. C., & Wake, M. (2008). Long-term mother and child mental health effects of a population-based infant sleep intervention: cluster-randomized, controlled trial. Pediatrics, 122(3), e621-e627.

The Holistic Sleep Coaching Program https://www.holisticsleepcoaching.com/

Hookway, L (2019). The cry it out debate. https://feedsleepbond.com/the-cry-it-out-debate/

Middlemiss, W., Granger, D. A., Goldberg, W. A., & Nathans, L. (2012). Asynchrony of mother–infant hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis activity following extinction of infant crying responses induced during the transition to sleep. Early human development, 88(4), 227-232.

Price, A. M., Wake, M., Ukoumunne, O. C., & Hiscock, H. (2012). Five-year follow-up of harms and benefits of behavioral infant sleep intervention: randomized trial. Pediatrics, 130(4), 643-651.

Simons, S. S., Cillessen, A. H., & de Weerth, C. (2017). Associations between circadian and stress response cortisol in children. Stress, 20(1), 69-75.’hCA