Sleep Training; The good, The Bad and The Ugly

What does sleep training actually look like and if, when, and why should you consider trying it?

It’s a New Year, and so far it’s looking likely to be a huge improvement on the last two! Are you one for new years resolutions, especially when we’ve missed out on so much in recent times? Or like me are you just happy to be moving forward and not looking back? If more sleep is part of your new years plans then you may be considering sleep training, but is there something holding you back?

Sleep training is a very divisive subject among parents, and in an online sea of information, how can you really know if it’s right for your family? Sleep training isn’t for everyone and that’s ok. As a sleep consultant my job is to give parents informed choice – the facts (always based on research!), the options, the truth. So here’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly…you decide!

The Beginning

Firstly, where did sleep training even come from?

Sleep training, or coaching as it’s also referred to, is a relatively new concept and it’s no wonder that it started to emerge during the 80s when women’s careers were also starting to soar. In Western societies it became a cultural response to women as well as men working away from the home, and it was during this time that Richard Ferber designed the first sleep training method. With the days of ‘community’ fading and large extended families moving away from each other, parenting has since becoming very isolating. Throw into the mix the pressures of work on top of  household and life chores and it’s no wonder every parent of a young child not sleeping is looking for a magic answer.

The concept of sleep training is based on the notion that if your child has particular associations within which they need to fall asleep, these are often needed to be present during wakings throughout the night. If your overnight goals are misaligned with your night time goals then there can be a huge problem with behavioural night wakings. For some parents who need to be beside their child for them to fall asleep for example, they may align their child’s expectations by deciding to co-sleep throughout the night. But if that’s not an option for many a reason (illness, rebuilding marital issues, other siblings, shift/night workers to name but a few), the answer can be sleep training. simply put, the goal is to teach your child to fall asleep independently so that when they wake overnight (yes wakings are normal!), their immediate response isn’t to scream out for you in a blind panic because you’ve just ‘disappeared’.

Whilst sleep training methods have always been based on research, we know a lot more about infant and child psychology now than we did in the 80s, so what’s changed? The focus in recent years has shifted to the importance of balance.

The balance between creating a bond with your baby that can endure a few nights of sleep training.

The balance on being present enough during waking hours so that you don’t have to feel guilty about wanting an evening to yourself.

The balance between being a responsive parent led by your baby’s development and implementing a routine with boundaries that are just as important as freedom and flexibility.

Now today more than ever, there is a need for babies, toddlers and young children to sleep soundly. The main difference is we now know it’s not just beneficial for us, it’s for them and indeed the whole family.

The Good

The benefits of sleep training are HUGE. For every parent that loathes the idea of sleep training, there’s so many more who will sing to the hills about how happy their child was after sleep training, how good they felt, and how much it improved their relationships with each other and their children. Here are just some of the benefits of sleep training for both you and your child:

There’s also a variety of methods you can use that has so far managed to suit every parent I’ve ever worked with in the 8 years I’ve been a sleep consultant. So whatever parenting styles you have, however you want to approach sleep issues, there’s something to fit with that outlook and ethos.

The Bad

Lots of things need to align when considering when to sleep train. As well as deciding how and even if, you also need to decide when.

The timing is everything, so it’s vital to avoid the big sleep bumps and tricky phases. Sleep training during developmental leaps/regressions can be difficult because your child is already unsettled so won’t likely respond well to the change, plus you’ve got no benchmark to start from. It’s also not a great idea to start just as your child is going though a big change such as starting nursery/school, the arrival of a new sibling or house move.

Things that parents often cite as possible reasons to avoid sleep training are illness and teething but this is less of a concern, especially in comparison to the above. Whilst you wouldn’t start sleep training in the midst of chest infection or just as the teeth are cutting trough, most children have a runny nose and seemingly teething in varying degrees for the vast majority of the early years. So trying to find a completely clear gap is near on impossible! 

The Ugly

It’s always the crying, which quite literally can be pretty ugly. If anything is going to put you off, it’s the thought of being the catalyst in making your baby cry or child cry. It’s also pretty ugly how you’ll feel whilst doing sleep training. It’s why I always make sure each and every client is entirely happy with the process and their decisions before going ahead. It can be tough going so the last thing you want is to be doubting yourself throughout.

Sleep training can also feel like you are  going against your natural parenting instincts, because let’s face it, who actually wants to hear their child cry? The reality is that even with the gentlest of methods, there’s usually some crying involved. Humans are creatures of habit and when you change your child’s expectations, even slightly, they express their thoughts on the change in the best way they know how…tears and tantrums. Consistency is key with sleep training because despite the early protests, they are very adaptable so the crying is usually short lived and as soon as your child catches on (often just a matter of days), they calm and learn to quickly love their new routine.

The Myths vs The Facts

Myth #1

Once sleep trained, always sleep trained

The facts…

Sleep training once doesn’t necessarily result in a baby or child then being able to sleep soundly from then on. There are many factors that can derail sleep through the early years. However good foundations will help when you hit bumps and generally get you back on track quicker.

Myth #2

Sleep training is the only route to better sleep

The facts…

There’s so much more to better to sleep than sleep training. It can be a key part for some children, but there’s always other factors, strategies and considerations. 

Myth #3

All sleep associations are negative

The facts…

Sleep associations, the tools required and the things we associate with falling asleep, aren’t always bad. In fact, many are great for sleep. Adults and children alike need cues and aids to let us know when sleep is coming, and comforts to helps us drift off happily. 

Myth #4

Sleep training will only work at a certain age

The facts…

There are ways to improve sleep at any age, so long as you choose an age-appropriate strategy that’s targeting that particular child’s sleep issues, needs and developmental stage. I work with newborns all the way through to school age children so there definitely isn’t a perfect time for sleep training

Myth #5

Sleep training always involves ‘crying it out’

 The facts…

Sleep training is actually an umbrella term for all sorts of methods and approaches to improving behavioural sleep issues. The ‘cry it out’ method is just one of them, but there are many more ways to teach a baby to sleep soundly including gentler approaches. 

Myth #6

If I don’t sleep train my baby, they will never learn to sleep

The facts…

This is the biggest consideration when deciding your reasons to sleep train. Research shows that there is no difference in long term sleep in those babies that were sleep trained to those who weren’t. You will not be resigning yourself to a lifetime of sleep deprivation if you don’t decide to use sleep training to help your child sleep in the early years. Research also shows that there’s no long term ill-effects from sleep training so as the short term benefits can be so life-changing in some cases, this is when families will decide it is worth the brief disruption.

The Conclusion

Sleep training isn’t for everyone and that’s ok. If you are happy with your family’s sleep situation then carry on as you are! There’s always going to be judgement on parenting choices, but ultimately only you know what’s right for your family. It’s never clear cut, instead it’s about weighing up all of your options and making an informed decision. 

Although sleep training is a large part of working with a sleep consultant, it’s not the only nor the complete solution. There’s routines (day, bedtime and night) to look at, there’s anxieties, environmental factors, personality types and so much more. Plus there’s the support from someone who knows what you’re going through, following a plan from a professional that’s tailored to you, and having confidence to proceed without having to wade through a sea of online information. Our one-to-one services provide that and much more, so get in touch if you’d like all of the benefits a sleep consultant can bring during sleep training. 

Blogged by Emma Osborne, Paediatric Sleep Specialist, founder of HushaBoo & Mum to one little boy who has needed sleep training on more than one occasion!