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Will sleep training harm my child?Hesitations and worries, myths and questions about sleep training

Sleep training is controversial. Spend a few minutes on Instagram or Mom Facebook groups and you will see people shaming parents (but really, Moms) for choosing to sleep train their child. The reasons are varied but the point is clear: You must be a terrible person for abandoning your child to teach them independent sleep skills.

I will make this clear throughout this article. That is simply not true. Parents that choose to sleep train are not harming their child. They are not selfish. They are not bad parents.

baby upset and crying by sleep training

Is sleep training for everyone? Absolutely not. Is that ok? Of course it is. If you don’t want to sleep train, move on. Don’t sleep train. And if you do, know that you are doing what is best for your family. You get to make the choices that work best for your family. Your baby and your need to be well rested. The effects of sleep deprivation are real.

If you have worries or hesitations about sleep training and its effects, read on.

Will sleep training harm my child?

No. I hope I will make this point clear!

Based on the current and available research, science overwhelmingly supports sleep training, and even cry it out methods. Although there are theoretical explanations made for the dangers of allowing babies to cry as they learn to sleep, there is little to no scientific evidence that supports this claim. Quite the opposite, they have found that sleep training has no negative impact on the behavior, development, relationships or attachment of children. Researchers looked at groups of children that had been sleep trained and those that were not. They found no difference in those groups weeks, months, or years later.

That means that whether you choose to sleep train now or not, it will have no impact in the long run. However, in the moment, getting more sleep is key to our little one’s (and our) mood, happiness, and overall well-being.

There are studies that report to find the “dangers” of sleep training- but they are flawed in many ways. They may not measure what they intend to measure, their process may be questionable, they don’t mirror real life conditions, and sometimes they aren’t even looking at human subjects! One often cited article was done on rats. They deprived rat babies of their mother, food, and warmth, and found that the rats reacted negatively. This is not what we do with our human babies but this study makes the leap to babies to try and prove a point!

Are there tons of Mom shamers on the internet to make you feel like you are making a terrible decision by choosing to sleep train? Yes. Do they drive me crazy? Also yes. They even sometimes cite that rat article as a way of showing the dangers to your baby!

It is not easy to hear your baby cry. But please please know that you are not causing any immediate or long-term harm to your child. Do you know what has shown documented health concerns? Long term sleep deprivation!

Is cry it out my only option?

Nope! There are several different sleep training methods we discuss. They differ in your level of involvement. Some parents prefer to be in the room with their child while they are learning new sleep skills, and others prefer to check in periodically. For some babies and parents, giving space all night really is the best way for them. All of these methods have pros and cons. All of these methods will work with consistency. You get to choose the method that is most comfortable for your family.

You may be surprised to hear that the actual sleep training method is just one part of the sleep puzzle- and it really isn’t more or less important than the other parts. Usually during our virtual consultation, we don’t get to talking about the method until 45 minutes in. That’s 45 minutes of talking about everything else that influences sleep! When all of these pieces are aligned, your child is set up to have the best success with your chosen method.

I’ve tried cry it out. I’ve tried checks. They don’t work for my child. They just cried for hours.

I’m sorry you had that experience, however, I don’t want to give up and say it didn’t work just yet. When I hear this from families, my guess is that other pieces of the sleep puzzle were off. There is a lot of prep and other shifts that must be made so sleep training and the method are successful. It’s not just the method! When we work together, we are running down the full checklist so we are setting up your child in the best possible way. That doesn’t usually mean no tears. But that usually means less tears, less time for it to work, and less frustration. Working together also means accountability. We will work together to figure out what’s not working.

Take a look at this article- pay attention to when your little one sleeps and try your method again!

Is there such a thing as a “no cry” sleep training method?

Not really. Those programs that “guarantee” no crying are usually more about a marketing ploy and may set up unrealistic expectations.

We are asking your baby or toddler to make big changes in how they sleep. Change is hard! Think of the last significant change you went through. Did you go through it frustration free? Did you complain or vent to a friend? Your little one should have the space to communicate too- and crying is the only tool they have available to express their feelings and emotions.

Crying is never easy. But crying also does not hurt.

Sleep training methods vary in your level of involvement in the process. But none can truly guarantee no crying. Instead, we work to minimize tears by looking holistically at your child and everything that goes into sleep. It likely won’t eliminate crying 100% but it can decrease it.

Is it nice to hear your baby cry? Definitely not. Are you harming your baby? Also no.

What if my baby thinks I’ve abandoned them?

In addition to being a sleep consultant, I am also an infant/early childhood therapist. My work is heavily influenced in attachment theory. I help caregivers strengthen their bond with their children when there has been a disruption.

I do not worry that giving your baby the space to fall asleep independently will harm your relationship. I do not worry that your baby will feel abandoned because you are changing your response in the middle of the night.

Your child knows you are there for them. Your baby feels safe and confident you will meet their needs as they come up. A couple of nights of sleep training (crying included) will not change those feelings.

Sleep training is selfish. My baby needs me at night. It’s ok if I’m sleep deprived. It’s for them.

Is it though? Your baby needs a well rested, emotionally available, present caregiver. We know we cannot be the best version of ourselves when we are exhausted. If you are not sleeping at night, it is difficult to fully be there for your little one during the day.

Your little one may need you at night right now, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Your little one has formed sleep associations in the way they sleep. This means they quite literally need the same conditions in order to sleep. When those conditions are parent focused it is difficult for them to sleep on their own.

Wanting your baby to sleep independently is not selfish. You are teaching them skills they will carry for the rest of their lives. There are plenty of opportunities to cuddle and snuggle during the day! Night time is for sleep!

Our babies are designed to be close to us. Why am I separating them from me?

Because we live in a different society. Most of us are not living in a society where we baby wear our little ones all day long or sleep when they sleep during the day. Most of us are expected to function successfully during the day. If you aren’t sleeping well because you’re constantly tending to your child overnight, how is that fair (or even possible!) to you? Or your child?

If your habits are working for both of you overnight, continue on! If being “close” at night works and you’re both sleeping well, let’s face it, you’re probably not on this page. But if one or both of you are exhausted, then it may be time to make a change.

I know my baby is ok, but it’s really hard for me, almost impossible, to hear my baby cry.

This one can be tough. Hearing your baby cry is never enjoyable, but for some, it can be unbearable. Everyone’s situation is different and I never intend to make assumptions. However, if listening to your baby cry seems impossible, I may gently encourage you to think about the reasons behind it.

Our prior experiences influence how we parent, and the feelings that may come up. This may include our own childhood and relationships when we were young, as well as what we may have already experienced with our own child.

Perhaps your little one had a NICU stay. Or maybe the first couple of months included crying for hours on end with a colic diagnosis. Even though it’s not happening anymore, crying now triggers certain feelings in you and brings you back to those moments. After going through these experiences, hearing your baby cry is painful.

It’s also possible that your own childhood was difficult. As a parent, our own children may push buttons that have been silent for years. Hearing your baby cry, or your toddler become upset, may activate deep feelings because of our early experiences.

Being aware of these triggers and feelings can be the first step in noticing how crying and sleep training may be extra challenging. What you do here is completely up to you. You can wait it out, or you can talk it out.

You may be able to separate your own process from what your baby is going through. Talk it out with a partner, friend, or therapist. You can share your hesitations with me. Though I won’t be functioning as a therapist here, I can help hold your feelings and walk you through sleep training.

If it simply feels impossible to do this, that’s ok. Be gentle to yourself and give yourself time. If now isn’t the time to sleep train, you can still make other shifts that may help your little one sleep better.

My baby is going to be the exception and will cry for hours and hours. I can’t do this.

Usually the fear and anticipation can be worse than the actual night. It won’t be fun- I’m not saying that. But when we set your little one up for success, crying is usually less than when you had tried on your own or what you are imagining.

However, if you truly don’t think you can go through with the process, don’t. Wait until you are ready. Your baby needs 100% commitment and consistency. Anything less will be confusing to them.

You can start by shifting sleep times, setting up their environment, and even slowly decreasing sleep associations. But if you are not ready to be consistent, the method should wait.

If you have worries and need support through the process, this is where I can help. We can talk through your hesitations and process this experience. It won’t be a therapy session- but putting things out there, however vague it needs to be, can help you get through the process to the other side.

The bottom line

If you are considering sleep training your child, you may have worries and hesitations about the process. These are totally normal. Though sleep training usually involves some tears, you will not be causing any immediate or long term harm to your baby or your relationship. Careful consideration of the method you are comfortable with, and taking the time to plan and be thoughtful can set up your child to be the most successful with the process. Crying and sleep training can activate deep feelings with us as parents. Consider your triggers and the support you may need.

The support of a sleep consultant can be invaluable in this process. Talk through your hesitations with me. I can help you hold big feelings and gently explore what may be holding you back. I will help hold you accountable while problem solving together so we can make this be quick for you and your child. And most importantly, so we can get you all on a path to better sleep!

Reach out! Share your worries and we’ll go from there!

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