When you’re exhausted and up with a baby, it’s only natural to wonder about sleep training. And it’s also totally normal to wonder if sleep training will be good for them – and for you.
For families experiencing sleep disruption, sleep training is a safe way to help their baby get an increased quantity and better quality sleep. When used as a way to improve sleep quality, sleep training can be good for your baby and your whole family on all levels.
Ready to know more about the pros (and cons) of how sleep training can be good for your family? Keep reading for what you need to know!
Sleep Training: the Good and the Bad
Sleep training is a tool that parents use to help their children sleep better. And, like any other tool, it can be used for good and bad. So, let’s talk about both sides of sleep training.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Who Uses Sleep Training||Anyone can use sleep training to help their families get better sleep.||Not everyone knows how to use sleep training within the safe zones|
|What Sleep Training Does||Sleep training helps families get better sleep – with the goal of sooner than later.||Many people erroneously think sleep training is an overnight cure.|
|Where to Sleep Train||Sleep training can be done anywhere and on any schedule with a customized plan.||Too many people think sleep training is just letting your child cry in their crib.|
|When Sleep Training Works||Sleep training can work when a family is committed and willing to implement the steps.||Often, sleep training takes longer than anticipated – so many people quit too soon.|
|Why People Sleep Train||Many people sleep train so they can get more than 1-2 hours of sleep at a time and see success.||Some people may get mad as they learn sleep training cannot get a baby (who wakes every hour) to sleep 12 hours overnight.|
|How You Sleep Train||Sleep training done right has no negative (or positive) lasting issues (according to the American Academy of Pediatrics).||Sleep training done wrong makes everyone miserable.|
Yes, this is a quick-ish overview. But it’s important to realize that it’s the extremes that are the problem, just as with any other tool. Even so, let’s talk about a few more pros and cons – that end up being the determining factors of your sleep training success and how good it is for your child.
The Determining Factors are How and Why
As you’re considering how good sleep training can be for your child and your family, the most important things to consider are WHY and HOW.
Yes, the other aspects are important. But generally speaking, they’re flexible enough that they’ll work for most people. The how and why, however, are going to influence everything else. Therefore, they’re probably up there as the most important.
- Why you’re looking at sleep training deals with your motivations and reasoning for wanting to sleep train. It’s going to affect everything, so we’ll talk about it first.
- Then we’ll talk about HOW you sleep train – because it’s going to directly impact whether or not sleep training works for your family (or not).
Why You Sleep Train Matters
The reasoning behind why you sleep train will also impact how good of an experience this is for everyone.
If your current sleep situation is sustainable and/or okay for your whole family, then you don’t have a strong motivation to stick to your sleep training. So sleep training won’t be a good experience or good for anyone. It’ll fail.
However, if you decide that you need to sleep train because the current sleep schedule or situation absolutely has to change… well, then your motivation is pretty solid. You’re ready for change. You’re ready to commit. And you’re going to see results via a good experience for everyone.
If you aren’t sure if you need to sleep train, make sure you’re committed first. And the best way to do that is by asking yourself two simple questions:
- Is the current sleep scenario (location, amount of sleep, etc) working for my baby?
- Is it working for me and the rest of the family?
Then, look at how you answered those questions.
- If things aren’t working for anyone, it’s time to sleep train. But this will only be a good experience for your baby and family if you’re all in.
- If the current sleep situation is working for everyone, you probably don’t need to do any sleep training. Trying will probably fizzle out – and things will go back to how they are now because things are working well enough.
- If it’s a split answer, you need to answer a few more questions to make sure your WHY is committed to this process. The next questions are available in my post on when sleep training is necessary – click right here to access it.
Once we’re desperate enough to change, that’s when the most dramatic changes take place. That’s when we see success.
However, we don’t always have to be totally desperate (and/or sleep-deprived) to want to make positive changes. That’s where we can meld a moderate desire for change with the how – and still see amazingly positive results that benefit everyone.
How You Sleep Train Impacts the Results
There are a lot of ways to sleep train. Just off the top of my head, I can come up with a handful of different, distinct how-to sleep training methods. For example, there are:
|Sleep Training Method||Definition Or Methodology||Also Known As|
|Graduated Extinction||Parents gradually delay their response to an infant’s cry.||Controlled Crying|
|Pure Extinction||Letting a child cry themselves to sleep with or without being checked on.||Cry it Out|
|Bedtime Fading||A parent gradually delays an infant’s bedtime over time.|
|Controlled Comforting||Parents physically comfort a crying child, though the length and type of comfort gradually diminish.||Pick Up, Put Down, OR Fading|
|Adult Fading||A parent gradually stays less and less time with a child after putting them down for bed.||Camping Out|
|Camping Out||A parent “camps out” in the room after bedtime. Each night, the parent moves their chair one step further from the crib until the child graduates from needing a parent present to fall asleep.||The Chair Method|
|Pick Up, Put Down||Every time a child cries, the parent picks them up and comforts them until calm. Once calm, the baby is placed back in the crib.||Controlled Comforting|
Okay, fine – I didn’t stop at five. 🙂 Even so, that are seven different ways you can address the HOW of sleep training.
Is there some overlap? Sure. There are similarities between several of the methods. Some allow for tears, some don’t. Some involve the physical comforting of a child, some call for emotional-only support.
But how you sleep train your child matters. Because if you’re trying a method that you can’t put your whole heart into, you’re probably going to fail. We sure failed when our heart wasn’t in it.
For naptime sleep training our oldest boy, we started with a modified cry-it-out/Ferber method. But my heart wasn’t 100% in it, so it didn’t work. Switching our HOW to another method (fading) saw better results because I could do it.
And with a better method for us? Sleep training became a positive experience that was good for my son and good for me.
And if you’re using a method that’s doomed to fail, it’s going to make the whole sleep training experience a bad one in everyone’s eyes. That includes your baby – and it won’t be a good experience for anyone.
However, if you pick a sleep training method that you can really commit yourself to – and stick to it – odds of a successful outcome rise dramatically. And the odds are it will be a good experience that ends in a better sleep outcome for everyone.
What Studies Say about Sleep Training Being Good for Baby
Generally speaking, the studies all agree that sleep training is a beneficial experience for everyone – if it’s addressing a problem that needs attention.
Here’s what the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has to say about sleep training and its long-term effects:
Behavioral sleep techniques have no marked long-lasting effects (positive or negative.) Parents and health professionals can confidently use these techniques to reduce the short- to medium-term burden of infant sleep problems and maternal depression.American Academy of Pediatrics, October 2012 Volume 130 Issue 4
In other words, if everyone is cranky and sleep-deprived, sleep training will be a good experience for your family. And it will be good for everyone’s health, too, because you’ll all be getting better quality and quantities of sleep!
Studies have also looked at overall stress levels (by measuring the levels of stress hormones like cortisol) during sleep training. During sleep training, there was some initial rise in children’s cortisol levels.
However, studies on children who have been through sleep training (and are therefore getting better sleep) also showed this result:
…the babies in the sleep training groups showed slightly lower cortisol levels than the babies who had no sleep training. This suggests that in the bedtime fading group and the graduated extinction group, the babies had less stress and anxiety… and fell asleep more quickly and woke up less frequently in the middle of the night.Riley Children’s Health, Indiana University
In other words, babies who went through sleep training got enough restorative sleep so that their overall levels of stress, anxiety, and discomfort were lower than babies who were still sleeping poorly.
In other words, most studies and experts agree that sleep training can be a positive and good experience for your baby – and your whole family.
They do make specific recommendations to ensure your baby’s physical, emotional, and psychological health. To read those specific guidelines and recommendations, please click here to read my article.
Experts that Caution Against Sleep Training
Now, in order to be thorough, let’s also address the individual doctors, psychologists, scientists, and the studies they reference who are against sleep training.
After extensive research, I’ve found that most experts who say they’re against sleep training aren’t against why sleep training is needed. Rather, they are cautioning us against blindly trusting in how we handle sleep training and studies.
These experts also caution against trusting studies that don’t have enough data to be reliable, repeatable, or authoritative on the subject.
For example, these experts caution against using a study of 22 patients (that may show a specific sleep training method to be safe) as a reliable indicator. This isn’t because they think the sleep training methodology is necessarily unsafe. It’s because a patient sample size of 22 is too small to give us enough data.
So in many cases, these experts aren’t actually speaking against sleep training. What they’re actually saying is that more studies and larger sample sizes are needed in the studies. And in that, they’re right. More data is always good.
In the meantime, the current data still supports what the AAP has said about sleep training generally being safe – with no long-lasting effects.
Even so, there are a few individual experts who are speaking out against sleep training methodology that they’ve deemed dangerous: pure extinction (or cry it out).
These experts reference studies that talk about not ever responding to your child’s needs and how it can manage to hurt the parent-child bond. I’ve read those same studies. If any sleep training method is taken to an extreme, I can see why these experts say and publish the things that they do.
However, as long as families are actively accounting for a child’s physical, emotional, and psychological needs, you’ll be able to avoid the issues that these cautionary experts are warning us against.
Therefore, most experts agree that sleep training is good for your baby and your whole family.
When Sleep Training is Completely Safe and Good for Your Baby (vs when it’s dangerous)
As we’ve discussed earlier in this article, sleep training (done right) can be completely safe and good for your baby. It can become dangerous and unsafe, though, if you stop accounting for your child’s physical, mental, emotional, and psychological needs.
However, once you stop providing for your child’s needs there’s a lot more going wrong than just sleep training – there’s a concern for child abuse, too. So let’s prevent that from becoming an issue, shall we?
Meantime, here are the different ways you’ll need to provide for your child while sleep training.
Making Sleep Training Physically Safe and Good for Your Baby
Start by creating a healthy environment for your baby. The 2016 AAP Updated Recommendations for a SafeInfant Sleeping Environment encourage parents to:
- Put a baby to sleep on their back for the first year of their life.
- Consider breastfeeding, as it is associated with a decreased risk of SIDS.
- Use a firm, baby-specific sleeping surface (and mattress) for the baby.
- Have your baby sleep in your room (but in a separate bed) for the first six months of their life.
- Be wary of devices, products, and services that claim to prevent or reduce the risk of SIDS. Check the CPSC website for details and specifics.
- Know that home cardiorespiratory monitors should only be used as prescribed by a doctor.
- Avoid alcohol, smoke exposure, and illicit drug use during pregnancy and after a child has been born.
- Keep your baby dressed for the temperature. Dress your baby in no more than 1 more layer than an adult would wear in the given environment.
- Keep loose bedding, soft objects, and anything that could cause airway issues (entrapment or strangulation) away from the baby’s sleeping area.
- Vaccinations are recommended.
- Know that swaddling does NOT reduce the risk of SIDS.
- Use supervised tummy time.
Then, also take into consideration how your baby will continue to get physical support, love, and basic needs met while sleep training. This includes:
- getting enough food, formula, or breastmilk to eat.
- having enough age and developmental-appropriate liquids to drink (formula, breastmilk, water, or other if approved by your pediatrician).
- wearing clean clothes and diapers.
- receiving physical comfort like cuddling.
Making sure that your baby is in a safe, physically-supported environment will do more than just make sleep training a good experience for them. It will also set them up for knowing that they’re loved, wanted, and taken care of by you.
Consider Your Baby’s Emotional and Psychological Safety (and Needs)
The most important part of a baby’s emotional needs is knowing that they’re heard and understood. The hard part about this is that babies communicate by crying – so when they cry, they are generally trying to tell you something.
Some individual psychologists (like these on Psychology Today) caution against using a pure cry-it-out (extinction) method. They are concerned because ignoring crying is akin to ignoring your child’s attempts at communication. Regularly ignoring all communication attempts can result in:
- a diminished caregiver sensitivity and responsitivity (meaning it’s too easy for an adult to continue ignoring the baby or child).
- increased stress hormones (cortisol) as a baby is correlated to decreased stress management later in life. This is known as disordered stress reactivity.
- changes in normal brain development.
- an inability to self-regulate and self-comfort due to a lack of patterning and conditioning.
- trust impairment and self-confidence issues.
Again, most of these issues are correlated with the long-term ignoring of a child – which is a form of neglect and abuse. Short-term extinction methods show no long-lasting effects (negative or positive).
In most cases, just having read this will give you the information you need to consider your child’s physical, psychological, and emotional safety – and help you make sleep training a positive experience.
Sleep Training (taken to an extreme) is a Problem for Everyone
Moderation in all things is important – or so many fables and books of wisdom teach us. So is it any surprise that it’s the same for parenting and sleep training? It can be – so don’t feel bad if it’s a new idea to you, too. After all… it’s not like sleep training is something that’s taught in any schoolroom setting.
In any case, it’s when we’re taking things to the extremes that sleep training can become a problem for everyone.
- When parents regularly ignore a child at night – and suddenly find themselves ignoring and neglecting a child all day.
- It’s when parents give in every night to a child’s unrelenting and unrealistic demands that they find themselves beyond exhausted – and completely unable to function.
Sure, those are the extremes. But that’s where the danger lies. And most parents are valiantly trying to avoid those extremes.
So keep trying to do things the right way – in a reliable, consistent manner that will help everyone to improve and get the sleep they need. That’s the road to success – because it is sustainable and has a realistic, attainable goal that is reachable.
Sleep Training (done right) is Safe and Beneficial for Everyone
Once you’ve found a reliable, sustainable, and usable sleep training plan, that’s where you’re going to see success. And that success will be good for everyone because we all need to sleep!
Getting there may not be easy (at least not every step of the way) but it will be worth it. And it will be even more so once everyone’s overcome the sleep debt accrued over the last weeks, months, or even years.
I was amazed at how much better I function (both as a person and a parent) once I was finally getting enough sleep. Getting enough sleep made me feel like I could handle most problems easier – and parent with intention. My kids have noticed how it affects me, too.
So while getting your child to sleep is a good goal, it’s not the end goal. The end goal is to make sure that everyone is getting enough sleep – so we can be our best selves for our families each and every day. That way, our families can be happier, more fulfilled, and more willing to spend time together.
Because really – when you’re exhausted it’s far too hard to do much together. But when you’re rested? That’s when everyone has the energy and stamina they need to make memories as a family.
Oh, and since everyone’s getting enough sleep, their brains will (during sleep cycles) be able to process those memories so everyone can actually recall them at a later date.
So how do you do sleep training the “right” way? There’s no one specific answer – but it’s taking things one day at a time, following your behavior-based sleep training method, working on your goal of sleep, and being flexible while everyone adjusts together to reach the goal.
You and your family can do this. You can reach a full night’s sleep – just take things one step at a time. Before you know it, you’ll be looking back and everyone will be sleeping better.
When Should You Start Sleep Training Your Baby? You should sleep train your baby if there is a moderate to severe sleep disruption that requires change for the family’s health and well-being. Read more about when to sleep train (with a month-by-month guide) by clicking here.
Can You Sleep Train a 3-Month-Old Baby? Sleep training is only officially recommended by experts once a baby is at least 4-6 months of age. Sleep training “practice” can be used before that age.
How Long Do You Let a Baby Cry it Out? There is no official recommendation for how long to let your baby cry. Most families who use a cry-it-out sleep training method report it takes up to 1-2 hours of crying before their baby falls asleep. Read more about how long you should let babies cry here.