Monday, March 8, 2010

Why We Don't Like "Sleep Training" for Babies: Part II

With this post, we wrap up our 2-part series on the reasons why we don't like "sleep training" systems that come with promises to parents that their use will result in babies' permanently sleeping through the night.

I am going to start with the bad news first. There is no one "system," product, elixir, or gizmo that will make babies sleep magically through the night. Babies will sleep between 12 and 16 hours per day and some will sleep for significant portions of the night even as young as 4 months of age. Many others do not. Now, we don't want you to think that we are suggesting that it is good or healthy for babies to wake up constantly. Healthy babies will slowly but steadily stretch out the time they spend sleeping. All babies are different but here are some guidelines of what parents might reasonably expect:
  • Newborns (birth to 6 weeks) wake frequently and erratically. Parents of newborns must be realistic, prepared, and ready to ask for help!
  • By 2 months, most babies are sleeping longer stretches, but waking 2-3 times during the night.
  • By 4 months, many babies start to sleep more like their parents, falling asleep into a deeper sleep and sleeping for 4-5 hours at once. Unfortunately, teething and changing routines can increase waking intermittently around this time.
  • By 6 months, some babies sleep for 6 hours while others are still waking more frequently, though not every night. There are so many changes typically occurring at 6 months, new skills, new activities, new travels, new teeth...older babies sleep well for a few nights, then wake again. It is no wonder that "sleep training" is so popular among parents of babies around this age.
  • About 80% of babies sleep through most nights by 1 year of age.

Once past the newborn period, waking that consistently exceeds these rough guidelines might indicate that something is interfering with your baby's ability to sleep. The first step is to check with your doctor to make sure that your baby is healthy and growing well. Some common (non-health- or feeding-related) triggers for waking include:

  • Lights from TVs or video games flickering on the wall (steady nightlights are usually ok)
  • Caffeine in the breastfeeding mother's diet
  • Changes in daily routine or no consistent routine
  • Baby is overstimulated or overtired
  • Too much sleep during the day
  • The need to practice new motor skills
  • Noise, but only if it is sudden and quite loud (babies quickly get used to familiar noises)

So what can be done to help older babies sleep longer if sleep training isn't likely to work?

  • Establish routines! Repeated activities and experiences are calming to babies and help them establish body rhythms that are closer to those of their parents. Bedtime routines allow babies time to shift naturally from a drowsy state into sleep. Babies will differ in how much time they need to become ready for sleep; many take at least 20 minutes. Believe it or not, you'll miss the bedtime routines when your children outgrow them.
  • Reduce or eliminate caffeine for breastfeeding mothers (don't worry, you'll get to have that morning mocha again). Babies' bodies take a lot longer to get rid of caffeine than we do. Remember there is caffeine in tea, sodas, energy drinks, and other products. Read labels.
  • Make sure that baby isn't overstimulated close to bed time (this is easy to do if parents typically get home late from work). Watch for indications that your baby is drowsy and start your bedtime routine right away. If you wait too long, you might end with a screaming, overtired baby who will be less likely to sleep than a baby put to bed earlier.
  • Make sure that baby spends plenty of time awake during the day. Give babies plenty of chance to be active, moving, and practicing their new skills during the day.
  • Include a special bedtime toy in your bedtime ritual, something that is safe to leave with baby as he drifts into sleep.
  • Don't end your routine with baby being completely asleep. When babies are put down when they are very drowsy but before they are asleep, they may be better at putting themselves back to sleep if they wake in the night. This doesn't work with babies who hate feeling drowsy and resist sleeping at all costs! I had one of those! The trick is that the baby must be very drowsy or very accustomed to this as an end to the night time routine.
  • Recognize that most babies make noise when drifting to sleep or they are dreaming, don't assume that intermittent noises mean your baby needs you immediately. Give your older baby a few moments to fall asleep or get back to sleep on his own.

We understand what it is like to be sleep deprived working moms. We also realize that families need to make their own decisions about how they deal with their infants' sleep patterns. But, unrealistic expectations about infant sleep may lead to feelings of frustration, resentment, and insecurity for parents who already are under enough stress. Infant sleep duration is not an indicator of parenting skills. Gaining understanding of how babies sleep patterns evolve, using cues, and developing consistent day- and nighttime routines can result in less stress, more sleep, and much happier babies and parents.

Next time: Answers to more reader questions.


  1. 2/3 of my children "resist being drowsy". Techniques for sleep were completely different than with their sleepy sister, especially as older babies/toddlers.

  2. What bothers me about this is suggesting that you shouldn't try something that might work. Sleep "training" *does* work for some babies. I really bought into the idea that if I let my daughter cry before going to bed, I was failing her as a parent. Every baby is different. Some will do well soothed to sleep, some won't. Some will do great if left to work out the getting to sleep thing on their own, and other won't. But, despite what those who are very against letting your children cry will tell you, letting your baby cry for 5-10 minutes at a time for a few nights will NOT hurt them permanently. And if that doesn't work, then try something else. But, don't exclude something that could be a valuable tool.

  3. Amazing how talking about sleep elicits so many responses! We've had lots of comments about this post and the last. We'd like to clarify that these posts were only intended to explain why we don't like sleep training, not to tell others that they shouldn't try it if they wish. We would only hope that parents won't assume that sleep training is a "one-size-fits-all" permanent solution to parents' sleep deprivation.

  4. Where did you get the stat that 80% of 1 year olds STTN? Other studies show that only 55% do.

  5. The challenge with looking at the studies is that some will only classify the children as sleeping through the night when they do so consistently. Others when they begin to do so. It is no surprise that you would get inconsistent results. The study I was using classified children as sleeping through the night when they slept at least 6 hours but did not require them to do it consistently.

  6. I've found this series very comforting. We do let our son cry for 5-10 minutes if nothing is amiss (dry, clean diaper, etc.). However, we now realize that he will sleep longer when his various systems (ex: nervous system) mature.

  7. From a mom in the trenches right now! My 3 mo old has very erratic sleep- in the last week, it has spanned from 9.5 hours and slipped down to 2.5. We have no idea what accounts for the good or the bad - we do the same thing every night. She has slept long stretches in her crib in the last 7 days, and has rejected it the last two nights and will only sleep in her swing. I keep hearing about babies getting addicted to the swing, etc. However, when we push the crib too much, she ends up awake for longer, gets less sleep,is overtired, etc. I guess my comment and question is, in the processs of trying to break a "bad habit" - like a swing, how much of the baby's sleep do you sacrifice in the pursuit of the goal? At the moment, we feel that you try every night, but once a decent night of sleep for the baby is in peril, you have to let it go. And try again the next night....

  8. Bravo! I have been told by just about every single person I know that I must "sleep train" my son. In my gut I just don't feel it's right FOR HIM and it's posts like this that help me feel validated in my decision. Thank you so very much.

  9. I agree, everyone seems to think they should sleep through, and often they mean 10-11 hours from six months. In my gut I know this is silly but when you are exhausted and someone is telling you to sleep train, that you are letting them get away with it etc it gets your all stressed out and worried. Thank you.

  10. I'm okay with a minute or two of crying before sleep. If my son is sleepy enough to go to sleep after crying for one minute, then I believe that he's truly sleepy and just needs to lodge one more complaint before passing out. This happens in the carseat while driving all the time.

    But I can't deal with "pickmeuppickmeuppickmeupwhyaren'tyoupickingmeupwhyaren't ... pleasepickmeuppleasepickmeup ..... they're not going to pick me up, are theeeeeeeeeeey" at night. It feels wrong to me. Sleep 'trainers' say all the time, "but it works!!" And sometimes it does. But the more extreme end of the sleep 'training' spectrum works because a child realizes "because it's night time, they're off duty. No matter how urgently I ask them to help me feel better, they're not going to respond." This is true whether the baby is hungry, too cold, too warm, scared, or just wants to be held for a minute. I guess this isn't the message I want to send my kid. If I wake up in the middle of the night hungry, I get a snack, thirsty, a drink, or if I'm cold or scared I snuggle closer to my husband. A baby can't do these things on his or her own. CIO methods seem too much like all the other ways that children's needs are ignored purely for adults' convenience. The way I see it, I can't know what's in his head right now, and until I have a better idea, I'd rather err on the side of comforting him. The older he gets, the more able he will be to do everything (including falling asleep) on his own.

    In the meantime, I think it's right to respond as quickly and as compassionately at night as I do during the day, and so far that has worked for us.

    1. I have read your post with tears in my eyes! I am having such a struggle with my healthy, 10.5 kg 8.5 month son. I have tried CIO for two nights and hated every second. It feels completely wrong to me and I have decided to stop it. I will try other means and until he is older and able to understand that nights are for sleeping. It is not me , it is not because I am a bad mother, he just has more demanding needs than my daughter who started sleeping through the night at 10 months which coincided with her crawling and therefor being more tired. Thank you!!

  11. Well said, heather