It might be called sleep 'training,' but you're really just giving your baby sleep skills they'll benefit from forever.
Confession: I hate the phrase "sleep training." Not because it's a hot-button topic, or because I feel guilty for having done it with both of my daughters. I hate it because the word "training" sounds incredibly harsh compared to what it really is.
Additionally, just those two words, "sleep training," can conjure up an argument in an online mom group that has over a hundred comments. When I was a brand new, first-time mom with postpartum anxiety, I used to internalize every little comment like this. As a more seasoned mom, I know what works for me, what works for my kids, and I feel utterly unapologetic about all of it.
At best, mommy-shamers are passive-aggressive about sleep training ("I couldn't do it, I hate hearing my baby cry"—as if any mom enjoys it). At worst, they hurl awful names at you and accuse you of neglect. Those comments help no one. I was crumbling under a cloud of postpartum depression, anxiety, and sleep deprivation and knew something had to give.
By teaching my babies how to sleep for longer stretches (and all night long), I was better rested. They were better rested. We all responded to the routine very well, and my mental health improved because of it.
Here's the thing we don't talk about when we're talking about sleep training: it's really just teaching. It's giving your child the gift of self-soothing and sleep skills that will benefit them physically and mentally for the rest of their lives. Sleep training is hard, yes. But parenting under extreme emotional and mental duress is harder—on everyone.
What sleep training is NOT
It's not abandonment. It's not neglect. It's not cruel. For many moms, including myself, it's necessary.
When you're teaching your baby to sleep, you're not letting them cry for hours on end. No matter what method of sleep training you choose (I combined the Ferber and "shush, shush, pat" methods) you don't just toss your baby in the crib and let them cry all night. That being said, letting them fuss or wail for a few minutes before comforting them isn't easy—no mom enjoys hearing their baby cry.
But like all things in babyhood, sleep training is temporary. They develop their own self-soothing skills quickly, and when my kids got it down in under a week, I knew those few days were a small price to pay for the gift of good sleep. I was never more than an inch away from their bedroom door, and I know they sensed that. Before I went down the road of sleep training with my second child, I invested in a pair of semi-noise-canceling headphones. I could still hear her, I was still outside her door, but Spotify's Calm Acoustic playlist helped me remain calm—for my baby and myself. (I didn't need them long, because she was sleeping from 7 p.m.-7 a.m. in no time. Yes, I know how lucky I am!)
The value of self-soothing
Here's one way to think of self-soothing that really helped my own perspective. Ask yourself, "How do I fall asleep?" And the answer for many includes a variety of self-soothing tactics. We settle ourselves with a book, a podcast or a TV show. Some of us use sound machines.
The point is, we have a routine where we prepare our bodies to fall asleep. We don't go and go and go all day until we collapse in a heap on the floor (well, most days, anyway). Why would I expect my baby (or child) to do that when I could teach them how to fall asleep on their own, safely in their own crib?
Babies need sleep. A LOT of it.
Sleep deprivation doesn't just harm parents. It negatively affects the cognitive and physical development of children and can lead to a range of behavioral issues. Guidelines from the National Sleep Foundation state that infants (4-11 months old) should get between 12 and 15 hours of sleep per day.
A pediatric study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that the persistence of infant sleep problems through the preschool years is associated with slightly higher child behavior problems and maternal depression. The study concluded that depressive symptoms are a result, not a cause, of sleep problems.
The study shows better sleep at night means less frequent meltdowns throughout the day, better naps, and better cognitive functioning.
Sleep skills are the gift that keeps on giving
Lack of sleep can cause chaos and destruction in the functionality of your family unit. I've been there. I get it. Listening to your baby cry is certainly not easy on any parent. But my husband and I did our research, made a plan, adjusted it to fit our babies' needs and our own, and we stuck to it.
As Glennon Doyle says, we can do hard things. For us, it took just a few days before our babies were nailing the self-soothing thing. For others, it may take weeks. Is it easy? No. There isn't much about parenthood that is easy, though. But by giving my babies the gift of learning how to sleep well, I also gave them the gift of the best version of myself. And that, to me, is invaluable.
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