Say the term “sleep training” to a parent and brace yourself for an immediate, emotional reaction. Some swear by it (“Sleep training saved my sanity and my marriage!”) while others are squarely against it (“...but sleep training will turn your child into an emotionally-unavailable psychopath.”). There’s very little middle ground on the topic.
If we strip away the drama, sleep training is quite simply the process of teaching your child to fall asleep independently. Full stop. There are many different ways to go about it, depending on the parent’s comfort level and the child’s personality. Some methods produce results more quickly than others, but there’s no “right” approach.
In my experience, sleep training is often parents’ last resort after trying every trick in the book. And they always have a good reason to do it. It could be that one child’s overnight wake-ups are interfering with her sibling’s sleep. Or that they realize that their exhaustion is interfering with their ability to be good parents (or employees) during the day. Or that their child’s teacher has noted behavioral issues at school that are linked to chronic sleep deprivation.
No matter the reason, there’s a lot of guilt around the decision to sleep train--or even to consider it. That’s normal: no one wants to sleep train their child. But sometimes bad sleep habits have become so deeply-ingrained that the situation calls for a total reset.
So is it selfish to want to fix our child’s sleep problems? Do parents do it because they care only about themselves?
Absolutely not, and if you're stuck in a sleep rut and debating whether or not to sleep train, here's what you need to remember.
1. Sleep training doesn’t harm your child. As far as researchers can determine, sleep training doesn’t have a long-term effect on babies or toddlers. Assuming that you have a loving and responsive relationship with your child during awake hours, you won’t damage the bond between you if you sleep train. She’ll still be happy to see you in the morning. (Also remember that sleep training takes many forms -- it’s not CIO or bust).
2. Our kids’ brains and bodies need lots of sleep in order to thrive. Chronic sleep deprivation negatively affects cognitive and physical development and causes a range of behavioral issues. Unsure whether or not your child is getting enough sleep? Indicators of sleep deprivation include inability to fall asleep quickly at bedtime; waking up still tired from a nap or in the morning; and/or frequent meltdowns in the early evening.
3. Long-term sleep deprivation affects OUR health and ability to parent. Adult bodies are designed to sleep a solid 7-9 hours of sleep per night. We’re not built to live in sleep survival mode for for months--or years. Ignoring this fact can (and usually does) lead to a host of problems, including postpartum depression, poor health, and marital strife. That, in turn, affects mom and dad’s ability to parent and to bond with our babies.
I’m not here to convince you to sleep train. It’s not for everyone. And you should certainly troubleshoot other possibilities first, such as adjusting the nap schedule, trying an earlier bedtime or creating a dark and quiet sleep environment.
But if lack of sleep is creating exhaustion and chaos in your life, don’t feel guilty for deciding to go for it. Ignore the mom guilt: you do what works best for you and your family. Because a well-rested family is a happy one.
Hadley Seward is a certified sleep consultant and founder of Bonne Nuit Baby. Based in France and New York City, she works with exhausted parents around the world to get their kids’ sleep back on track. Meet her + follow her adventures at @hadleyinfrance.