It’s a legitimate question.
Your baby is still waking often at night. Your friends are suggesting that you do some sleep training. You want to be confident that you’re doing the right thing for your baby–but oh my goodness, there are so many opinions on this topic!
One objection that often comes up is that sleep training is an attempt to control your child’s sleep. Or, put another way, people wonder: does letting baby learn to “self-soothe” just teach him to give up believing that mom or dad will respond?
A bit of background
In order to find an answer to this question, it’s important to take a step back. Why do some babies continue to wake at night, while others do not?
The concept of “self-soothing” was coined by Thomas Anders in the late 1970s.Anders, T. F. (1978). Home-recorded sleep in 2- and 9-month-old infants. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 17(3), 421–32. In studying the sleep patterns of infants by use of time-lapse video recording, he discovered that babies were waking more often than parents noticed. Not only that: remarkably, all of the babies woke a few times every night–including those whose parents believed that their baby was “sleeping through the night.”
Some infants were waking, but returning to sleep without crying out. Others would wake and begin crying.Anders, T. F., & Keener, M. (1985). Developmental course of nighttime sleep-wake patterns in full-term and premature infants during the first year of life. I. Sleep, 8(3), 173–92. Anders labeled the non-cryers as “self-soothers” and the cryers as “signalers.”
What made the difference between the signalers and the self-soothers? As it turned out, the most significant factor was whether or not baby was put into the crib awake at bedtime.Anders, T. F., Halpern, L. F., & Hua, J. (1992). Sleeping through the night: a developmental perspective. Pediatrics, 90(4), 554–60.
Thanks to Anders preliminary work, this distinction has been noted overAdair, R., Bauchner, H., Philipp, B., Levenson, S., & Zuckerman, B. (1991). Night Waking During Infancy: Role of Parental Presence at Bedtime. Pediatrics, 87(4). and over,Sadeh, A., Mindell, J. A., Luedtke, K., & Wiegand, B. (2009). Sleep and sleep ecology in the first 3 years: A web-based study. Journal of Sleep Research, 18(1), 60–73. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2869.2008.00699.x across the globe.Mindell, J. A., Sadeh, A., Kohyama, J., & How, T. H. (2010) Parental behaviors and sleep outcomes in infants and toddlers: a cross-cultural comparison. Sleep Medicine, 11(4), 393–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleep.2009.11.011
Why does going into the crib awake at bedtime matter?
The way we all sleep is highly dependent on cues. Consider your own sleep. You may not even realize how many cues you rely on, because they remain so consistent from night to night. But try swapping which side of the bed you sleep on with your partner. Or rearrange the furniture in your bedroom. Try falling asleep with your daytime clothes on.
Is there any physical reason why you shouldn’t be able to sleep in any of these cases? And yet, if you attempted to do so, you would probably find it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep if your normal sleep cues had changed.
Consider how your child falls asleep at bedtime. Does he need to be nursed to sleep? Taking a bottle in order to become drowsy? Rocked or bounced? Maybe she just needs you to sit close by?
There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these things. You should be feeding, holding, and comforting your child. The difficulty is that when these things happen in connection with falling asleep, they become part of your child’s sleep cues.
Remember how Anders discovered that all babies wake multiple times at night? Baby expects those cues to stay the same all night long. When he wakes, he needs you to recreate how he fell asleep at bedtime.
Who stole my pillow?
Imagine if you noticed that your pillow was getting to the point that it needed to be replaced, but you didn’t want to get rid of it just yet. Your spouse, in a well-meaning gesture, decides to wait until you’re in a deep sleep, then gently lifts your head to remove your old pillow while placing the new pillow under your head.
During the night, you’ll move out of that deep sleep you were in into a lighter stage of sleep. As you roll over, you’re certain to notice that this is not your beloved pillow. It feels different. Your neck is at a different angle. Your head doesn’t rest on that flat spot the way it used to. What is this?!
You sit up, find your old pillow, and wearily drift back to sleep. The feel of your pillow is a strong sleep cue.
But this back-and-forth thing with the pillow continues, multiple times each night, every night.
You’d get pretty annoyed, wouldn’t you? You might even begin to resist falling asleep at all, because you’re starting to become anxious that your pillow is going to disappear!
Crying over changed habits
Parents of newborns are often encouraged to begin looking for opportunities early on to attempt to put their baby down while drowsy but still awake.
To go back to our pillow-swapping story, this would be like trying to get used to falling asleep on your new pillow when you first go to bed, instead of your partner trying to swap it for you all night long. It allows you to readjust your sleep cue when you’re aware of what’s going on, and honestly, your partner is getting pretty sleep-deprived himself with all this business trying to subtly switch you to new-pillow-sleeping.
But you really really love your old pillow. You’re dragging your feet on this change. Honestly, who enjoys change anyway? With all of our adult, cognitive abilities, we recognize that although it’s going to be a challenge to get used to the new pillow, we can do this.
Your baby can’t rationalize like you can. His only way of saying, “Hey! What’s going on around here?” is to cry.
So… about the giving up thing?
Your baby might be used to falling asleep while nursing. You could swap that out for holding him until he falls asleep. Is he going to protest? Most likely. When he finally falls asleep in your arms, is it because he gave up thinking that you would ever nurse him again? Or is it because biology is happening, and the need to sleep eventually wins? Test your theory in the morning. Does he still fuss for you to feed him, and do you still respond to his need to be fed? There you go.
Your baby might be used to falling asleep in your arms. You could swap that out for putting him down in his crib, and sitting nearby, reassuring him with your presence that you’re supporting him in the learning process. You’ll still hold and snuggle your little one throughout the day. You’re just giving him a new “pillow.”
And… I’m not controlling him by doing this?
Consider this: if your baby (toddler, preschooler) can’t fall asleep without your presence in some way, who’s controlling his sleep?
Giving your little one the opportunity to learn this skill of falling asleep doesn’t control him. You are setting up the process of falling asleep as being pleasant and predictable through the use of your bedtime routine, and you’re releasing control by allowing him to fall asleep with his own skills, in his own way.
I'm ready for a good night's sleep
|↑1||Anders, T. F. (1978). Home-recorded sleep in 2- and 9-month-old infants. Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, 17(3), 421–32.|
|↑2||Anders, T. F., & Keener, M. (1985). Developmental course of nighttime sleep-wake patterns in full-term and premature infants during the first year of life. I. Sleep, 8(3), 173–92.|
|↑3||Anders, T. F., Halpern, L. F., & Hua, J. (1992). Sleeping through the night: a developmental perspective. Pediatrics, 90(4), 554–60.|
|↑4||Adair, R., Bauchner, H., Philipp, B., Levenson, S., & Zuckerman, B. (1991). Night Waking During Infancy: Role of Parental Presence at Bedtime. Pediatrics, 87(4).|
|↑5||Sadeh, A., Mindell, J. A., Luedtke, K., & Wiegand, B. (2009). Sleep and sleep ecology in the first 3 years: A web-based study. Journal of Sleep Research, 18(1), 60–73. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2869.2008.00699.x|
|↑6||Mindell, J. A., Sadeh, A., Kohyama, J., & How, T. H. (2010) Parental behaviors and sleep outcomes in infants and toddlers: a cross-cultural comparison. Sleep Medicine, 11(4), 393–9. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleep.2009.11.011|