Sleep training is often sold as if it would help both the sleep-deprived parents and the baby. While it certainly can help parents have a good night’s sleep, there is no evidence that it is healthy for the child.
Common sense and evolutionary parenting styles suggest that young children want nothing more than being close to their parents, especially during the darkness of the night. It is therefore important to understand the most common myths behind sleep training and under what circumstances it can be good.
Myth 1: It’s not harmful to isolate babies
Proponents of sleep training argue that it’s OK to leave the baby on their own as long as there is no real danger.
While we lack solid evidence from randomized controlled trials with human babies, several animal studies have demonstrated that separating a baby from the mother causes dysregulation in multiple physiological systems like breathing, heart rate, and hormones. There is also evidence that human babies can get depressed when they are physically isolated from caregivers, and sleep training often leads to isolating the baby. Signs of depression include poor sleeping, not eating well, and lack of expression.
Myth 2: Putting babies into a distressful situation does not harm them
The fact is that prolonged stress can harm body organs and tissues, and studies have shown that isolation can be a highly stressful situation. So, leaving your baby to cry without a response is not only highly stressful but also psychologically and physically toxic.
It is true that after crying for a while your baby will keep quiet and sleep off, and with time, they will tend to stop crying in such situations. But evidence shows that even though the baby later displays less distress at the lack of your responsiveness during sleep training, their cortisol (the major stress hormone in the body) levels indicate that their distress is still as high as it was when you started the sleep training.
Myth 3: Babies need to be taught how to be independent
As infants, their brain development has not gotten to a level where they can understand that what they are not seeing is still present — they don’t yet have the capacity to understand what is called “object permanence”. So, when you leave your baby alone, they think you have gone and simply don’t understand that you are just a room away.
It can, therefore, be harmful to think that you can teach a baby to be independent at that age.
Myth 4: Babies don’t need to be with their caregivers at night
It is wrong to think that babies don’t need their caregivers at night. Your baby needs you to learn to self-regulate their sleep-wake cycle and other functions. Leaving a young baby alone can dysregulate development in very many ways, depending on other developmental factors.
In the absence of the caregiver, the baby’s self-regulatory systems may not be properly developed, and this may have some effects on the baby’s health and behavior later in life.
Myth 5: If the baby is no longer crying, they are fine
Your baby is not “fine” when they eventually stop after repeated prolonged crying sessions at night, even if you feel they are. Research has shown that babies learn to stop signaling their needs if caregivers ignore them. That means that children that are left to cry without any response learn to give up easily and that hard work doesn’t pay off.
So while parents may think that this is good when the baby stops crying, actually it might later affect the baby’s mental well-being and motivation.
Just like isolation, prolonged crying can create toxic stress for the baby and undermine their brain development.
Myth 6: Good babies sleep through the night
This assumption is not true — even adults don’t sleep all through the night.
A baby’s sleep needs vary with age, and as a baby grows, the total amount of sleep they require slowly decreases. Newborns sleep typically about 8 to 9 hours in the daytime and about 8 hours at night, but they sleep in short segments and may not sleep more than 1 to 2 hours at a time.
So, with each wake in the night, the baby may need to be soothed to sleep again. Denying your baby that comfort may affect their growth and development.
Myth 7: Trained children sleep deeper
No. In the past, most research was done by asking parents about their child’s sleep patterns. And while parents whose children slept alone often reported that their children didn’t wake up — they didn’t realize sleeping separately — those that slept next to their children reported more awakenings.
Today we are smarter. New research doesn’t rely on the observation of sleeping parents’ but night vision camera recordings. And these studies show that children between 1 to 4 years of age — sleep-trained or not — tend to wake up 6-10 times at night, often soothing themselves back to sleep without their parent’s realization.
Myth 8: Sleep training studies can tell us about the long-term effects on child wellbeing
It is difficult to conduct a comprehensive sleep training study that determines the long-term effects on baby development and wellbeing. What most sleep training research studies do is to check whether an intervention is effective at shutting down the baby so the parents get more sleep.
These studies often use a standard (intent to treat), which doesn’t even monitor what the comparison group is doing. Even when they compare the outcomes, their results are unreliable and limited in trustworthiness. So, it becomes difficult to reliably gauge what a baby has really experienced and what the long-term effects are.
When is sleep training the right choice
If you are too exhausted to be a good and attentive parent during the day due to the lack of sleep at night, then sleep training can be the right choice. If that is the case, make sure you inform yourself about the right approach to make the transition for your child as smooth as possible.
If you choose sleep training because you think it’s good for your child, better think twice and trust your basic instincts and those of your child.
Ketsupa Jirakarn (Mental health specialist) (31 March 2021)