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Train a Dog, But Don’t Train Your Baby to Sleep!

Do I look like a dog?

Do I look like a dog?

I was fuming. Yes, me. Yogi, surfy, zen-mama Kate, was exhausted. I had a throbbing headache, my house was a mess and my 14 month old was up for two hours in the middle of the night.  Like, wide awake, and would absolutely not go back to sleep. I tried everything. Nope. She was not going back to sleep. I’m pretty sure my blood started to boil at one point and I *may* have even bit my pillow and growled and screamed inside my head ‘F***!?!?’

Eventually, she went back to sleep. They can’t stay up forever.

On nights like that, how tempting would it be for frustrated parents to want to desperately try sleep training? I know, I surely looked into it when my older daughter was a baby. What if you had to go to work the next morning or do something that required you being able to function? Wouldn’t you just want to do anything to get that kid to sleep?! Of course you would… but here are a few reasons why it might be better to take a permanent rain check on sleep training.

No bedtime wars here!

No bedtime wars here!

1. Studies show that a child develops 97% of his or her brain synopsis in the first three years of life (in other words, their brain pathways, they are learning how their world, society and family unit works). While a child may not remember specific events during those first few years, they are laying down the foundations of learning that will be there for the rest of their life. Things like trust, belongingness, and love. All the virtues that, if people have, makes for a really awesome society.

Studies have shown that leaving babies to ‘cry it out’, or doing other sleep training that involves allowing an infant to cry alone for prolonged periods of time, raises the cortisol (stress) hormone in the body. It’s beyond an adults comprehension as to how frightening it might for a baby to leave it alone with no human contact. Sleep training has been associated with failure to thrive in babies and with a sort of ‘baby depression’. Sleep training can also lead to increased maternal depression and decreased breastfeeding success. All of those risks… just for us sleepy parents to get a few hours of sleep… Not to mention, many parents say they feel bad for ‘having’ to do it. Not worth it to me!

Those first few years of a child’s life are so vulnerable for little developing brains. Those precious first few years should be filled with cuddles and love that occurs when a baby’s crying is responded to. Fear, stress, separation, despair and mistrust can set in when a baby is left alone to cry.

Family nap time!

Family nap time!

2. Babies are dependent for just about everything. If you told them to get up and help themselves to the change table to change their dirty diaper, they would look at you pretty much with a blank stare. So, if you tell them to go to sleep now because it’s bedtime… well, you’re probably going to get that blank stare  It’s not that they can’t do it because they need to ‘learn‘ to do it, it’s because babies need help with everything anyway.  In nature, they would have needed constant protection. Cave people would not have put their babies on the other side of the rock in order for everyone to get a good night’s sleep… would they have? Babies need help with everything else, they also need a carer’s presence in order for them to go to sleep more peacefully.

3. BABIES AND TODDLERS CAN’T TALK. Duh…we all know that. Who knows what they want. I mean, usually, parents can figure it out… but sometimes we can’t! It could be the usual cries, for hunger, or they’re tired, not feeling well, thirsty, teething, have growing pains… Or, they might also have a freaking scratchy tag in their shirt or a diaper wedgie.  They might just want a warm body to snuggle with (don’t you want to snuggle sometimes?). A baby can’t TELL us why they can’t fall asleep. Who are we to say that we should just toss them into an empty room all by themselves and let them scream until they pass out?

4. Sleep is not a skill that needs to be learned…. do you see any high school students that don’t know how to sleep?!  You’re lucky to get them out of bed by banging pots and pans next to their head. Babies and young children (actually all people in general) are not designed to sleep through the night. A little bit of knowledge on baby’s sleep cycles, sleep patterns and how babies sleep during the time surrounding certain physical and mental milestones (like rolling), can explain a lot to parents about how their baby is ‘supposed‘ to be sleeping at that age (see the links below).

At around 5 or 6 months, my older daughter went through a phase where she woke up a lot at night (most babies go through this at this age).  Somebody told me she was trying to manipulate me . I took one look at my baby and one look at my friend and laughed out loud.  THAT little rolly polly pudgy butterball try to manipulate me?!? MANIPULATE?!  Politicians, crummy boyfriends and CEOs of companies manipulate people… but babies?! Pah-lease! She’s 3 1/2 years old now (sleeps through the night in a bed in our room), and she STILL wouldn’t even know where to start to manipulate anyone!

Sleeping in sync

Sleeping in sync

5. Biologically, babies, children and well… nearly every member of society, are not meant to be left alone! I remember sleeping with the covers pulled up over my head until I was well into my teens. I was terrified of sleeping in the dark in my own room. Up until I was about 8 or 9, I vividly remember jumping into my parent’s bed and wrapping my leg around my mom as I desperately clinged to the edge, trying to stake a claim on some bed real-estate without falling off (my little brother was in there too, it was pretty squashed). Human beings are social, communal animals. We live in villages, towns, and cities and require each other’s assistance to survive. We don’t thrive well on our own, it’s a fact!

6. Put yourself in their shoes. Imagine how you would feel if the person who does everything for you was all of a sudden ignoring your hollers? Never mind that they picked you up an hour ago when you fell and bumped your head. Now, they want you to sleep, and they won’t pick you up at all, even though you’re screaming your head off… You don’t understand why they’re acting so strange! If it were me, I would feel pretty sad, confused and rejected if I were left to cry alone in a room without anyone to come and save me.

Alternatives to Sleep Training

Ok, I know, it’s no fun to have sleepless nights, especially if you have to work the next day (been there, done that, not fun).  Here are some things you can do to help everyone get a good night’s rest.

  • Go to bed when the baby does, or very soon after. Usually that first stretch of sleep is the longest.  So, just in case they want to pull an all nighter, at least you may get a few hours of sleep before they start waking up for the rest of the night.
  • Co-sleep or room share. You can get to your baby faster if they’re next to you. Getting to them faster and resettling them will prevent them from waking up fully and will make it easier for them to fall back asleep.  Also, you can regulate the room temperature better, making it cozy for sleep. They say between 65-72 degrees (18-22C) is optimal for sleep. Be sure to read up on safe cosleeping tips if you’re not used to sleeping with your baby.
  • Nap when they nap, or at least rest or meditate, if you’re home and not at work. If you’re more rested, you won’t feel the need to look for a quick easy fix for sleep.
  • Keep them dry. Even if they’re wearing a disposable diaper, a wet one can be really uncomfortable. For some babies, they don’t like to be disturbed for a change, but some sleep terrible when they’re wet. See what works for you and your baby.  Better yet, if you’re crazy like me, I take my babies to the potty in the middle of the night and avoid the wet diaper all together.
  • Allow them to cry, but in your arms only. Babies surely do need to cry, it’s part of getting rid of daily frustrations and negative emotions. But, do it during the day, and in arms… here is an awesome website on something called ‘Cry in Arms‘.
  • Try family naps. I feel like a big sleep bomb goes off and everyone sleeps for longer if I take a nap with my kids.
  • Do your research! If you don’t feel right about something you’ve read (as in letting your baby cry it out) chances are, it isn’t good for you or your baby! Know the facts, read the research out there. There are gentle parenting techniques available that will give you a better night’s sleep without having to resort to sleep training.
  • Repeat the mantra, ‘This too shall pass‘… when all else fails. Your child will not always wake at night. One day when you’re old and gray and all alone and can’t sleep at night, you will be wishing that you had someone to party with all night long!

For more studies based research on infant sleep, the following links are excellent and come highly recommended.

It pays to be informed. Read the research out there before making a decision to sleep train. For me, it goes against every grain of my being to leave a baby alone in the other room to cry. And, after reading the studies that prove that sleep training is detrimental to a child’s emotional development, I wouldn’t bother risking it just for those few hours of extra sleep. Even for kids who ‘seem‘ fine after being trained to sleep, we really don’t know how sleep training could affect them later in life. We want our kids to be the absolute best later in life, so why compromise their emotional development so early on? It’s just a few short years that a baby or toddler wakes at night.  It won’t last forever. BUT, the emotional detriments to allowing a baby to ‘cry it out’ may last forever in the blueprint of a child’s mind, so why risk it?

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