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What is sleep training?

Updated: Jul 11, 2023

When anyone asks “what is sleep training” or even utters the words, you can visibly see the general public clutch their pearls and hear the gasp.

(Misconception number 1:…..)

“WHAT? Leave my baby to cry for hours on end by themselves?!?”

Nope, that’s not at all what it means.

Sleep training is a weird term. And I think can mean a lot of different things to different people— but mostly people think it means CIO (cry it out, extinction, etc)..

Really, sleep training is conditioning your child to fall asleep in a certain way. That means even if you’re rocking your baby to sleep, you’ve conditioned them to sleeping that way and that’s how they’re “sleep trained.”

Sleep training is also a way to change habits. It is behavior modification. So if your current sleep situation isn’t sustainable, we use a sleep training method to change behaviors and create new habits that are more sustainable for our family.

Sleep training is not synonymous with and does not mean:

  • night weaning (you can keep feedings BUT if you feel baby doesn’t need them, night weaning does include some sleep training usually)

  • CIO/extinction or even the Ferber method

  • that you’re not a responsive parent

  • that you check out from 7pm-7am and never go in to check on them again

  • that all of your sleep troubles will be solved/you’ll never have a sleep regression again

  • that you can never support your child to sleep again or you’ll undo all the habits you’ve created

Sleep training also doesn’t “misunderstand” baby sleep patterns. We cannot make a baby sleep without waking all night long— that’s not what happens. We all wake throughout the night! What we can do is give them the tools to return to sleep if nothing is preventing them from doing so.

Sleep training doesn’t misunderstand the capabilities of a baby— while co-regulation is an important thing, something people miss about co-regulation is giving them opportunities to self-regulate! That’s a component of co-regulation and sleep training. If we never give them the opportunity, how do we know if they can or can’t? We won’t know.

Babies can regulate in lots of different ways; rubbing their head, sucking their fingers, moving in a rhythmic motion…. it’s not an impossible task. If your child was crying in their car seat and you couldn’t soothe them, but they stopped crying, would your first thought be that they just gave up? They learned in that 10 or 15 minutes that their needs would never be met again and they were abandoned?

Another common misconception (and misunderstanding of hormones + poorly done research studies) is that while babies may be quiet, they’re not calm. They say this because of some cortisol studies (I don’t know how these studies were published in peer reviewed articles because they didn’t even complete the experiment). Cortisol is a hormone that is essential for circadian rhythm. It’s also secreted when babies are overtired. So it’s an oversimplification to say that sleep training causes a rise in cortisol when it happens naturally in our bodies as a part of circadian rhythm and necessary for survival.

Some are skeptical that sleep training works long term. What we see is that during a 5 year follow up, there was no difference in sleep trained or non-sleep trained kids. It’s more likely that the non-sleep trained kids eventually started sleeping better (research says between years 2-5 sleep will improve without parental intervention).

Sleep training also has no bearing on attachment- whether you do or you don’t. You can still create a generalized trust 30% of the time (which is all that’s needed for attachment) while sleep training, even if you do the CIO method!

Sleep training doesn’t ignore problems that can impact sleep== like low iron, sleep apnea, oral ties, feeding issues, etc.

As certified sleep consultants, part of our job IS identifying the red flags and referring out because we know it’s more than just behavior modification.

Now— if you’re here to work on independent sleep habits know that there are also MANY ways to successfully teach your child to fall asleep on their own. We can combine methods, modify methods, whatever we need to do so that you are comfortable and most importantly, it fits exactly what your child needs. It’s not always possible to avoid ALL crying though – and really, that’s unrealistic in life with a baby/toddler anyway. Crying is their way of communicating and the majority of the crying during sleep training is either from being overtired or simply protesting the change in routine.

Speaking of routines, having a series of events that signal bedtime will help to minimize the crying. Not to mention an age-appropriate schedule during the day. This provides a sense of calm and predictability which equals safety to your child.

Helping your child learn independent, healthy sleep habits can be SO overwhelming. I totally get it, I was there 6 years ago when I had a child who didn’t fall asleep when he was sleepy (because isn’t that what babies are supposed to do?!) He didn’t even crash when he was exhausted. But through all of my research and learning, what he really needed and wanted was to be left alone (to an extent) and allowed to sleep as opposed to bouncing him on a yoga ball for hours on end. I learned that everything I was trying was way too stimulating for him. He was way under the required sleep for his age, and nursing as a crutch was contributing to his reflux issues. 3 simple things I changed in our routine and now I have 3 kids who love sleep!

If you’re ready to help other families change their sleep habits, then the sleep consultant academy is for you! Check out the course here!


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