A guide to sleep training? What it is and some common myths.

When you have a baby it is almost inevitable that sleep becomes a topic of conversation. Whether you are looking for information or advice, or people are offering you their opinion, it is likely that ‘sleep training’ comes up in discussion.

‘Sleep training’ is an emotive topic and a term that can have different meanings and interpretations depending on who you speak to.

In this guide we’ll share our thoughts and look to dispel some of the myths around sleep training:

  • What is sleep training?
  • Common sleep training ‘myths’.
  • What does sleep training mean to us?
  • Our approach.

What is sleep training?

You might have heard people refer to sleep training, sleep teaching, sleep coaching or simply talk about strategies you can put in place to work on your baby or young child’s sleep.

There are varying interpretations of what it is, how you do it, and whether it is okay or not. Its certainly a hot debated topic! There are many opposing arguments for and against working on sleep, with very little middle ground (big HINT this is where we come in).

There are those who argue its really beneficial for both baby and family, and those who say it is damaging. When we look at anything we do that impacts our children, we always want to make sure we are doing what we feel is best for them. It can be overwhelming to take on board all the advice and opinion that is available to us.

We like to keep things very simple. We define sleep training as finding a rhythm and routine for your little ones sleep and supporting them to be able to achieve restful periods of sleep independently.

Some sleep training ‘myths’.

Before we talk some more about our thoughts on sleep training, we think it is helpful to talk about some of the ‘myths’ that we hear often on the topic.

“Sleep training means you can’t respond to your baby’s needs”. You can always offer comfort to/feed your baby when needed. You can choose a method of shaping your baby’s sleep that works for your family. You do not need to follow a set of rules that don’t sit right with you.

“Sleep training breaks the parent-child bond”. This is not the case. Our aim is to offer our children a little space and the opportunity in order to settle themselves, before we rush in to help. You might be there in the room with them the whole time too! Sleep training can be responsive.

“You have to move your child out of your room to sleep train”. It is absolutely possible to work on sleep changes whilst room sharing. For some families they may prefer to keep their little one in with them longer than 6 months*, but also many simply don’t have the space for baby to have a separate room to sleep in.

*The Lullaby Trust recommends the safest place for your baby to sleep is a separate cot or Moses basket in the same room as you for the first 6 months.

“Sleep training will damage your child“. – There are various scientific studies which report no long term risks to sleep training. There are a number of studies showing improvements in sleep quality for the infant, and maternal mood. You can shape your approach to sleep in a loving and respectful way.

 “Sleep training meanings closing the door on your child and not returning”. This is called the Cry it Out method, or also commonly known as the ‘Extinction method’ of sleep training. The term ‘cry it out,’ seems to have become an umbrella term for all sleep training when in fact there are many approaches to making sleep changes that do not involve you leaving your baby alone all night without returning.

Will we tell you to just close the door and leave your child to cry themselves to sleep alone? No. Can we guarantee that there won’t be any tears at all as you are making changes to how your child falls asleep? The answer to this is also, no.

It is really common for little ones to cry when we are changing things, as this is how they communicate with us, but it isn’t always the case. For some families a simple tweak in their sleep set up is enough to get a settled night’s sleep.

Our approach to sleep training extends beyond just how you choose to settle your little one to sleep.

What does sleep training mean to us?

Sleep training can be flexible. There is no right or wrong time to allow your little one the space to settle themselves. There is more than one way to sleep train! We often use the phrase ‘pick and mix parenting’, meaning you can take elements of different approaches to parenting and incorporate them into your own approach.

Sleep training should be tackled holistically. Before choosing a method for you and your little one, you should take into account a number of factors – your family set up, your child’s temperament, rule out any medical concerns, resolve feeding challenges, and anything else that you think might impact how you approach the process.

Sleep training does not need to be scary or viewed as damaging – Making changes to your little one’s sleep doesn’t need to a stressful process. Creating predictable sleep routines and choosing a settling method that works for you and your baby can help make naps and bedtime an enjoyable experience.

Sleep training is not compulsory – You really don’t have to sleep train if you don’t want to. Its not a right of passage that each parent and baby has to navigate. If you are happy with your sleep situation at present, then great! You don’t need to change anything. However, if you feel that your situation is unsustainable, it is ok to seek help.

Making sleep changes can be effective when done at the right time – you need to feel ready, confident and be prepared to be consistent.

Our approach to sleep training.

Firstly, you do not need to make any changes to your baby’s sleep unless you want to. You should only ever make changes to your sleep situation if you feel that your current situation isn’t working for you and your little one.

You do not need to make changes just because your friend/mum/aunt/stranger on social media says you should. If you feel that your current sleep situation is unsustainable or you simply feel that you want to make some changes to your routine and approach to sleep, then there are different factors you can look at.

So how do we approach it? If you are ready to make a change to sleep we suggest looking at the following areas:

  • Sleep environment – is this set up to optimise sleep? Is there anything potentially disturbing or disrupting sleep?
  • Routine, routine, routine! Getting that day time balance is often the key to a good night. Getting enough sleep in the day so that baby isn’t overtired, but not too much so that they aren’t actually ready to go to bed. Trying to force a child to sleep who is not ready for bed can be very stressful!
  • Make changes to sleep at bedtime – if you are changing the way your little one falls asleep, then bedtime if the best time. You have biology on your side! Sleep pressure (our homeostatic sleep drive) is nice and high at bedtime (as long as we’ve not had too much day time sleep), and the body tends to find it easier to fall asleep at this time as a result.
  • Assess how your baby currently falls asleep, and choose a method to help them practice the skill of independent sleep. This will mean that they are more likely to be able to connect their sleep cycles during the night.
  • Decide on whether you will be in the room the whole time supporting baby, or whether you will step out for a moment.

All in all, parenting and sleep are such emotive topics. Everyone you speak to will have a different opinion, so it is important that you come to your own conclusion and have confidence in your choices.

If you would like to know more about baby sleep and have guidance on how you can approach achieving a well-rested night’s sleep then check out our online courses.

These are designed to teach you all about how your baby sleeps and to provide practical suggestions for settling techniques and routines to work towards.