There are a lot of challenges with modern day sleep training. But, as someone who advocates for sleep solutions that do not include the ‘traditional’ methods, you might be surprised to hear me say that the biggest challenge with sleep training is not the crying in and of itself. Instead, the biggest problems with sleep training are
- the separation, and
- the expectation of having a child down regulate from a place of stress, without the support of co-regulation
Research has shown that babies who experience separation from their parents may have increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can have long-term effects on their health and development (Gunnar & Donzella, 2002). Separation can also interfere with the baby’s ability to form a secure attachment with their caregiver, which is crucial for their emotional and social development (Bowlby, 1969).
Obviously there will be situations where some form of separation is unavoidable (driving, medical emergencies etc.). The problem with sleep training is that it is intentional separation that causes, in some cases, prolonged periods of stress with either little or no support (depending on whether we’re talking full extinction, or a ‘check in’ method like Ferber). Even the so-called ‘gentle sleep training’ approaches, which offer parents the opportunity to be present without making contact, are still perceived separation. Imagine if you were upset and your partner agreed to be present while you weeped, but wouldn’t make eye contact, wouldn’t physically comfort you, and wouldn’t speak to you? It’s safe to say you’d feel disconnected and unsupportive, which would compound the reason for your initial distress.
The goal of taking a more responsive approach to sleep isn’t that we are trying to avoid tears altogether, it’s that we are being supportive, present and offering contact and connection as needed. It is unrealistic to expect that a child can regulate on their own while they are under the stress of separation from a caregiver. So, while the expression of tears alone has its merits, purposely putting a baby in a situation that they are not developmentally equipped to process is just plain unfair.
So what is the solution if sleep training is not it? Should parents just remain in an endless state of exhaustion, until their child (hopefully!) one day outgrows it?
Simply put, no.
You can make changes to sleep, even while holding age appropriate boundaries, without ever using separation based methods or leaving your child to cry. Our job as parents is to walk alongside our children; to physically and metaphorically hold their hand as they experience situations in which they’re up against things they cannot change; and to empathize with and allow space for their all emotions, regardless of how it makes us, as parents, feel.
Struggling to find sleep solutions to meet your family’s needs? Let’s chat!
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Attachment. Basic Books.
Gunnar, M. R., & Donzella, B. (2002). Social regulation of the cortisol levels in early human development. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 27(1-2), 199-220. Teicher, M. H., Andersen, S. L., Polcari, A., Anderson, C. M., Navalta, C. P., & Kim, D. M. (2003). The neurobiological consequences of early stress and childhood maltreatment. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 27(1-2), 33-44.