What is Sleep Training?

Before moving on to the topic, I would like to clarify and mention one of the values on which I based the founding of Urban Mowgli – the fact that here we do not believe in and do not encourage sleep training.

So, a little about the history of
‘Sleep Training’:

John B. Watson, a behaviourist psychologist wrote the first book on child care in the 1920s. Based on his belief and behavior-focused approach, he offered harsh and extreme advice, such as that parents should he kisses his children only at night and only on the head. If they do something classified as good or for which they deserve a reward, this should just be a pat on the back. If we think about the timeline, it is very possible that our parents were raised by our grandparents with such a parenting approach.

This book was followed by another, by Benjamin Spock, in the 1940s. His approach to raising children was less harsh than Watson’s. He advised parents to follow their instincts and trust their intuition. However, he suggested to the parents that, at bedtime, they should put their child down, close the door and leave the room. This was the beginning of the use of the extinction method to put babies to sleep (although without a name yet).

In the 1980s, two “sleep experts” – most likely raised according to Watson’s method mentioned above – Dr. Marc Weissbluth and Dr. Richard Ferber, make their appearance in the world of parenting with similar methods when it comes to babies’ sleep. Weissbluth is a pediatrician and a supporter of the complete extinction (Cry-it-out method, complete extinction), and Ferber (physicist) created a method in which he encourages the response to children’s calls at timed intervals (called the Ferber method, Ferberizing and timed checks ). The aspect that both methods have in common is the idea of leaving your baby in a room (alone) to cry in the hope that he will eventually self-teach the ability to self-soothe.

In the second edition of Ferber’s book, he came back and said: “I have taken pains in the second edition to make it clear that the (phasing out) approach is not appropriate for every sleep problem.” He then goes on to say that if a child is 9 months old and is dealing with fear and separation anxiety, putting him alone in a dark room “wouldn’t be the best idea.”

These two sleep experts really started the whole concept of “sleep training” and the idea that you could train your child to sleep.

Nothing was known about the importance of skin-to-skin contact and immediate maternal contact; I knew nothing about the importance of initiating breastfeeding or the importance of being there to respond to our babies. Sleep training was created at a different time in time, with limited research and questionable results.

So, what is and what is not sleep training?

In general, sleep training refers to behavioral methods used with the aim of making babies or children stop crying and/or asking for their parents’ presence when it comes to putting them to sleep or during the night. There are many ways to achieve this – whether it’s sitting on a chair next to the bed and being there physically with phrases like ‘Good night, now it’s time for sleep’, lacking the emotional connection and warmth which both parties need; the pick-up/put-down method in which we take the baby in our arms until he calms down and put him down again, repeating this irrational ‘dance’ until one of the two (baby or caregiver) gets tired and gives up; the Ferber method or check-in at fixed time intervals, or Cry-it-out (total extinction) by which we completely ignore any sign of the baby until the next morning. Most of the sleep consultants who promote these methods use an alarmingly false pretext, such as that we need to teach our children to fall asleep on their own and to connect their sleep cycles because otherwise they will not rest and/or develop properly, thus creating a fear unreal and unjustified for parents.

For me, sleep training includes any method that encourages ignoring the signals and cries/cries of babies and children, which does not encourage the emotional and physical comfort that would otherwise be given during the day; by which the instinct to answer and to be close to him is ignored, but which, above all, ‘feels so wrong’. I have not yet found a caregiver who says that sleep training was easy and effective in the long term. From a scientific point of view, sleep training ignores any natural process of adaptation, development and individual learning, but also the survival processes, biologically, anthropologically and psychologically explained.

In these processes, tears are not the problem. The fact that a baby or child will protest changes or imposed limits is certain, and the more the parents accept the tears, the better it will be for everyone. The problem occurs when we are encouraged to let children cry alone, to ignore the only method of communication through which a 4, 8 or 16 month old baby can express himself. It can be very confusing for parents when a consultant calls himself a ‘gentle’ sleep trainer. There is no gentle sleep training as long as it encourages emotional separation and disconnection.

So, how can we know if we are encouraged to do sleep training under another name?

If someone guarantees you that in X number of days the child’s sleep will change radically, he will sleep X number of hours related to lunch or during the night, if he names certain methods (such as rocking) that we have at hand to put the child at sleep as ‘bad habits’, if we are asked not to look into the child’s eyes when we put him to sleep, when the change of the breastfeeding program (other than on demand) or feeding (with the bottle) is encouraged at a fixed interval of hours/on the clock, when skipping meals is encouraged or that talks about how a child must learn to “fall asleep alone”, you can be sure that it is sleep training.

The process of falling asleep and the transition between sleep cycles during the day/night are natural and biological processes in strict coordination with the biological clock (circadian rhythm) and sleep synchrony (sleep-wake homeostat). Sleep training ignores everything that the normal biological process means in conjunction with the child’s age and developmental stage when it comes to sleep. Most sleep consultants who use these methods recommend starting the process around the age of 4-6 months, when biologically speaking, it is an absolutely normal period for babies to wake up often during the night, to have (or not) short naps during of the day, to have relatively frequent ‘feeding sessions’ both day and night and, above all, to need a lot of proximity and a lot of support to be able to fall asleep and fall asleep again.

Moreover, sleep training ignores the child’s individual temperament, and, for a hypersensitive child, techniques that encourage crying or separation will cause even more need and restlessness. Sleep training does not address the root of the problem (if there is one) when it comes to multiple awakenings during the night, which most of the time, when there are problems, they are related to the child’s health.

What is not sleep training?

Sleep training is not a proper sleep hygiene program, creating routines and rhythms before sleep and adding or changing sleep associations. These things are about optimizing and knowing your own child, understanding him and harmonizing the two parts. None of these things will cause harm as long as they work for the whole family.

It is important to reflect on what we ask a child to do when we “train” him to sleep. Do we “train” them to sleep, or do we “train” them to stop signaling (crying)?

As Dr. Gordon Neufeld says (about sleep training):

“It’s a terrible idea, to allow babies to cry themselves to sleep. This was completely uninformed, this idea, this advice about what babies really need and how development works.

When children cry, whether they are suffering, whether it is tears of uselessness or frustration, they must cry in the comfort of those who are responsible for them. The fact is that it can produce sleep, just like in the hospital’s newborn nursery, but this is because of the defense systems.

The most difficult thing the child has to face is separation, and when we say: “ok, I’m not going to talk to you anymore, I’m closing the door, that’s it.” we push the child’s face apart, this alarms them and can cause defense processes (against the pain suffered) which, later, can actually put them to sleep.

But this is not a place where children should go to sleep. They need to sleep in a place where they relax, where everything is good, just like us.”