Is Sleep Training Selfish?

3 things to consider before making up your mind about sleep training.

Say the term “sleep training” to a parent and brace yourself for an immediate, emotional reaction. Some swear by it (“Sleep training saved my sanity and my marriage!”) while others are squarely against it (“…but sleep training will turn your child into an emotionally-unavailable psychopath.”). There’s very little middle ground on the topic.

If we strip away the drama, sleep training is quite simply the process of teaching your child to fall asleep independently. Full stop. There are many different ways to go about it, depending on the parent’s comfort level and the child’s personality. Some methods produce results more quickly than others, but there’s no “right” approach.

In my experience, sleep training is often parents’ last resort after trying every trick in the book. And they always have a good reason to do it. It could be that one child’s overnight wake-ups are interfering with her sibling’s sleep. Or that they realize that their exhaustion is interfering with their ability to be good parents (or employees) during the day. Or that their child’s teacher has noted behavioral issues at school that are linked to chronic sleep deprivation.

No matter the reason, there’s a lot of guilt around the decision to sleep train–or even to consider it. That’s normal: no one wants to sleep train their child. But sometimes bad sleep habits have become so deeply-ingrained that the situation calls for a total reset.

So is it selfish to want to fix our child’s sleep problems? Do parents do it because they care only about themselves?

Absolutely not, and if you’re stuck in a sleep rut and debating whether or not to sleep train, here’s what you need to remember.

1. Sleep training doesn’t harm your child. As far as researchers can determine, sleep training doesn’t have a long-term effect on babies or toddlers. Assuming that you have a loving and responsive relationship with your child during awake hours, you won’t damage the bond between you if you sleep train. She’ll still be happy to see you in the morning. (Also remember that sleep training takes many forms — it’s not CIO or bust).

2. Our kids’ brains and bodies need lots of sleep in order to thrive. Chronic sleep deprivation negatively affects cognitive and physical development and causes a range of behavioral issues. Unsure whether or not your child is getting enough sleep? Indicators of sleep deprivation include inability to fall asleep quickly at bedtime; waking up still tired from a nap or in the morning; and/or frequent meltdowns in the early evening.

3. Long-term sleep deprivation affects OUR health and ability to parent. Adult bodies are designed to sleep a solid 7-9 hours of sleep per night. We’re not built to live in sleep survival mode for for months–or years. Ignoring this fact can (and usually does) lead to a host of problems, including postpartum depression, poor health, and marital strife. That, in turn, affects mom and dad’s ability to parent and to bond with our babies.

I’m not here to convince you to sleep train. It’s not for everyone. And you should certainly troubleshoot other possibilities first, such as adjusting the nap schedule, trying an earlier bedtime or creating a dark and quiet sleep environment.

But if lack of sleep is creating exhaustion and chaos in your life, don’t feel guilty for deciding to go for it. Ignore the mom guilt: you do what works best for you and your family. Because a well-rested family is a happy one.

Hadley Seward is a certified sleep consultant and founder of Bonne Nuit Baby. Based in France and New York City, she works with exhausted parents around the world to get their kids’ sleep back on track. Meet her + follow her adventures at @hadleyinfrance.

This entry was posted in The Baby, Wellness and tagged , , on by .

About Charlene Petitjean-Barkulis

CHARLENE PETITJEAN-BARKULIS is the managing editor of Well Rounded. She's a French expat, Brooklyn-based writer and mama to Arthur and Leon. Before settling in New York City with her family, Charlene lived in LA, Berkeley, and Baltimore and earned a degree in journalism from Columbia University. When she isn’t busy chasing after her big kiddo, nursing her little kiddo or writing about all things pregnancy and motherhood, she’s likely to soak in a bubble bath, eat an entire wheel of brie cheese or drink a crisp glass of Sancerre (sometimes, all three at the same time). Follow her on Instagram here.

Comments {8}

  1. Pingback: Is Sleep Training Selfish? | Bonne Nuit Baby

  2. This is not an article this is a sales pitch for a slee trainer. Bad form.

  3. Thanks for this. My husband has epilepsy and sleep is an absolute must for him as exhaustion is a seizure trigger. It also isn’t safe to have the baby co sleep. Yes my husband could sleep in a different room, but we tried that the first two weeks and it was taking a toll on our marriage. Long term we knew we didn’t want our kids to co sleep, so why get them in the habit now? We’ve been using the Moms on Call method (basically ferberizing) since week 2 and our baby is happy and healthy and I’m rested and looking forward to dropping our last nighttime feeding in a few weeks. Everyone has to do what’s right for their family, but I believe it’s our job as parents to teach our babies how to sleep and how to be a part of our happy family.

  4. I think it was great to hear these points. Many parents feel guilt for thinking about sleep training and rightfully so–it’s a tough process. But the outcomes are amazing! We sleep trained our son at 3.5 months and it was wonderful. Yes, we got to sleep through the night so all of a sudden the world (and my coping ability!) was so much better! But it wasn’t selfish-my son knows when it’s naptime or bedtime, he rarely fights it. I hear horror stories of children fighting sleep and being unable to go back to sleep. My son goes to sleep on his own, in his crib and he loves his sleep. I can’t say enough good about it.

    Sabha Khan
    1. So great to hear you’ve had such a positive experience sleep training, Sabha!

      Jessica Pallay
  5. It is super shameful you are pushing this sleep training propaganda as a fact based article.
    First of all there are entire articles by actual research scientists refuting every point and study in that science of mom article that you believe proves sleep training isn’t harmful. From faulty studies to conclusions that are far from backed up. There is no long term study to prove either way but there is plenty of science proving that many of the main tenants of sleep trainers are completely impossible or completely untrue. Such as the fact that the part of the brain responsible for “self soothing” isn’t actually mature enough to be able to do so until closer to the age of 7. Or the studies showing that the more distressed a baby becomes the less able they are to do even any rudimentary self calming and the more they require coregulation from a caregiver to lower cortisol levels. So explain to me where your scientific proof is that babies who are allowed to cry themselves to sleep suddenly develop this ability they aren’t even cognitively capable of. There is so much research out there disproving everything you are selling. And so much out there showing the positive benefits of responding to our children’s night needs with feeds and cuddles for as long as they wake for them.
    As far as the whole “babies need uninterrupted sleep” that is also completely untrue. There has never been a single study proving that babies and toddlers waking at night impacts them negatively and the studies they always cite were done on older children and adults and statistically weren’t conclusive even for adults. It is the biological norm for young children to wake at night and need help back to sleep and it serves many purposes in their growth and development. Baby and toddler sleep is biologically completely different than adult sleep. They have shorter and lighter sleep cycles, and way more light REM sleep until school age. They are not meant to sleep like adults or they would be born that way and not require training on how to accomplish a biological function.
    Not only that but are you aware there were two studies actually showed that sleep trained babies don’t sleep any longer or wake less than non sleep trained babies? Past studies on how well sleep training works to get babies sleeping through the night have been merely self reported by the parent but in two studies where they actually hooked up a little device to the baby’s wrist that measured waking they found that while the parents reported they were sleeping through the night they were actually waking the same amount and awake for about the same amount of time as the non sleep trained babies. So the babies aren’t actually getting more sleep they just aren’t calling out to their parents so the parents think they are. They haven’t been trained to sleep better. They have been trained into silence. And the interesting fact is both studies were actually done by pro-sleep training scientists, trying to prove how well it works.
    Onto the fact that sleep training usually involves telling parents that their baby no longer needs to eat at night after 4-6 months. I learned something about where they come up with the age that they claim babies “don’t need night feeds” the sleep training community follows that really blew my mind (and not in a good way) This number comes from the fact that most babies once they reach a certain age and weight can go all night without eating without getting DANGEROUSLY dehydrated or DANGEROUSLY low blood sugar. It does not mean they don’t get hungry or thirsty. Technically you could refrain from feeding them a good portion of the day as well without them becoming seriously ill, but it doesn’t mean that it is good for them or they aren’t hungry. So many sleep trainers and even pediatricians give advice that they don’t need night feeds or are only nursing out of habit after a certain age or weight, but if they were being technically accurate they should tell them that at that weight they can refrain from feeding their babies all night without them falling into a coma or needing to be hospitalized for dehydration. Puts a different spin on it eh? Babies and young toddlers should be fed on demand around the clock for optimal growth and development. Every child has a unique metabolism, they are growing rapidly on tiny tummies, and they and they alone know if they are hungry at night or not.
    Even without all the scientific evidence sleep training is wrong on a very basic human level and goes against our instincts which is why you describe it as so tough to do. Imagine if you were paralyzed from the waist down and relied on someone for your every single need. You were put to bed when they decide you should be regardless of if you are tired or not. You have no say in what kind of pajamas or how heavy they are. You have no say what the temperature is in the room. You have no say how many pillows and blankets you have or what position you are laid in. You can’t get yourself a drink of water or a snack or use the bathroom yourself. You can’t adjust the blankets or add or remove pajama layers if you are hot or cold. You can’t adjust your pillow or your body if you neck is kinked. You can’t have a nightlight if scared or turn off a light if it bothers you. If you wake up scared or lonely you are all by yourself and can only call out for someone. If you wake and can’t sleep you can’t read or turn on the tv or soft music to distract and relax you back to sleep. If you hear a strange noise you can’t turn on a light to make sure everything is ok. If you have a stuffy nose and can’t breath you can’t blow it. If you feel nauseous you can’t nibble a cracker or take a sip of something or even make it to the toilet. If you feel sick or have a toothache you can’t get yourself an Advil. If some part of your body aches you can’t rub it. You can’t fulfill the need for basic human companionship and comfort without calling to your caregiver.
    Now imagine your caretaker who is exhausted from responding to your needs around the clock decided she is going to teach you to not need those things at night by ignoring your calls. She figures as long as she is extra warm and responsive during the day ignoring those needs at night isn’t going to harm you. So you may call and then cry and scream until your throat hurts and you are nauseous and panicking but eventually you’ll go quiet out of self preservation and pure exhaustion after your body gets filled with toxic levels of cortisol. Sure eventually you’ll realize no amount of screaming will get you help and go quiet at night. It doesn’t mean you have developed an ability to take care of those needs yourself or that they have disappeared. Even if your caregiver sleeps uninterrupted nights now. Have you learned to “self sooth”?
    We wouldn’t stand for elderly or disabled adults being treated that way, but do it to a helpless baby. Who is brand new to this big scary world and have no idea what is happening or why their mother, who they rely on for every need physical or emotional, isn’t coming when they call for her. Who have more reasons to be scared of being alone at night than anyone. Who have tiny tummies and need frequent nourishment day and night. Who doesn’t know why their gums or tummies hurt, why they feel sick, why they feel scared or anxious. Babies for whom separation anxiety is a normal and healthy part of development, who aren’t really wired for solo
    sleep and often have ancient survival instincts that tell them sleeping alone is legitimately scary and dangerous. Babies who need touch and comfort and love like they need food and clean diapers. They have no idea mom is just outside the door and have no idea she is coming back at all. They have no words to protest their treatment the next day and no one to turn to. Who have immature nervous systems and often physically can’t relax themselves into sleep on their own until well into toddlerhood. (There is a reason most babies needs nursing or feeding or movement to help them relax into sleep. ) And worst of all the caregiver who is told to ignore these needs is the person who is supposed to be their safe haven in this world. What does is say about a society who treats the most vulnerable and voiceless in our society this way? I guarantee you if they could talk and voice their needs and feelings and sleep trainers couldn’t categorize cries of distress and need with words like “protesting” sleep training wouldn’t be a thing.
    But no you keep convincing people that their baby should be able to do things that 90% of them can’t and then keep sucking money out of exhausted parents selling them a “solution.” Keep convincing them that biologically normal sleep behavior and legitimate needs are “bad habits” and “sleep issues” and that ignoring their children at night until they stop calling out is “for their own good”. Keep convincing parents that baby’s needs for food and touch and love and comfort at night are somehow less important than their needs for food and touch and love and comfort during the day. And keep selling the idea that most children are apparently born broken (most babies and toddlers need help to sleep and wake frequently) and you are here to fix mother nature’s mistakes.
    If you are going to peddle sleep training myths and propaganda for this woman who makes money off the suffering of children than at least be honest it is an ad and not put it out as an article with any credibility.

  6. Even though all may not agree… this article provided great insight and provided answers to my questions. Thank you for posting this 🙂

    Michael Parker
  7. Sleep training is a very western thing, Parents forget that its no longer about them and instead of getting on babies schedule they try and fit and squeeze and baby into their schedule. A baby will learn to sleep through the night with time like anything else. An illness, teething can also undo all the ‘sleep training’ you think you’ve done. Babies cry because they need something even if that something is an extra cuddle or to boob to sleep, to them that is still a need. Every parent will do what they see fit but a little patience and compassion for a baby who cannot do anything for themselves goes a long way in building a relationship where a baby can sleep soundly through the night without ever shedding a tear because they know should that change the person who they love and who cares for them will come should they need anything. But that’s my opinion, to each their own.


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