The New Leaf Nutshell: Should I Sleep Train?

Each month, New Leaf Podcast Host Laetitia writes on the most controversial of motherhood topics. Doing all the Googling and researching, so you don't have to. #mymotherhoodmychoice

In a Nutshell

When your baby is not sleeping, it is terrible.

You’ll try anything. Throw any amount of money at it to make it go away. You live in perpetual evening anxiety of what that night / very early morning will be like, and it can be emotionally, mentally and physically exhausting.

This Nutshell will explore the emerging science, opinion and reality behind the $325m baby sleep industry, looking at the pros and cons of sleep training, plus the pros and cons of the most well-known techniques.

This is so that you are better informed, and more confident in your choice as mum.

Your choice comes first because… #mymotherhoodmychoice.

Before we begin:

The New Leaf Nutshell is building a place where mothers, and mother-supporters, can access well-researched, good quality and non-judgmental information on tricky motherhood topics, to save you many (many) thousands of hours on Google. 

Naturally, distilling the Sleep Training debate down is no easy feat… so this is a long article that I’m not expecting you to read all at once. 

As long as you’re subscribed, you can come back any time.

Sleep deprivation is an ‘enhanced interrogation technique’. It was used in Guantanamo and Abu Gharaib prisons. It’s recognised by the Geneva Convention as a form of torture, so… awesome

CONTENTS (I’m afraid I can’t do clickable links, but scroll down to spot the title that most interests you!):

  • Who’s this article for?

  • What actually is Sleep Training?

  • Why are we Googling this?

  • Why is this such a tricky topic?

  • History of Sleep Training

  • The Role of the $325m Baby Sleep Industry

  • Should I try Sleep Training? (Pros and Cons)

  • The 5 well-known Sleep Training techniques

  • Pros and Cons of the 5 Sleep Training Techniques, and what science says about Crying it Out

  • What to do when nothing is working… NESTS

  • Conclusion

Who’s this article for?

Anyone who’s curious!

Whether you’re a shattered and currently sleep deprived parent, or know one, or whether this was previously you and you wonder whether you ‘did the right thing’, or perhaps you spent money on a sleep course or consultant and wonder whether it was worth it… this article is for you. Or, if you’re simply curious and with no kids but want to know what on earth this is all about.

Before we get into the meat of this - I want to be completely up front to those of you who are currently shattered and desperate: I’m sorry to tell you that there is no universal or foolproof way to get every single baby to sleep through the night. Despite what people may tell you. But, there are things you can try, summarised here.

And if all else fails, all is not lost! Read on.

It takes trial, error, a few more errors (and sometimes: for that damn tooth just to come TF through).

This article will examine the pros and cons of approaching Sleep Training, summarise the existing popular techniques (and give them pros and cons, too!), and also tell you how to cope if NOTHING is working. The idea is to give you the info you need to make the choice YOU want to make.

So share, share and share if you feel this may be useful to someone you know.

“Google, search for…

sleep training pros cons / what is sleep training”

What actually is sleep training

Sleep training has multiple definitions, but sometimes gets a bad wrap as people make assumptions

A lot of people equate Sleep Training with ‘Cry It Out’ (CIO) / ‘Extinction’ method: which means leaving your baby to cry until they have fallen asleep by themselves, with no intervention, between bedtime and the morning. For example, you set a time like 7-7, where you don’t go in to comfort your baby, no matter what (within reason).

Because baby crying is evolutionarily designed to make us respond, this means you can get quite an emotional response from people when you talk about sleep training, as people still make equate all ‘sleep training’ with Cry-it-Out / extinction.

Naturally, CIO is a controversial approach that has vast differences between generations, across cultures and between scientists, which will be discussed in this article. However, the general interpretation of sleep training is usually to get to the result of either:

  • getting your baby to ‘sleep through the night’ (this usually means ~6h+)

  • getting your baby to fall asleep unaided. This means without needing to be rocked, held, fed or slept next to, to get to sleep.

Easy right?

For some babies it is. For some, it isn’t.

Why are we googling this?

Because we grasp at whatever we can to get back to a ‘normal’ nights’ sleep, because without normal sleep we can feel physically and mentally unwell

Sleep deprivation is known to increase your risk of:

  • Anxiety and depression, and especially postnatal depression

  • Severe mood swings

  • Memory and concentration impairment

  • A weak immune system

  • Muscle fatigue - we need sleep for growth and repair

  • Decreased sex drive

  • Increase in blood pressure, inflammation in your body and heart disease

  • Decreased fertility (sleep is vital for hormonal regulation)

  • Accidents - severe sleep deprivation and then driving has been equated to driving drunk (4 to 5 hours sleep increases your risk of crashing by 4.3 times…)

Why is this such a tricky topic?

For approx 10,000 reasons…
  • Because we are all trying to balance preserving our own sanity with what’s best for our child emotionally. If your little terror is screaming their head off in the middle of the night it is really, really difficult not to respond because #nature, but equally, sometimes we are at our wit’s end, and will try anything to just… sleep.

  • When we are sleep deprived our decision-making and logic is compromised, which can make it even tougher to decide what the best approach is for you and your baby

  • Science is really, really divided on this issue. It is all very well saying ‘trust the experts’ when the experts all say different things. Hence the 1000s of hours on Google, and hence this article.

  • Society is not yet at the #mymotherhoodmychoice point (goals). This means that your baby’s sleep is sadly still something people may feel like they can make a judgment on e.g. “6 months old and still not sleeping through? She should be on formula” / “You go in far too often to comfort him. That’s why he’s not sleeping through” / “If she just let him sleep in her bed, the baby would sleep no problem” / “You were left to cry and you turned out fine. Just leave him”…. etc… etc

  • When you are a new parent, you often feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. People who don’t know your child making sweeping statements can compound that feeling of failure and make you feel worse (note: often non-parents genuinely don’t know what to ask new parents. That annoying question “are they sleeping through the night yet?” is often just something they’re repeating, without realising how stressful this question may be if your child is not sleeping through. “How are you feeling?” is a more constructive question!)

  • Babies are all different from each other. Because humans are different from each other. So what works for one baby to sleep better, may not work for another one. This is important!

  • …Parents are all different from each other. Because humans are different from each other. So what works for one parent to get their baby to sleep better, may not work for another one…. This is also important!

  • The baby sleep industry is highly unregulated yet highly lucrative and persuasive when you are in a state of psychological vulnerability due to lack of sleep. Often desperate parents are taking advice on baby sleep from unresearched influencers or companies, backed by few qualifications or research (if any) aside from parenting their own child

  • There are 20 THOUSAND+ available books on Amazon on baby sleep techniques. And I’m not even touching the number of sleep consultants, instagram accounts and Facebook pages out there. It can be hard to pick a technique when they all say that theirs is the best one...

  • People care about little babies. They may feel that if you’re doing something that may harm a baby, they want to get involved. Cry It Out can evoke a particularly strong reaction in people, and if this is what works for you and what you’ve chosen, that can be hard to contend with. Judgment sucks. Remember though: it’s #mymotherhoodmychoice.

  • Babies go through a great deal of cognitive change in their first two years as they grow and interpret their new world. Sleep is where your baby processes these new lessons. Add to the equation things like nightmares, a natural part of their development, and that method that ‘worked perfectly’ when they were 6 months old may not work when they are 2. Damn.

  • …As with all the topics I explore, basically there are 10,000 more bullets to this question. It is a really tough question to answer. But hey, I love a challenge.

As I mentioned, there are 20,000 available books on baby sleep techniques, but the main question is: how did we get to 20,000 books when we’ve been doing this since the dawn of time?

History of sleep training

Sleep training didn’t really exist as any sort of concept pre-19th Century. It’s a recent phenomenon with strong links to the Industrial Revolution

Humans used to be nomadic societies, moving from place to place frequently in search of food as hunter-gatherer groups. For the majority of human history, babies slept with their mother, were fed on demand day and night, and carried pretty much constantly until they could walk. Once they could walk, they’d be kept in close proximity and still frequently carried until about 4. This is still the case in some third world environments.

In our nomadic communities, leaving babies to cry in these times wasn’t really an option, as baby crying is a) really loud and b) would attract predators or other tribes that were a threat, and risk their own tribe’s survival. Responding to crying is therefore a strong evolutionary adaptation that has helped us to survive.

However, obviously lots has happened since then.

Farming came along, causing humans began to hoard resources and stay in one place. This hoarding of resources resulted in a shift in women’s roles, pointing them towards domestic chores and food preparation.

It is farming that eventually paved the way for the industrial revolution - which led to the literal removal of our village.

The gradual removal of the village

That annoying phrase ‘it takes a village’? Well yes, it used to, quite literally.

The Industrial Revolution led to more and more young families moving towards the cities for work. This often led to young women moving with their partners away from their childhood homes and doing their child rearing away from their support systems and actual ‘village’, to a place where they may not know anyone at all. (Note for the Brits: Pre-COVID, the London vortex is a good example of a modern-day equivalent - you go where the money and the opportunities are, but often move away from your support systems)

This meant being away from key matriachs: such as mums, aunties and grannies who had done all this before, and could be on hand to help with child-rearing. Just bear in mind that we hadn’t lived this way for tens of thousands of years, and had always raised children in groups. As we moved towards having our nuclear families, this of course increased the stress in parenting as our support circle diminished and we parented in an increasingly unnatural environment.

This (and many other factors) led to the rise in the medicalisation / modernisation of parenthood, which led to:

  • More formula feeding (see my previous article covering the Boob and Bottle debate here) as proximity to mother was decreased

  • Larger houses - as people became wealthier, people had more rooms, and babies having their own rooms or nurseries negated the need for bed sharing

  • an advent of ‘baby experts’ such as Truby King, Dr. Spock, Penelope Leach, Gina Ford and Richard Ferber (more on this lovely lot later), who helped to fill in the gaps left by this removal of our village and the relative social isolation we were now living in.

These factors, plus others paved the way for an abundance of sleep training techniques and methodologies that make up the modern baby industry.

By the way, I’m not criticising any of the above. There are a TONNE of advantages of not having innumerable infants strapped to your back, on your boob, and in your bed 24/7 until they’re 4.

The above is to emphasise how much our child-rearing has changed, and how much we have needed to adapt as a result.

The role of the $325m baby sleep industry

A necessary yet sometimes murky space, which social media has amplified

If we don’t have a village in the same way that we used to, you can see why humans have tried to fill in the knowledge gap (and make money from it, too).

In the late 20th Century up until now, baby sleep books dominated the modern parenting sphere, and to some extent they still do. However, in the last 15 years, a new space has emerged: social media has massively democratised advertising (why pay to pop an ad in a paper, when now you can just create an account and get going?). This means that the players have increased, the market is flooded, and this makes it harder for parents to know who or what to follow when they are feeling desperate. The role of instagram is relevant to late 20s/30s mums here. I discuss this a lot on my podcast. Instaperfect mums with beautiful pictures of sleeping babies, juxtaposed with the actual reality: real-life mums awake at mad hours of the day and night often alone with a baby and a plethora of sleep consultants available, is the perfect storm to get many mums thinking they’re doing a bad job, when actually often, your baby is sleeping completely normally.

As I mentioned earlier, mums and dads are psychologically vulnerable when sleep deprived, and the baby sleep industry has happily taken up this space to a) support parents (the optimist view) and b) capitalise from parental sleep deprivation and misery (the pessimist view).

Of course, the truth is somewhere in between.

So how can we make it work in the 21st century? And how do we get some sleep??

Should I try sleep training?

There are pros and cons to sleep training your baby, but whatever you decide it is most important that YOU as the mother are happy with your choice.

3 Pros of Sleep Training:

  1. It can massively help you if you are struggling, feeling stuck or desperate, and are in need some sort of village guidance (in the absence of their actual village) that works for you

  2. There are so many techniques to choose from that chances are, something will suit you

  3. It can get you out of a rut when you are simply too tired to think of an alternative solution… We can get really stuck in our existing pattern if it’s the only thing that guarantees 3h uninterrupted sleep, and almost the thought of trying something new can be very stressful. Sleep training can offer a possible way out of the rut and remove some of the mental load from you.

3 Cons of Sleep Training:

  1. Because the market in general is unregulated, there are plenty of cowboys out there masquerading as ‘experts’. There is also no universal qualification for baby sleep training. Look into the credentials and always question the source! Beautiful instagram pictures doesn’t equal experienced / qualified… Trust your gut - if something doesn’t feel right for you or baby, stop and rethink.

  2. If you’ve chosen a technique that doesn’t work for you, which is resulting in more stress for either you or the baby than whatever you were doing before, sleep training can be extremely upsetting psychologically and undermine your confidence as a mother, and even has links to post natal depression

  3. Sometimes, night crying is our babies are telling us something - whether it’s reflux, other gastro problems such as colic, an undiagnosed allergy or a fever, or even hunger during a growth spurt. E.g., A CIO/ full extinction method may interrupt signals your baby is giving you (if not done with care and sensitivity) that they need something. This is something that you’ll need to think about if you choose full CIO.

Remember: There are never guarantees that a particular technique ‘will’ work for your baby. Every baby is different. But, it may be worth a shot if you are at the end of your rope!!

There are 5 well-known ways to ‘sleep train’

Many of the books / instagram influencers / sleep consultants will use some sort of variation of these techniques to get your baby to sleep by themselves. Note: there is plenty of overlap between experts and you may have seen these before with different names.
  1. Cry it Out / ‘Extinction’ or ‘Weissbluth’ Method (CIO)

  2. The Ferber Method / ‘Gradual Extinction’ Method

  3. Chair Method

  4. Wake-to-sleep Method

  5. Pick-up-put-down / No-Cry Methods

—> Note: It is also really important to mention Attachment Parenting here as a parenting principle, which famously shuns Sleep Training as a matter of principle.

I’ll discuss the pros and cons of all of these, including Attachment Parenting, further down.

What everyone wants to know though, is about Crying It Out, so I’ll get it over with. It’s less exciting than you think I promise.

Pros and Cons of the 5 Sleep Training Techniques, and what science says about Crying it Out

1. Cry it Out (CIO) / Extinction / Weissbluth / Gina Ford*

Definition: The CIO method is where you put your baby down with the usual routine, say night-night, and you see them in the morning. There’s no intervention, and you don’t go in. The baby will eventually go to sleep via ‘crying-it-out’. Note: *Gina Ford is a whole baby approach incl. everything from sleeping to feeding + playing. Her sleep technique is a version of CIO. Her book is here.

As with ALL of the topics I cover on New Leaf Nutshell, Sleep Training is a topic that has proven to me that ‘we google what we want to find’. Aka: Science says CIO is fine. Science also says CIO is not fine. Eurgh. In other words:

  • If you google ‘Cry it Out harms your baby’, you’ll find a dozen scientific articles agreeing with you.

  • …And if you google ‘Cry it Out does not harm your baby’, you’ll find a dozen scientific articles agreeing with you.

Don’t have time to actually try this and Google it? Read the below:

Pro Cry-it-Out scientific studies say…

Anti-Cry-it-Out scientific studies say…

Well that’s unhelpful. What does this mean then?

It means that (as with all things parenting) there is no single way of doing motherhood ‘correctly’ or ‘perfectly’. To those who say that “we just follow the science”, sometimes following the science can lead you down 1000 different garden paths, if the scientists all disagree with each other. Whatever the papers say, another paper will contradict. That’s the beauty of human diversity, but it’s also a pain if you just want to be told what to do.

It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t read these things, or take any of it on board. But it means that we need to think critically when accepting scientific papers, or advice from ‘experts’ - because there is no universal way to make every single baby sleep perfectly.

It’s also about reframing this in your own mind positively - that it is your motherhood, therefore it is your personal choice. So pick an approach - or don’t! - and see what works for your family.

Pros?

Cons?

  • You may need additional support such as a sleep consultant, your mum, a friend or maternity nurse to help with this, as it can be very hard to keep your resolve in the beginning and stay consistent

  • You might have to deal with a few naysayers as this tends to be the ‘controversial’ option. Remember #mmmc though: if it works for you, stick to your guns.

  • It is a long period to be without your baby if you’re still breastfeeding, so be aware that if your baby is not yet night weaning this could affect your milk supply

Looks good. Tell me more:

2. The Ferber Method / ‘Graduated or Faded Extinction’

Definition: The Ferber method is a form of Cry it Out sleep training, created by Dr. Richard Ferber, that involves periodically checking on your baby when they are crying, gradually waiting longer and longer intervals before going in via a chart, called the progressive waiting approach. You can soothe your baby verbally, or give them some physical contact in the form of a pat, but the idea is not to pick up or feed the baby and that your check-ins should be as brief as possible.

Pros?

Cons?

Looks good. Tell me more:

3. The Chair Method

Definition: Sit in a chair next to baby as he falls asleep. Move the chair a bit further away each day, so that he learns to fall asleep with little/no interaction with you, until eventually you’re in the corridor/out of sight, but baby still knows you’re there even if they can’t see you.

Pros?

Cons?

Looks good. Tell me more:

4. Wake-to-Sleep / Rouse to Sleep method

Definition: This method is for babies who wake up at the same time of night or very early morning, over and over again. These are referred to as ‘habit wakes’. Consistent habit wakes can be just as debilitating and disruptive as a baby who won’t go down easily at bedtime, and even be actually be more stressful.  In the Wake-To-Sleep Method, you get your baby to stir, or go into a period of light sleep, approximately an hour before their normal habit wake time e.g. if they always wake at 3am, set your alarm for 2am, go into the room / make a soft noise. Although this may make your blood run cold (“I have to wake my baby up??”), the theory is that it ‘resets’ their sleep cycle causing them to actually sleep through their habit wakeup time.

Pros:

  • A pro of Wake-To-Sleep is that it is a zero tears approach that many popular parenting sites swear by for nipping habit wakes in the bud

  • It’s simple, easy-to-remember and doesn’t rely on routines or schedules

Cons:

  • The risk of actually waking your baby is real, so approach with caution!

  • This approach doesn’t account for things like teething or a sore tummy, or even a loud noise outside you may not be aware of that may be waking your child up at the same time every day. Try and eliminate these as reasons why your child is waking as a first step, before resorting to interventions

Looks good. Tell me more:

5. Put-Down-Pick-Up / ‘No Cry’ / Tracy Hogg* Methods

Definition: the ‘put-down pick-up’ method is where you place the baby down in the cot and pick them up should they become unsettled. This method should be carried out as many times as it takes until they nod off fully. 

Pros:

  • No crying. Hooray!

  • It’s nice and simple

  • It involves plenty of baby cuddles: nice for you, nice for baby

Cons:

  • Unfortunately, if your baby just wants to sleep in your arms or on your boob, this can truly go on and on

  • This can take a lot longer than other techniques

  • You may be too exhausted to stay in a room all night to do this at length

Looks good. Tell me more:

Click here for more on the Put-Down-Pick-Up method step-by-step.

Attachment parenting

Ok so attachment parenting isn’t a sleep technique, but it’s worth mentioning. Attachment parenting advocates bed-sharing or co-sleeping, with the principle that strong attachments between parents and children are vital for the child’s long term wellbeing. Attachment parenting covers everything from sleeping to childcare (it advocates for no more than 20 hours a week of childcare until they are 30 months old), so sleep training doesn’t really fit into their paradigm. There are multiple scientific studies and perspectives on attachment parenting, so if you’ve read the above and are baulking at the thought of any sleep training at all, then reading more about it may be for you.

There’s a good summary of attachment parenting here and a tonne of attachment- parenting books here you can buy.

What to do when nothing is working…NESTS

It can be extremely hard to accept or conceptualise the fact that your child may be going through a big developmental leap and that disturbed sleep may be the norm for a little while.

If so, it is absolutely vital that you protect yourself and get through this phase - and I say phase, because it is always a phase. Nothing in babyhood lasts forever, so sometimes you just need the survival tools to get through it!

A tonne of postnatal depression psychologists say that it is absolutely vital that you take care of your ‘NESTS’ when going through a very rough patch of sleep, including when you are going through sleep training too. Often, we aren’t aware that there are big areas below that are being neglected.

  • Nutrition - Can you get some help with cooking or cleaning? Check that your partner is pulling their weight. If they are, you can always pay for outside healthy pre-prepared meals, or a cleaner, just to help with general pick up around the house even if you can’t afford something long-term.

  • Exercise - Negotiate with a partner or a trusted friend to watch the baby for a couple of hours while you get out for a run, do some yoga, whatever you need. Exercise’s endorphins can make a huge difference to our stress levels and also help us to sleep deeply when we DO actually sleep

  • Sleep - Yes I know what you’re thinking, but there are more ways to get this than you think. Really examine your support system - have you actually asked for help overnight? A parent, some in-laws, or even a very nice friend is often more willing than you think to watch the baby overnight just once. As my mum says… you can survive anything for one night! If this seems too farfetched, or too much for you personally to deal with someone else watching the baby, you could always ask them to watch the baby just during the day for you to either a) nap b) stare at the ceiling c) have a bath and watch Netflix! NB: Equally, examine your feeding arrangement. Breastfeeding can be absolutely exhausting if your child is also not sleeping. A bottle on a very temporary basis, whether it’s pumped or formula, can be very worth it if just to save your sanity for one night only!

  • Time for Self and Support - Self-explanatory. Are you doing anything for yourself? Get a weekend booked in the diary, or a spa day with a friend, where you know you will be baby-free. You cannot help others without helping yourself first, and this is never truer with sleep deprivation.

    Self-care is the most important thing.

Conclusion

Sleep deprivation is utter hell when you’re going through it, but it is absolutely temporary, even if it feels absolutely endless. There are a tonne of possible sleep techniques that can potentially help, and if they don’t, there are a tonne of ways you can help yourself, and you must.

There are literally thousands more sleep techniques than the key ones I’ve summarised here, and it is important you read carefully any technique and think hard before implementing anything that you feel may be too drastic for you. Support systems are absolutely vital when you’re going through sleep deprivation or sleep training - so checking your NESTS (see above!) should be your number 1 priority.

Mama, you’ve got this.