Let’s talk about what the middle of the night looks like in terms of sleep training. I’ve heard different opinions on this and there’s always one that stands out to me. You may have also heard the opinion that moms who sleep train their babies “don’t parent at night”. It implies that babies are put to bed and then ignored until morning. I wanted to clear up some confusion around this and let you know that this could not be further from the truth.
The first thing I need to explain is that “sleep training” is basically the process of teaching your baby to fall asleep independently. There are many different techniques that can all work equally well, depending on the age of the baby and parenting style. Each method works to support the baby until they learn to feel comfortable enough in their sleep environment to consistently put themselves to sleep.
So what does it look like in the middle of the night during this process? Most parents that I work with start with a technique where they are right beside the baby while they learn to settle themselves to sleep. If the baby wakes in the middle of the night, the same strategy is used. Does this mean the baby is ignored all night until morning? Absolutely not! In fact, during the first few nights of sleep training, a parent will likely be awake and spending time beside their baby, doing their best to support them until they fall back to sleep. As the sleep training progresses, there may be times when the baby cries at night until they settle themselves back to sleep. However, the crying is often short lived as the baby has many chances to learn this skill during the day as well.
Does sleep training mean you have to cut off night feedings? No. Sleep training is not the same thing as night weaning. You can absolutely teach your baby to fall asleep independently while still maintaining a night feed when appropriate. When I start working with a new client, I discuss that parent’s goals for sleep and we decide together whether the baby will continue with a night feeding. Once a baby is falling asleep independently, normally they will sleep longer and longer stretches at night without much intervention from the parents. They may even self-wean the night feeding all on their own. If the baby is too young to night wean, I always leave my clients with a strategy for how to accomplish this when the baby is ready.
One thing I have heard in relation to sleep training is that babies stop crying at night because they have learned that no one is coming to help them. This is absolutely false.
Let’s look at an example of two babies:
The first baby has the ability to fall asleep independently in his crib. He drifts off to sleep fully aware of his surroundings. When this baby comes to the surface of a sleep cycle in the middle of the night (which is what all babies and adults do several times every night), he doesn’t need to cry. He knows what to do. He put himself to sleep in this same location at bedtime. He feels content and goes back to sleep.
The second baby has always been rocked to sleep and then placed into his crib. When this baby comes out of a sleep cycle, he tends to cry. Why? This baby does not yet have the skills to put himself back to sleep. This has always been done for him. So it’s only natural that this baby will cry until someone comes to put him back to sleep. Think about it, if you fell asleep in your bed and woke up in your neighbour’s bed, would you roll over and go back to sleep? No, you would wake up and feel uncomfortable. You wouldn’t understand how you ended up in a different place than where you fell asleep.
These two babies have different experiences when they wake at night, and both have parents who still parent at night. It’s merely that the first baby does not require the parent to come back every time he wakes up. He is comfortable in his sleep environment and has the ability to settle himself back to sleep.
But how do I know FOR SURE that sleep trained babies haven’t just given up on crying in the middle of the night? How do I know they don’t feel abandoned by their parents? I know this from personal experience with my own three children. Once my babies were sleep trained and making it through the night on their own, there WERE still nights when they cried out for me. Did I ignore them? Absolutely not! Once they were sleep trained, the only time they cried out for me was when they truly needed me for something. Most nights they did just fine on their own and woke up happy and well rested. It was very rare that I heard anything from them at night. So when they did cry, I went straight to them to see what was the matter. Sometimes it was due to teething, sickness, getting into an uncomfortable position, dropping their lovey, or as they got older maybe a nightmare. I was able to resolve the issue and they would fall back to sleep. I am 100% certain that my babies don’t feel abandoned at night or think that their cries will go unanswered. I am confident that they know I will come when they need me. It’s just that most nights, they feel safe and have no need to cry.
So does a parent choose to sleep train so that they will not have to “parent at night”? Definitely not. We all parent 24 hours a day. This is not a job anyone takes lightly. However, teaching your baby to sleep independently allows a lot of parents to do what they need to do at night, sleep. Getting the sleep you need is one of the best ways you can make sure you are the parent you want to be, day and night.