The Pros and Cons of Sleep Training for Babies

New parents look forward to the day when their baby stays asleep throughout the night. But is sleep training the answer? Read on to learn the pros and cons of sleep training.

By Nicole Gleichmann

Expert Insights from Dr. Brooke Dulka, a medical writer and neuroscientist who received her Ph.D. in biological psychology from the University of Tennessee, and she is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where she studies the neurobiology of memory.


One of the most fervently debated topics amongst new parents is sleep training. Should you allow your baby to cry-it-out in the crib and self-sooth, or is it cruel to let your baby cry without going to comfort them?

Should You Use Sleep Training for Your Baby?

Every family is unique. Some babies will transition to going to bed on their own and sleeping through the night with little-to-no help. But others will have a harder time. Without their parents’ comfort, these babies can cry throughout much of the night. The result? Poor sleep and a rocky household dynamic.

Sleep training is a plan to get your baby to sleep better at night. The end goal is to set the baby up to successfully sleep on their own, allowing the whole family to get more shuteye.

The Pros of Sleep Training

The benefits of sleep training apply to both babies and parents. “The benefits of sleep training for your baby include improved mental state for both parents, lower risk of marital troubles, and better sleep as the child grows older,” says Dr. Dulka.

According to the proponents of sleep training, these are the many benefits that it offers.

1. Better Sleep as the Child Grows Older

Young babies do not yet have a developed circadian rhythm. “Rhythms are biproducts of the circadian clock,” explains Dr. Dulka. “Your body technically has many clocks, but the master clock is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). The neonate develops this SCN in utero, and it is entrained by sunlight – so it doesn’t start to develop until after birth.”

As babies grow older, their bodies begin to develop this rhythm.

Rather than waking up frequently and needing attention to sleep through the night, babies who undergo sleep training may be better equipped to sleep on their own. Some theorize that this structured sleep schedule could help the child develop good sleep habits as they grow older.

2. Improved Mental Wellbeing for the Parents

Depression and anxiety are common following the birth of a new baby. There are many things that contribute to this, but maternal depression is known to be tied to sleep loss. By reducing parental sleep deprivation and decreasing stress levels, sleep training can help to support the mental health of the parents. And with happier parents, comes happier babies.

3. Lower Risk of Marital Troubles

We’re all a bit harder to get along with when we’re tired; inadequate sleep affects mood. When you combine a lack of sleep with the other struggles that come along with being a new parent, a baby sleeping well through the night can be the difference between harmony and fighting.

By helping the baby to sleep well, sleep training can help to support the parent’s relationship.

The Cons of Sleep Training

1. Increases Stress for the Baby

According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of North Texas, infants who were left to cry until they fell asleep experienced greater levels of the stress hormone cortisol than babies who were soothed by their mothers. Cortisol levels remained high even once the babies cried for less time a few days later.

This study suggests that infants’ stress levels may stay elevated when they aren’t soothed, even when they’ve stopped crying. However, this study was only five nights long. Further research is needed to determine if the rise in stress is short-lived or lasting.

2. May Negatively Impact Development

One of the primary concerns for skeptics of sleep training is that the tough-love approach could have long-lasting negative effects on emotional development.

Darcia Narvaez, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, is a proponent of responsive parenting. In responsive parenting, parents sooth distressed infants and practice things like touch, breastfeeding, and playing outdoors. She believes that this parenting style helps infants develop empathy, resilience, proper impulse control, and conscience.

The concern with self-soothing is that the infant may end up with poor impulse control, empathy, and other emotional traits and abilities. However, not all research supports this theory.

Who Is Right? Advocates or Critics of Sleep Training?

You can find evidence to back both sides of the argument. The truth is that we don’t know, without a doubt, what strategy is best. It’s likely to vary from one family to the next.

For instance, families who are experiencing stress, depression, or fighting that stem from a lack of sleep may need to work on sleep training for the emotional wellbeing of everyone involved. Another family may be more fortunate and have a baby who sleeps well without the need for sleep training.

Every family must work together to decide what’s best for them. And it’s important to understand that there is more than one option when it comes to helping your baby learn to sleep without you there.

The Many Sleep Training Methods

“There are many sleep training methods such as gradual sleep training, bedtime fading, or putting into practice a healthy bedtime routine,” explains Dr. Dulka.

Some parents might believe that there are only two options: soothe your baby or leave them to cry until they fall asleep (known as extinction training). In reality, there are many existing strategies, and you may even come up with your own set of steps that works for your family.

Some parents will try a step-by-step approach known as gradual sleep training or graduated extinction. This involves allowing the baby to cry for short periods of time that slowly increase to longer periods, checking in on the baby at set intervals.

Another method involves delaying the bedtime until your baby is tired enough to fall asleep easily. This is known as bedtime fading.

Other parents accept that there may be a nightly interruption or two during the first year or so of a baby’s life. A baby waking up in the middle of the night at 6 months of age is not necessarily a bad thing.

One tip that can help with any method is to set up a bedtime routine. A bath and story time can strengthen the parent-child bond while helping your baby know when it’s time to go to sleep.

“Keep in mind that a few nightly interruptions are normal for the first 2 years of a baby’s life,” notes Dr. Dulka. “When the interruptions becomes more frequent, you should consider establishing a set routine to help the baby know when it’s time to go to sleep.”


Conclusion

Sleep training comes in many varieties, and it’s best to come up with what works best for you and your family. For your own health, you may decide that the time has come for the extinction method. But another family may only have one wakeup at night and not consider this a reason to change what they’re doing. There’s no one right way to do things, so be easy on yourself and experiment until you find the strategy that feels right for you.

Expert Bio

Dr. Brooke Dulka is a medical writer and neuroscientist. She recieved her Ph.D. in biological psychology from the University of Tennessee, and she is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where she studies the neurobiology of memory.


Comments (0)


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *