Sleep Training Isn’t for Every Baby

Perhaps no other subject captures the sleep-deprived attention of the new parent as strongly as the issue of sleep—sleep for the parent, sleep for the infant, sleep for everyone. It’s so important that entire books have been written about it and even entire parenting philosophies built around how to approach the notoriously capricious sleep practices of the human infant.

The problem with any One Method To Rule Them All, though, is that infants, like all humans, are quite variable in their sleep patterns and needs. Sure, averages suggest certain commonalities and odds have been calculated that this or that approach will work, but the reality is that what you plan to do may not be what your infant has in mind. The real key to sleep and infants is to remember two things: It usually gets better, and you should always be ready to change tactics if something just isn’t working for your baby.

Various factors feed the success or lack of success with a particular approach. Lying at what many see as opposite ends of the choice spectrum are attachment parenting and sleep-training approaches that focus on developing baby self-soothing methods. Research suggests that sleep-training a baby in the first few months is not feasible—newborns don’t grasp the concept of schedule, and development and sleep both come in spurts that lead to sometimes maddeningly unpredictable sleep–wake patterns. The evidence indicates that responding to the infant’s expressed needs in these earliest weeks is simply the best way to go. But what about when family leave dries up and you’re practically weeping, begging your 4-month-old or 6-month-old to please, please just find a 5-hour stretch in the night and use it regularly?

Remember, it usually gets better, and be ready to change tactics.

For some of these infants, sleep-training may work beautifully. Randomized, controlled trials of sleep training—yes, they exist—indicate that in the short term, some behavioral methods can be effective. In the long term, no critical differences have been detected between children who were and were not sleep trained in terms of conduct, emotion, sleep problems, the parent–child relationship, or attachment. Studies also show that a family-wide adoption of predictable sleep schedule, sleep preparation, and sleep hygiene—keeping your bed environment “clean” from stimuli—can all help promote better sleep for everyone.

The caveat is that research suggests that training efforts just don’t take in about 20% of children. Some of our sleep patterns are inherited, and if you’ve got wonky patterns, your child might also have some unusual or less-than-predictable daily (and nightly) rhythms, too. In addition, some children may have neurobiological conditions, including cerebral palsy, autism, or other syndromes, that either are associated with disrupted sleep patterns or mean getting little response to some tactics that work just fine for many children.

An example is the approach of attachment parenting, which in part encompasses a variety of ways of remaining physically connected to your infant as much as possible. Sensory sensitivities could lead some infants to resist consistent attachment and show a preference for a little more independence from touching. Certainly, children with and without identifiable developmental differences will vary widely in how they respond to these approaches, whether attachment or sleep training, which leads to the final thing that all parents need to know:

Regardless of which methods you opt for in balancing your infant’s needs and your own need for something resembling a schedule, the key factor in any approach is emotional availability, which means being responsive to and sympathetic about your child’s emotions. The feeling of security while falling asleep—whether something the infant or baby can learn herself during a process of sleep training, something the parent provides, or a mix—will ultimately help the child feel safe and secure enough to fall asleep on her own. We promise. It usually does get better.

Emily Willingham is the co-author with Tara Haelle of the new release THE INFORMED PARENT <> : A Science-Based Resource for Your Child’s First Four Years (TarcherPerigee Paperback). She is a research scientist and science journalist, with her Ph.D. in biological sciences from the University of Texas at Austin, and a completed postdoctoral fellowship in pediatric urology at the University of California, San Francisco. Her writing has been featured in the New York Times, Scientific American, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Forbes among other outlets. Learn more at