I don’t advocate cry-it-out sleep training. Not graduated extinction or “gentle” variations of the Ferber method or what have you. I’m not worried about being “used as a pacifier,” and I don’t stress over elaborate routines and steps to get baby to “sleep through the night” as soon as possible. None of that.
There. I said it.
That doesn’t mean I think poorly of moms who do these things, or parents who feel sleep training is their only option. Sleep training just isn’t something I feel comfortable doing myself, even if it “works.”
Because a baby that sleeps long stretches as early as possible just isn’t my objective. And because I’m a stay at home mom with flexibility in my day (i.e. I don’t have to be at work in the morning), and since there is no research to support that sleep training is necessary to produce “good” sleepers anyway, it’s just something we chose not to do.
And frankly, it has worked really well for us, for both babies.
Instead, we nursed to sleep and practiced safe cosleeping until my oldest weaned, and we’ll do the same for our second born and any future children. Here’s why:
NIGHT NURSING ISN’T “BAD”
Sleep training advocates will tell you that breastfeeding to sleep is an unhealthy “sleep prop” that leads to 1) more “sleep disturbed” babies who won’t be able to learn to sleep “well” on their own and 2) more tired moms. But I have not found any research to support that, nor has that been my personal experience. And if anything, research suggests this sort of “sleep disturbance” is more likely a cultural construction than an actual problem (source).
Even though breastfed babies do tend to wake more, there isn’t anything inherent about breastfeeding that leads to worse sleep skills. In one study looking at 3-12 month old breastfed and formula fed infants, researchers found that by the six month follow up, the only difference between the two groups was that breastfed babies were less likely to wake up in their own bed. By the nine month follow-up, “all differences in sleep had disappeared” (source).
“Our study found that although it is true that bottle-fed babies wake less often at night and sleep for longer stretches than babies who are nursing, there are no differences in total amount of sleep. And more importantly, six months later there are no differences in sleep skills…Thus, families should not be concerned about establishing any long-term sleep issues when breastfeeding” (source).
Not only that, but breast milk itself promotes sleep! Apart from suckling being extremely comforting to an infant, breast milk produced at night contains melatonin, which infants don’t yet produce themselves (source, source), in addition to releasing oxytocin, a bonding hormone that also helps bring about sleep (source-full-text). Since there is evidence that the melatonin in breast milk helps with infant sleep consolidation (source), and since there isn’t any strong evidence that breastfeeding at night puts babies at significant risk for cavities (source), nursing at night just seemed like a biologically normal and appropriate solution for our family.
ON-DEMAND NURSING IS IMPORTANT TO ME (AND MY MILK SUPPLY)
Parents might be surprised to find that, despite sleep trainers insisting that night nursing is no longer “necessary” by often as young as three or four months, studies have shown night feeds can make up 20%-25% of a baby’s diet (source, source), and that these “common” night feedings make “an important contribution to milk intake” (source), particularly in infants 6 months and under.
But the 6 month mark isn’t a magic date. I have strong doubts that milk consumed at night suddenly goes from being “important” to “unnecessary” the very day baby turns 6 months. Especially since as babies age, they often become distracted nurslings during the day who make up for it at night (source).
And then there’s the issue of long-term milk supply.
We know that milk supply is affected by frequency of milk removal (source), so it makes sense that consistently going long stretches at night without emptying the breasts before baby would naturally do so of his own accord (<– that’s key) would be detrimental to milk supply. And it turns out, it is (source)!
Although there is evidence that babies who nurse less at night make up for it with a greater volume of milk intake in the morning (source), a decrease in nursing frequency at night before baby does so naturally–especially if mom does not know how to protect her supply during the day, is pumping at work, or already has a small milk storage capacity to begin with–can cause the low supply issues so many moms in our culture deal with (source, source-full-text).
Sleep training without taking steps to protect your milk supply can be a big problem, one that even sleep trainers recognize (source).
Trying to determine how many night nursing sessions my baby needed at different ages wasn’t something I was interested in. And I didn’t want to worry that my milk supply might not hold out long enough to nurse into toddlerhood, which was my goal.
It was simply easier (and in my opinion, less risky) to just feed on demand as recommended. Especially since it helped my baby fall back asleep quickly every time.
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And of course, let’s not forget that…
…SLEEP IS DEVELOPMENTAL (SOURCE)!
I once read a blog post from a sleep training advocate who said that sleep must be learned. Just as babies learn to crawl and walk and talk, she argues, life skills like “sleeping well” need to be taught.
I sort of saw her point, but I also saw one big problem with it: We don’t “teach” babies these basic, early life skills. They pick up crawling and walking and talking at their own unique pace–without you needing to, for example, get down on all fours and demonstrate. And for the most part, parents and pediatricians understand that there is a wide range of normal when it comes to developing these skills. No one bats an eye if baby isn’t walking by exactly X months old.
But this doesn’t hold true for sleep or sleeping through the night?
I don’t buy it. And I don’t buy that babies must be taught to sleep.
Babies sleep in utero. Otherwise healthy, full-term babies naturally want to sleep for sometimes huge portions of a 24 hour period. They might want to do it next to you, or in your arms or on your chest or on your breast, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to do it.
When it comes down to it, sleep training isn’t about teaching a baby how to “sleep well.” It’s about teaching a baby how to sleep without you.
That is a skill that–like crawling and walking and talking–develops naturally in time.
Now–please–don’t get me wrong: Wanting your baby to be able to sleep without you is a totally valid desire. You are not “a bad mom” or “selfish” or “unreasonable” for wanting to get some sleep at night without someone else touching you or waking you. And sometimes circumstances dictate that baby cannot sleep near you or nurse on demand at night (or breastfeed at all). I get that.
Which is why I strongly believe this: Even though traditional approaches to sleep training aren’t for me or my family, only you can determine if they are appropriate for your family. If you want to sleep train for whatever reason you feel is important, do it! I can’t tell you what will work best for your family any more than you can tell me what will work for mine.
But if your otherwise healthy baby isn’t sleeping as long or as much as you think they should, and if you are wondering if you should sleep train, consider this:
Your baby is probably not “sleep disturbed.” One recent study published in late 2018 found that 37.6% of 6-month-olds and 27.9% of 12-month-olds did not “sleep through the night” for at least 6 consecutive hours. The study did not find any relationship between the ability to sleep through the night and mental or psychomotor development (source).
In other words, if your baby isn’t sleeping long stretches even by late infancy, your baby is…pretty normal, actually, and is going to be just fine.
My babies were “normal” like this. I get that even “normal” can be frustrating. And it was in those frustrating moments that I had to remind myself this:
COMFORT IS A VALID NEED
We wouldn’t expect adults turn down a hug from a friend when they’re feeling down, or put their favorite fuzzy blanket back in the closet, on the basis that these things are “just” for comfort. We don’t figure something must be wrong with someone if they don’t sleep as well when a spouse is not next to them in bed. And if an adult has a hankering for a midnight snack, we trust they know their own needs rather than assuming it’s just “comfort food.”
Comfort is a valid need for adults…but not for babies? We should hold infants to a higher standard?
I don’t think so.
So yes, we comfort nurse. We snuggle. We rock. We wear. We make it through the night one day at a time. And it works for us.
My girls have shown me what they need to sleep well, and meeting those needs has helped me figure out how to sleep through the night myself.
So I guess, in a sense, you could say I’ve been sleep trained.
I’m okay with that.