My husband and I sleep in a bed that’s really a queen with a sidecarred twin. That’s because our 3-year-old still sleeps with us all night. And sometime in the middle of the night, our 7- and 5-year-olds tend to creep in to sleep with us as well. We wake up five to a bed.
Clearly, we never sleep trained. We didn’t believe in it. As attachment parents, we didn't think our children should be left to cry it out, nor did we want to use the graduated extinction method, or going in to their room to comfort them at prescribed intervals. (At the time, we didn't realize that sleep training was a continuum, and not all sleep training methods involve crying it out.)
But all that five-in-a-bed hippie stuff doesn’t mean I’m an expert on every single baby and every single parent in every single family in the whole wide world. We did what worked for us. We were two parents: one who stayed at home, and one who was content with oft-heroic levels of sleep deprivation. No one’s work was suffering. No one was nodding off behind the wheel. No one’s mental health was suffering. Many, many families face very different situations. In a lot of those cases, sleep training is the only option. That's why we need to stop shaming parents who sleep train.
If you think sleep training is cruel, stop clutching your pearls and open your eyes. Think about the real families who sleep train: the screaming babies, the baggy-eyed, miserable parents kept awake only by copious amounts of coffee. Think about their real circumstances, and how sleep training can truly help them.
Imagine a single parent. They have to be constantly on: to parent, to work, to get the baby to go to sleep and stay asleep. If the baby doesn't do that, that single parent becomes a constantly exhausted parent — and that exhaustion has incredibly deleterious effects. Neurologists at the University of Pennsylvania, for instance, once found that “chronic sleep loss,” or sleeping only 4-6 hours a night for two weeks, “severely impairs cognitive functioning in adults.” One scientist told the Atlantic that “it’s very hard to tell if someone has sleep loss or depression.” If gentle methods don’t work, sleep training becomes not an option, but a necessity.
Maybe the parents need to freaking sleep train without your guilt trip.
The same holds true for dual-income households. One in four American women return to work within two weeks of their child’s birth; only a quarter have the option of taking maternity leave for nine weeks or more. And with 58.6% of mothers with children under one in the workforce, the majority of American households now have two working parents. Two people who can’t compromise their work functionality or their driving. Two people who have to wake up and get to work at certain times. Two people who need to maintain both a family and a relationship, which means time by themselves, alone, without a screaming baby.
Don’t say, "Oh, they can handle this for a few months before baby sleeps through the night." Because maybe they can’t. Maybe sleep deprivation gives dad mental health issues. Maybe it makes mom angry all the time. Maybe the baby doesn't learn to sleep through the night until he's 12 months old. Maybe the parents need to freaking sleep train without your guilt trip.
Work isn't the only reason why parents might want to sleep train. While the link between the two is unclear, some have theorized that child sleep issues are tied to maternal depression. Dr. Steven Feinsilver, director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at Mt. Sinai Hospital, told the Atlantic that people need, “on average, seven and one-quarter hours of sleep to stay healthy.” These hours are, of course, a laughable goal for most parents.
We need to stop pretending that sleep training will warp a child’s psyche. It’s just one of a series of not-so-damaging (or not-at-all-damaging) choices we have to make as parents.
Sleep deprivation can lead to depression. Depressed moms, says PsychCentral, have trouble bonding with their babies; they are “less sensitive to the baby’s needs.” Their babies may seem “unhappy and isolated.” Often, they are “difficult to comfort, appear listless, and be difficult to feed and put to sleep.” For a parent’s mental health, it may be necessary for baby to sleep train.
Moreover, all that stuff about how sleep training spikes a baby’s cortisol and thus makes them susceptible to mental illness? It’s simply not true. Researchers in Australia did multiple studies about sleep training children over six months, and found that graduated extinction (or ‘Ferberizing’) kept kids within normal cortisol ranges. Moreover, one year later, the sleep-trained kids had no less secure attachments to their parents or caregivers than children who hadn’t been sleep-trained. So sleep training after babies turn six months old doesn’t promote poisonous cortisol spikes or attachment issues. It's actually pretty safe.
I personally don’t love the concept of letting a baby cry it out. I personally believe the best place for a baby is in or near its parents’ bed. That's what has worked best for me, but I realize that’s not realistic for everyone, and parents need to stop pretending that it is. They also need to stop pretending that sleep training for the good of the family will warp a child’s psyche. It’s one of a series of not-so-damaging (or not-at-all-damaging) choices we have to make as parents.
As one pediatrician says, “Sleep matters, as we have learned to acknowledge in medical training. Babies matter, and so do parents. What your baby needs most is a loving family, which ideally includes parents who are enjoying the adventure.” And maybe they’re enjoying it because they sleep-trained. Leave them alone. They made the best choice for their family — something more important than an abstract, idealized concept of infant sleep.