I have often come across the term “Sleep Training” in an array of forums, be it social media comment sections, books, pamphlets, articles, online forums, posts, and even as a service, I have seen/heard this term used often. However it has never sat well with me, not just because I actually don’t agree with the whole idea of “sleep training” from a personal, professional, and ethical stand point, but because it is also illogical.

Here is why:

As human beings we are programmed to engage in specific acts, or have biological set functions required for survival. Without ALL of these practices, we would die. That means, we must do ALL of these things to live, they are necessary without exception, and include:

  • Breathing
  • Eating
  • Drinking
  • Going to the toilet, and
  • Sleeping

The idea that we therefore have to “train” a human infant to so something that is biologically necessary for survival, is not only illogical; but its is ludicrous, it goes against evolution!

As a mum, I have experienced the exhaustion of sleep deprivation, believe me, and like many have pointed out it is no wonder that they use it as a means of torture. It is horrendous. Not only are you physically tired, but you are completely and utterly wrecked at every level, emotionally, psychologically, socially, and in every other sense. I was barely able to put something together for me to eat at times (and often not something you would consider sufficient food) let alone getting it together enough to engage in any adult interaction. My life was consumed by the sleeping patterns of my completely and utterly dependent little human.

So when I say I don’t agree with “sleep training” it does not come from a place of inexperience, it comes from a place of knowledge, understanding, and logic.

But you can see what I’m getting at right? Wouldn’t it be really bizarre if we had to teach our babies how to breath, or how to eat and drink (we may need to learn how to make a bottle, or how to breastfeed – which is not something instinctual btw, but they know how to eat), or to teach them how to expel their bowls (I’m not talking about toilet training), it would be weird right? Because those are naturally occurring, biological needs and functions.

You see, “sleep training” as a concept, specifically in terms of the cry it out method (but also all other methods; which stem from this as their origin), originated with a Doctor by the name of Luther Emmett Holt in the 18th century, but we had already seen a severe division between mother and infant due to external influences and cultural/religious beliefs from the 13th century. All of which were completely unfounded and bias. The notion was heavily based on a fear of “spoiling,” particularly in regards to male children, and a negative perception of the softness and gentleness of a mothers love (ludicrous, am I right?) It wasn’t ever actually about getting babies to sleep, it was about controlling and undermining a mothers instinct.

However, I won’t harp on there.

So then, why is it so hard to get some babies to do what is supposed to be natural and biologically programmed? It should just happen right?

Well yes and no.

The reality is that sleep is heavily integrated with many other aspects of our lives.

Let me put it this way.

Have you ever had a really bad day, you may have fought with your significant other or a friend, you may have been reprimanded at work, you may have broken something important and valuable to you, and that night you couldn’t “switch off” and go to sleep? What about when it is too hot, too cold, or you are hungry? What about when your a really sad, upset, or worried about something, like finances? What about when you are learning something new, something you are really excited about, but it is difficult and you feel frustrated? Or you have just met someone, or you are helping a friend through something big? The list goes on.

Yes sleep is our body re-filling its energy reserves, and yes our mind catalogues the day, and stores memories etc. but sleep requires us to be tired, and when we are tired our capacity to supress tension and stress from any big feelings is diminished, therefore; if we are unable to process those feelings we are unable to settle and then sleep.  This is why people get “cranky” when they are tired.

You see where I am going with this right?

This is exactly the same for babies and toddlers.

Yes they may be hungry, they may be too cold or too hot, they may need a new nappy, a drink of water, or they aren’t feeling well; but when all of those physical needs are met there are some few not-so-obvious factors that influence their capacity to fall asleep.

One such factor is that your baby is feeling stressed

Like us, babies experience stress and frustration. Actually they probably experience a great deal more stress and frustration than you or I.

Think about it, a baby is completely new to ALL experience, they cannot make sense of anything because they do not understand anything, they also have no clue what you are talking about, and have no “clear cut” way to expressly ask for what they need, they have to learn EVERYTHING, and they are completely at the mercy of adults who are ten times their size of them, in the least.

Talk about stressful!

Therefore, a logical and reasonable explanation of why a baby/toddler will cry even though ALL other physical needs are met, and they aren’t sick, is because they NEED TO. They need to “have a good cry” and express their feelings, to rid their bodies of stress, and do you know what is actually interesting about this? It is scientific; at a measurable level.

A chemical biologist by the name of William Frey, studied the chemical makeup of tears and found that there are three categories.

1- Basal tears – these keep our eyes moist.
2- Irritant induced tears – produced by an irritant such as onion fumes.
3- Emotionally induced tears – those produced when we feel sad/angry/hurt/frustrated etc.

What was found in the emotionally induced tears were proteins that are the same proteins our body produce when we become stressed. The conclusion was that these tears are actually our body’s natural process for removing biologically induced chemical waste. Just like how we use the toilet to rid our bodies of unused fuel (waste). There is no other secretion of the body (wast, sweat, saliva, etc.) that is evolutionarily redundant, they all have very specific functions, therefore crying for emotional reasons is necessary for our health.

When babies cry (after we have checked for any physical needs or illnesses) and it seems as though they are “crying for no reason,” or are “over tired.” It is actually more likely that they are crying because they are upset/angry/frustrated etc., that they have accumulated stress. Because being a baby is hard and very overwhelming, even in the most peaceful of households.

However, simply leaving a baby to cry when they are upset, will not allow them to rid themselves of the stress toxins, in actual fact being alone and crying increases stress and cortisol levels. The reason are many; due to development a baby/toddler and even small children are unable to process feelings because that ability lies in the pre-frontal cortex which does not finish developing until our mid twenties (so it is very underdeveloped in babies and children), infants do not have “object permanency” which means if they can’t see you then you don’t exist, babies/toddlers and children are still developing an internalised attachment (which teaches them how to be with their own feelings based on how YOU are with their feelings), they also remain ego-centric (completely preoccupied with themselves and their own needs) until school age – they can’t actually understand that you are a separate person with different needs and wants, they are also biologically programmed to seek physical closeness with us during times of stress due to the flight/fright response and the fact that they are completely dependant and defenceless, and lastly human beings are social creatures by birth-right which means we seek each other out in times of need, though this has been somewhat repressed in modern times (which is arguably one of the reasons we have seen a rise in mental health issues).

Therefore, the most optimal thing we can do for our babies/toddlers and children is to remain present when they cry and tantrum, to be empathic, and understanding, without attempting to “fix” the perceived problem (the focal point for crying e.g. the blankets aren’t right), and be with them until they have finished expressing themselves. With babies, this means we also need to hold them, because due to their developmental stage, this is how they feel and receive your presence, empathy and understanding.

A principle developed by Aletha Solter Ph.D. this process of holding your baby lovingly in your arms is called crying-in-arms (CIA) and is an aspect of Aware Parenting, but it is not to be confused with any cry-it-out method, or similar, which requires you to ignore your baby for any period of time.

But again, it is important to have met and checked for all physical needs (including a need for closeness) before supporting them to cry. It is also very important to check for any not-so-obvious issues that could be present, as these are likely to prevent your baby from settling even with these methods, because the stress from those issues will still be present. Some examples are; being near/far sighted, sensory issues, allergies/intolerances and so on.

There are many other reasons that your baby may not be sleeping, and includes (but is not limited to):

  • The fact that they actually aren’t sleepy
  • There is too much stimulation
  • They are responding to your own feelings

There are a number of other variables that can impact on why a baby can’t get to sleep, but it is not that they need to be taught or trained, it is simply that they need to be supported, heard, and connected. It is not our job to “train” or babies and children, it is our job to trust them in knowing what they need and providing it to them. Once all needs are met, sleep comes very easily, because there would be nothing to stop peaceful and deep sleep if we always felt deeply connected, loved, and heard.

If you have found this helpful, and would like to find out more about the realities of sleep, then head over to the courses page where you can learn more about infant sleep.

Much love,
Natalie