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Sleep training for babies: Why it doesn't work, and what does

One night, I was rocking my 4-month-old son to help him fall asleep. Newly un-swaddled, he had his hands free and was rubbing his face and wriggling around. Lately, I’d found myself working harder and harder to get him to sleep, which seemed odd, since wasn’t sleep supposed to get better, not worse?

That’s when I realized: I am getting in his way.

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Here I was working hard to “make” him sleep — but wait, sleep is a natural, basic biological function. I realized — with his wriggling and face rubbing — he was trying to self-soothe and sleep, only he didn’t have the space to practice, because I was busy doing it for him.

What I’ve learned through research, clinical practice, and with my own little ones is that babies want to sleep, but we, as parents (unknowingly and with great intentions) can interfere with their ability to do so.

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My co-author Julie Wright and I want a revolution in how we all talk about sleep. Sleep “training” is an old term that conjures up ideas of babies being forced into something that doesn’t come naturally. Let’s talk about sleep as the lovely, natural aspect of life that it is. It’s a polarizing topic, but it doesn’t have to be. When you clear up some basic misunderstandings about how baby brains work, the whole business of good sleep gets a lot easier.

There’s no “training.” It’s just sleeping.

Tarcher/Penguin Random House
Julie Wright (L) and Heather Turgeon want to end the sleep wars with their new book, "The Happy Sleeper: The Science-Backed Guide to Helping Your Baby Get a Good Night's Sleep."

You can’t train a human being to sleep — we are built to sleep. It takes time for a newborn’s circadian system to mature, but after five months or so, a baby is capable of long stretches of nighttime slumber. She’s become more conscious and in control, with the fine motor skills to find her fingers or thumb, and maybe even the gross motor skills to roll into her favorite sleep position.

We don’t “learn” to sleep, because it’s programmed deep in the brain, but we do “learn” sleep habits. Babies can learn helpful ones, like grabbing their loveys and falling asleep in their cozy cribs in a good sleeping environment, or unhelpful ones, like falling asleep while being nursed or bounced on a yoga ball. (Falling asleep in mama’s arms is the sweetest. It only becomes an unhelpful habit for an older baby if it’s repeated over and over.) The helpful habits let a baby’s natural sleep skills shine. The unhelpful ones create the pattern of baby reaching externally for soothing back to sleep — meaning you hear from her throughout the night.

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Parents are the ones who need training.

Newborns need all that rocking, shushing and bouncing to regulate their little nervous systems. But as they grow, they become more and more able to self-regulate. When we work with parents in the first four months, our main goal is to help them gradually do a little less. Just to see what happens. Babies let us know if they truly need our help, but we try to “train” parents to be a little curious and give them space to work things out on their own.

In my case, when I realized that bouncing my son to sleep was overshadowing his own self-soothing skills, I had to step back to give him the space he so clearly needed. He did protest — why wouldn’t he? I was changing a well-entrenched pattern. Once he understood the new pattern — that I was nearby but he was in charge of soothing to sleep — he figured out his favorite sleeping position (legs tucked under, bum in the air) and his sleep improved drastically. As my partner and I have learned over years of practice and research, a little struggle is OK for babies and kids — it’s a normal part of growing and practicing a new skill. They’re not going to like everything we do — and that’s fine, as long as there’s a thoughtful plan in place.

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The “one-time-fix” mentality leads to frustration.

We always hear parents say a version of, “We sleep trained her, but it stopped working!” This makes so much sense when you consider the term “training” — send a baby through a sleep boot camp and she should stay that way!

Babies and kids change. Constantly. We want parents to think of healthy sleep not as a training session, but as a family philosophy. We prioritize our sleep. We have routines that support it, and then when the lights go out, we’re all in charge of our own stuff: getting cozy, sucking our thumb, pulling up the blankets. When you approach sleep this way, you won’t be fazed or frustrated with things like teething, traveling, illness, or transitioning into the big bed. A few bumpy nights are normal, but then you return to your sleep philosophy and everyone returns to sleeping well.

Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright are the authors of The Happy Sleeper: The Science-Backed Guide to Helping Your Baby Get a Good Night’s Sleep—Newborn to School Age (Tarcher/Penguin Random House). Follow them on Facebook and Twitter @TheHappySleeper.

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