An alternative perspective on sleep training

I did not plan to sleep with my child. It kind of happened.

In that early postpartum haze, I was a breastfeeding machine with a hungry baby feeding every hour and a half for at least 45 minutes at a time. Because I was so sleep-deprived (Google search phrases included “Can you die from lack of sleep?”), I slowly let all societal expectations of bedtime go out the window and I started to come to terms with the fact that he was going to be my bedtime boyfriend. If I wanted to be a functional human, then that would simply be the choice. In hindsight, that probably saved me. But I had to dodge a lot of questions and judgments. Chief among them was: When are you going to train him to sleep?

Sleep training is an umbrella term that refers to a number of different approaches used to teach baby to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night with, possibly, little to no crying. The goal is to help your child learn to self-soothe so that when they stir or wake up unavoidably during the night, they are equipped to fall back to sleep, reducing the need for constant intervention from mom and father. Examples of self-soothing include sucking (with or without a pacifier), rolling to find a comfortable position, touching one’s blanket or love. [the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping all soft bedding out of the crib until 12 months]hum, sing or babble.

This idealized method did not work for my family, no matter how many times I tried to apply it. When I learned how many parents had trained their children to sleep, I started to feel uneasy: Am I doing this all wrong? Did I somehow stunt his growth and development? I felt like I was in the minority. Next, I decided to explore what sleep norms look like for young children outside of Western culture.

“Sleep training is more of a 21st century construct,” says Amy Schreiner, assistant professor in the College of Chiropractic at Northwestern Health Sciences University. “It is not frequently practiced in other cultures. Other cultures work together as an extended “family” and assume that there is more than one mother or father helping with the baby during the day or night.

Not just crying

Thanks to the booming business of blogging moms, sleep training is often confused with CIO (cry it out) methods. But sleep training isn’t binary, it exists on a spectrum. Yelling it means closing the door to the baby’s room and not coming back until the next morning. It’s not generally recommended by experts, and the science on the CIO is still mixed. Some groups say it doesn’t cause adverse stress reactions or long-term attachment issues, while others argue that IOC can be damaging to a developing psyche.

The Ferber Method is a popular sleep training technique – also known as control and console – that was introduced in the mid-1980s when Dr. Richard Ferber’s book, Solve your child’s sleep problem, circulated the general public, describing a gentler way to wean off nighttime feedings. Parents are encouraged to put the baby in the crib and comfort them with gentle patting or rubbing and soothing words. They leave the room and don’t return until the crying resumes, checking on baby at regular intervals.

And then there’s the chair method which is exactly like that: settling into a chair next to your child’s crib until he falls asleep. The parent is responsible for moving the chair away from the crib every few nights until you are completely out of the room. This technique requires about two weeks of coaching and a magnanimous attitude.

How did we come here?

The rise of the nuclear family in America—a family model consisting of two biological parents and their children—has led to a decline in extended family living arrangements and smaller households.

Unless you have active, able-bodied relatives or loved ones who live nearby and are willing to help with the burden of caregiving, help may be hard to come by. Add to that that we live in one of six countries without national standards for paid family leave, and childcare here is utterly unaffordable. One study found that the average annual pre-pandemic daycare cost for a child in Minnesota was around $11,000. That number has since jumped 60%. Because of these barriers, breastfeeding is less common here than in other cultures. UNICEF data shows that only 26% of infants 0-5 months in North America are exclusively breastfed.

And nursing mothers make up the largest group of co-sleepers.

“Many other cultures embrace co-sleeping as a normal way of life,” says Schreiner. “Breastfeeding is much more common in other cultures and co-sleeping is easier for breastfeeding – those cultures view it as a method of bonding as well as protection. It’s much more taboo in our society with the growing concern for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).On the contrary, studies show that breastfeeding for at least two months could reduce the risk of SIDS by almost half.

Of course, cosleeping doesn’t just happen one way. Take the Philippines or Vietnam, for example, where parents sleep with their baby in a hammock next to the parent’s bed. This sling, usually made of fabric or rope, is not used primarily for sleeping; it is also used for swinging or resting. In Japanese culture, at least 70% of infants are said to sleep with their parents on traditional bamboo or rice straw mats on the floor and, most often, in a side-lying position. In India, it is socially acceptable for children to share the bed with their parents until the age of six or seven.

These practices go against the guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which state that bed sharing is not recommended under any circumstances. He notes that bedsharing should be avoided “at all times”, citing risks such as SIDS, accidental suffocation and accidental strangulation. The CDC says there are approximately 3,400 cases of SIDS in the United States each year.

Cultivate healthy sleep habits

Parenthood feels like being dropped into chaos with no instruction manual to guide the way. While there’s no shortage of parenting books (some truly amazing!) and expert advice on the internet, sometimes the way you do things is based on instinct and what works for you. quite simply, to you and your family.

Jodi Mindell, a psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who has helped thousands of babies and parents sleep better over the past 20 years, says it’s impossible to say one approach to sleep works better than ‘another one. For some children, more soothing or tapings are needed and for other babies, fewer tapings may work better. And the precursor to getting there is to set up a good bedtime routine. Schreiner recommends the following for babies and young children:

  • Draw a hot bath before bed
  • Incorporate essential oils, like lavender, which can lead to better and longer sleep
  • Introduce a sound machine, which cultivates a soothing, womb-like environment
  • Eat fewer processed foods (with high levels of dyes and sugars) and more fruits and vegetables

Located in Bloomington, Northwestern University of Health Sciences is a premier integrative health institution that prepares the next generation of health professionals to deliver and advance health care, offering 11 areas of study. Its clinics and TruNorth Wellness Hub are open to the public to support better, healthier lives for all. The Bloomington Clinic specializes in care for the whole family, offering chiropractic treatments, acupuncture, Chinese medicine, massage therapy, naturopathic medicine, nutrition and cupping. The Sweere Clinic offers comprehensive care for complex pain conditions and trauma. The Biomechanics Lab and Human Performance Center supports proper movement and recovery through gait analysis, rehabilitation, strength and conditioning.


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