Why do I have to sleep train at all? Or: It’s all good… until it’s not

Rocking OK. I'm back. Sorry for that unexpected LONG break. Please feel free again to email me if you have questions. I'll be responding relatively quickly now that I'm back to work full time and "normal" life has resumed. For those of you who have emailed in the last month, expect a response (either publicly posted or direct) in the next week or two at most.

Reading over a batch of emails over the last couple of months or so, I realized that there might be a misconception out there about where I'm coming from in terms of the NEED to sleep train. Or the responsibility… or something like that. In particular, I've received several emails, some a tad more "harsh" than others, with this basic gist: "I love my baby. I love our bedtime ritual. Babies are helpless. I want to be totally responsive to my baby's needs. All this sleep training is ridiculous. What's wrong with wanting to [rock/swing/sing/etc.] my child to sleep?"

There is NOTHING wrong with rocking or nursing or soothing your baby to sleep. As many parents will attest (and I put myself firmly in this camp) the bedtime rituals of putting young babies to sleep can be the most treasured, most magical times in the early months of child-rearing. Personal confession here: It took me a hell of a long time to get pregnant. After deep heart-ache and years of trying to have a baby, when I finally got two, (TWO!) you better believe I was going to live out the long-rehearsed daydreams of rocking, singing, nursing and shushing my babies to sleep. There really is nothing like looking down at your peacefully sleeping infant (the one that you and only you know how to bounce just the right way, at just the right pace, with just enough swing and jitter and sway), feeling his breath against your arm, his warmth seep into your own body. Marc and I have both had the pleasure of falling asleep ourselves with one of our boys tucked into our necks. It’s heaven. I am in no way suggesting that these rituals aren’t precious or worth keeping in those early months or even years. However, many parents eventually can’t take the sleep-deprivation that usually goes along with extended periods of this sort of sleeping arrangement. As a result, they resort to some sleep-training procedure. So, my basic take is this: enjoy the rocking, singing, and nursing that helps get your baby to sleep. Enjoy it for as long as it feels right for you and your family. And then, if or when it’s not working for you anymore, either because you’re cross-eyed with fatigue, or your baby-awe has tipped into resentment, or because your child has decided he’d rather play trampoline on mommy than be rocked back to sleep, it’s time for a change. Do what feels right for you and your baby for as long as it DOES feel right and don't worry about creating "bad habits" that can NEVER. OMG. EVER. BE. CHANGED. Babies and toddlers are malleable little beings and they can learn and un-learn habits with reasonable ease, especially during the right developmental window.

9 thoughts on “Why do I have to sleep train at all? Or: It’s all good… until it’s not

  1. I’ve been thinking about this same question ever since I read your book, which is a great book by the way. ;) I too don’t feel the need to sleep train because I’m enjoying every moment of nursing and rocking my baby to sleep. I know one day it will end so I’m trying to take in every moment of it. Thank you for posting your thoughts about not sleep training AND sleeptraining. It’s helped me to validate my decisions

  2. I was thoroughly enjoying rocking my then 9 month old son to sleep every night. I’ll admit I was concerned that I wasn’t teaching him to go to sleep on his own and that I was creating a bad habit. Then one day he just stopped wanting to be rocked, walked or held to go to sleep anymore. I didn’t change; he changed. We used a no cry method and now at 10.5 months old he is going to sleep on his own for every single nap and bedtime. I think the key was that he was ready.

  3. “…and don’t worry about creating “bad habits” that can NEVER. OMG. EVER. BE. CHANGED. Babies and toddlers are malleable little beings and they can learn and un-learn habits with reasonable ease, especially during the right developmental window.”
    THIS is the most important line I think I’ve read on your site. I’d like to have it printed on t-shirts and give it to all my pregnant friends. I wish I’d had more confidence early on to understand this. It would have eased by fears immensely to have taken that step back when C. was an itty-bitty newborn and realize that the only constant thing about babies is that they are always changing, and if you’re doing something with love it is virtually impossible to permanently scar the baby or instill bad habits that can’t be broken with a few days of work.
    I think this lesson gift wrapped at a baby shower would be so much more valuable than another onesie! Of course even if you’d told me way back when, I have to wonder if I would have believed you or had enough sleep (and, thus, had functioning brain cells) to take it all in…

  4. I really appreciate your balance on this. When my first child was an infant, I was totally against any form of CIO/sleep training. Unfortunately, by the time she was 4 months old, I was holding her for all of her naps and completely depressed and miserable because she was rarely not ON me. (I realize for some people this isn’t a problem, but I was miserable.) We started sleep training and things got much better. With my second child, I was hoping to avoid any crying, but unfortunately he was even worse! For the first few months I was able to nurse/bounce him to sleep and it wasn’t a problem at all. But at three months suddenly I couldn’t put him down, he’d wake-up every.single.time. I could still get him to sleep, I just couldn’t put him down, which is a very difficult place to be when you have a 2 year-old. I resorted to holding him for all his naps again which left my older daughter very neglected. If I could simply get him to sleep and put him down and he’d stay asleep, I’d be happy to bounce/nurse him to sleep for a long time, but unfortunately it just didn’t work that way. So, sleep training is what we had to do. And it’s worked great, we’re ALL much happier. I hate the process, but it’s been necessary for both of my kids.

  5. Just wanted to say how much I appreciate the balance you offer on your site…our 2.5 is still needing us when she goes down to sleep, and I’m hoping that our new little guy is able to be a bit more independent. Regardless of what we do, they are who they are, but I sure appreciate the information that you provide and the options that exist! And it is so nice to commiserate with others : ) especially during the tough times knowing you aren’t the only one who has gone or will go through it makes a world of difference. thanks!

  6. You and I TOTALLY see eye to eye on this one. I rocked/sang to/held my son until he was at least 18 months old… at which point he asked to get in bed. When he was really little, yes – I did “rock him to sleep.” But after I put him in bed, he slept through the night, pretty much every single night. Therefore, I didn’t see any reason to change what I was doing, and I loved our time together. Around 1 year, it got to where I would rock him until he was calmed down, then I put him in the bed, and he went to sleep on his own (give or take a few hiccups every now and then). Again, he was still sleeping through the night, so I didn’t think it was a big deal. Now that he’s approaching 2.5, I still snuggle and read to him before we put him in bed. The “ah-ha” moment I had when I was feeling guilty for doing this (which happened around 8 months) was when I decided I never wanted to look back and regret not holding him when he was small enough to do so. They grow up so fast, and now I’m so glad I did it. He’s already too big to hold in the chair, and I can’t believe those times are behind me! Fortunately (I suppose!), he’s still really into mommy-time and can get super clingy, so we still hang out lots. Of course, I know this phase will come to an end and he’ll think Daddy is much cooler, but that’s ok.

  7. I had to come back and read this post because my how things can change in a week! When you originally posted this, my 14 month old child was sleeping well even though we were still rocking her to deep sleep initially and then if she woke up though the night. This past week was filled with wakeful sessions which made us realize that we need to revisit sleep training again. We were successful at 7 months but then teething and vacations and all kinds of kinks hit.
    But now sleep deprivation is taking its toll – up 6 hrs one night, 4 hrs the next, etc just plain sucks. I think we’ve hit the wall and our limit. It’s going to be hard to retrain her as this is a fairly strong habit we’ve instilled, and she is fighting it tooth and nail this time.
    You said “toddlers are malleable little beings and they can learn and un-learn habits with reasonable ease, especially during the right developmental window.” She is on the verge of walking unassisted though, and I’m wondering if I’m doing this at the wrong time (even though it’s in that good 12-16 month window)!

  8. I say “go for it”, Beth! Even though the walking milestone might be what’s, in part, causing all this sleep disruption, I still think it’s worth a shot to sleep train now. Give it a good try for at least 3 days and if nothing’s improved, then maybe rethink your strategy and wait another month.
    You have a couple of months still before you hit up against that HUGE transition (18-21 months), so if it doesn’t work out now, you still have a few more chances over the next few months, once she’s got the hang of walking.

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