Is sleep training your kid a good idea?

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I have been dreading writing this blog.

It took me only a few weeks of parenting to identify that the best possible response to the MANY questions you get asked, and the scores of advice you get given by strangers, friends and family is...

to smile and nod.

And let them take from that response what they will. Your agreement, your thanks. Whatever, they need to.

"Are you breastfeeding?" Smile and nod.

"Is your child sleeping through?" Smile and nod.

"What does your child weigh?" Smile and nod.

Okay, so it's not an 100% fix all, but it sure beats the constant comparing and parenting debates, followed by hours of self-doubt and guilt. You see, for better or worse, you are your child's world. You may not think so, but you know yourself and your baby best. This is scary, because it means you are the best person to decide everything. And that means heaps of responsibility.

I have met passionate parents from both the left and right wing who scare me.

The left wing contains those who promote attachment parenting, co-sleeping and breastfeeding til 20. In their houses can be found a collection of wraps, and slings, and homeopathic powders. They practice organic farming and use cloth nappies. They were probably at least one week overdue and gave birth at home while hypnotised. Their mantra is: "my baby comes first". This can benefit babies hugely, and nearly kill parents. It can also stifle kids and create an unhealthy, baby-dependent mother.

On the right wing are the control freaks convinced that their actions have the power to outwit their baby's defiant nature. Their houses are strewn with growth charts, developmental milestone handouts and feeding formulas. They practice sleep training, schedule breastfeeding and just about everything else (including pooping). They probably scheduled a pedi before they went through with their elective Caesar. Their mantra is: "a baby does not have to change your life". This can promote a great relationship between mother and father, and help a mother with a demanding work schedule, but if left unchecked can lead to a neglected baby.

And somewhere in the middle lies a whole lot of parents running from left to right and back again trying to find out what works for their baby today.

Because the good (or bad) news is that neither party is totally wrong. Both ideologies have their merits and may be necessary... depending on the baby and mother... and other vitally important family members who are often left out of research findings... the father, other kids and grandparents... the people who make up what the baby will call family.

Because a baby does not exist in a vacuum or only in its mother's arms. A baby is another piece of an intricate puzzle that is family life. So depending on what is going on in the hearts of those who make up a home, the approach is going to have to change, a lot. Because every baby and every mother and every day is going to be different.

So... is sleep training a good idea?

My answer has to be, yes, it is a good theory (who doesn't want their baby to sleep through?), but no, it does not have great outcomes.

In the first 10 days after birth, it would definitely be harmful.

In the first 8 weeks while establishing feeding, it is a definite no.

In the next six months, when babies need a caregiver to meet their need for feeding and comfort throughout the night, it's still not a good idea to withhold any care.

Between six months and a year, when baby experiences separation anxiety and starts teething, it is likely to be a short-term fix, bringing a lot of heart ache and often, long-term, a complete waste of time.

What about after a year, when a baby's receptive language is developed and they can understand that they are separate from you and that there is day and night, and that night is for sleeping? You may have more success or more of a fight, depending on your child's temperament and level of attachment*.

After the second year, when a baby can communicate its needs verbally, but is now fully mobile? You may have more success implementing various routines and trialing sleep strategies (such as putting toddlers in the same room as their older siblings) but if your toddler needs you they will likely come to you and tell you what they need.

The key is to ask yourself along the way, if what you are doing is out of love, out of desperation, or out of a need to control the uncontrollable?

Are you simply exhausted and need a break?

It may be more bearable for all involved if other solutions can be found. Many western families will whisper about the-less-socially-accepted things-that-actually-really-worked for them like:

  • musical beds (where each family member sleeps in whatever spot works best so that everyone gets the most sleep);
  • paying a night nurse (to help meet the baby's needs and allow both parents to get some rest);
  • relocating closer to extended family to have more support;
  • moving in with grandparents to have more support for the first four months or so;
  • falling asleep with your kids round 9pm rather than fighting for an early, independent bedtime.

Remember, this season shall pass. One day your child won't want to sleep in your bed or hold your hand to fall asleep. They will do it all by themselves, when they are ready to.

And if anyone asks you how it's all going, don't forget to simply smile and nod.

 *note: securely attached babies will be more difficult to sleep train as they have not gone into a state of shut down. Your baby asking you to meet their needs, through crying or calling for you at night is really a sign of your responsive parenting record. These kids go on to be more intelligent, more independent and more socially secure as they enter school and later the workforce. I hope that offers some comfort.

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