Sleep Training is About Teaching the Parents, Not the Babies

attachment science behavioral sleep intervention consistency crying intermittent reinforcement sleep training Mar 29, 2022
Sleep Training is About Teaching the Parents, Not the Babies

I often hear that you “can’t teach a baby to sleep because it’s a biological function.” And actually, that’s true! But you can teach a baby to sleep well. Sleep training isn’t actually about teaching a baby to sleep. Sleep training teaches parents how to change their behavior around their child’s sleep. Because the truth is, the behaviors of a parent are what encourage independent sleep and dictate the habits formed by the child. 

What I mean by this, is that if a baby is only able to fall asleep while they are feeding or being rocked, leading to constantly disrupted sleep over time; or if they are consistently waking up after only one sleep cycle during a nap because their pacifier fell out of their mouth, it’s up to the caregiver to change these habits if they’re interested in encouraging independent sleep. This encouragement and change in behavior are what will lead to more restorative and less disrupted sleep (for everyone)!

Now, I’m not saying that every child must be sleep trained. Sleep training is not for everyone - whether that’s because their child naturally sleeps well, or because it’s not the right choice for the parents. Some babies can be rocked or fed to sleep and sleep for 12 hours, uninterrupted! In that case, I would not recommend sleep training to eliminate the feeding or rocking to sleep because it’s not needed (especially if the parent enjoys doing it!). Sleep training is a fantastic resource for parents who are struggling with their child’s sleep, interested in changing a strong sleep association for any number of reasons, and/or seeking independent sleep skills for their child and haven’t been able to do so without a behavioral sleep intervention. Behavioral sleep interventions, like my formal sleep training program, can drastically transform a sleep situation by helping a child learn to fall asleep completely independently (into the crib awake and falls asleep on their own!), get back to sleep between sleep cycles, help the caregiver better understand their child’s needs, lengthen naps, and so much more! 

Consistency is the Most Important Element of Sleep Training

The key to any behavioral sleep intervention with babies (and the most important element in sleep training!) is consistency from the parents. Even something as simple as consistency in a bedtime routine can help your child to sleep better and for longer periods! [1]

This is why finding a sleep training program that fits your style and family dynamic is exceptionally helpful in ensuring that you don’t begin sleep training by just “winging it” or using bits and pieces of information you found on the internet from various sources. This can quickly turn into realizing that you don’t have a set plan in place and thinking you’ve “failed at sleep training,” or thinking that your baby just can’t or won’t ever sleep well. 

A formal sleep training program or plan that has specific steps set in place to follow will help you abide by a set series of actions and behaviors to provide your child with complete consistency. Staying firm with your chosen plan is what will give your child the opportunity to learn to fall asleep (and get back to sleep) independently, as well as an overall higher chance at success! 

Intermittent Reinforcement and How it Impacts Baby Sleep 

When parents are not consistent in their behavior and choose to only reinforce intermittently rather than continuously, they’re more likely to see an increase in crying and less success [2]. This means that when you change your behavior based on your child’s behavior, you’re actually reinforcing more crying during the process. Commitment to 100% consistency in the parent’s behavior is essential for success. If the parent is not committed to keeping their behavior completely consistent, then there is no reason to attempt the sleep training program at all. 

Intermittent reinforcement is common for many reasons and if you find yourself struggling with this, you are not alone! Did you know that an estimated one-third of parents have stated that their child has trouble sleeping? The bad news though, is that if these sleep problems continue and are not properly addressed, this can actually affect the child’s cognitive development, mood regulation, behavior, and even their health [3]. Not to mention that when our children don’t sleep well, we don’t sleep well! 

Some behavioral sleep interventions for babies and toddlers involve letting your child cry for a period of time. A lot of parents have a difficult time with this because it requires them to remove their attention and use minimal interactions (avoiding cuddling, feeding, offering a pacifier, etc.) for a certain amount of time. This is a common reason why many parents end up “giving up” before their child has had a chance to truly learn to fall asleep on their own. Or, they will only follow through occasionally, and as a result, the sleep problems will be strengthened [4].

My sleep training guide provides two methods for sleep training and both offer options for responsiveness and comfort. One is a timed check-in method and one allows the parent to stay present during the sleep training process. Though, regardless of the sleep training program or method you choose,  one thing remains the same: consistency on the part of the caregiver (in every part of the process) is the biggest factor for success. Crying is likely during formal sleep training, as this is how babies communicate; and parental calmness, responsiveness, and complete consistency is the best way to ensure the least amount of crying possible. The more inconsistent we are, the more likely it is that a baby will cry for longer periods, as inconsistency reinforces the crying. 

3 Parental Behaviors that Can Affect a Child’s Sleep 

To be successful in helping your child learn to fall asleep on their own, the behaviors of the parents need to be looked at first! Here are 3 reasons why following through with sleep intervention can be difficult:


  • Enduring crying: As I mentioned earlier, most sleep intervention methods include some amount of crying (depending on the child’s age, temperament, and the strength of sleep associations, as well as the parent’s consistency around the sleep training). Because crying is often viewed as a sign of distress, letting your baby cry could be considered neglectful to some parents. Parents that feel this way often experience negative emotions comparable to shame, guilt, and anger when they let their baby cry and it becomes difficult to reinforce a behavior that your want changed [5]! In this instance, it’s important to remember that sleep training doesn’t mean you have to put your baby into their room at bedtime and forget about them until morning. Snuggling your baby is a non-negotiable and no one is telling you that you can’t or shouldn’t! You can rock, hold, and snuggle your baby during their bedtime routine before putting them down awake. In addition, most sleep training programs are responsive and allow for comfort and physical touch during the process! For a wealth of information on the science of attachment concerning sleep training, watch this IGTV episode. My guest, Dr. Jenna Elgin of “Helping Families Thrive” is an expert on Attachment Theory and dives into this subject matter. 


  • Fear of repercussions: It’s common to believe that sleep training will have negative effects on your child’s health or create a poor attachment between parent and child [6]. However, this is not the case. There is no data to conclusively show that sleep training has negative effects on a baby. While the parent-baby dyad can certainly be mismatched for a short portion of time (i.e. the parent wants the baby to sleep independently and the baby does not want to), there is no data to show that crying over a short period of time causes negative effects to the baby or attachment [7]. If this were true, we would also have concerns about our babies crying during an hour-long car ride because they don’t want to sit in their car seats. Crying itself (especially in an otherwise loving environment) does not cause harm. 


  • Parent wellness: When you have a baby that is not sleeping well, you are bound to experience some type of sleep deprivation. This sleep deprivation can make it a struggle to reinforce desired behaviors surrounding your little one’s sleep. Parents that desperately need sleep are usually willing to do just about anything to get their baby to sleep, which can lead to introducing a new sleep habit to your baby or even resurfacing an old one. Sleep deprivation can also present depressive symptoms in parents which has a major impact on remaining consistent with reinforcing positive sleep behaviors (which have been shown to decrease after your baby’s sleep improves) [8].  For those that feel this way, please know that there is help. I have helped countless parents in this same scenario get the help and sleep they need with my baby sleep guides. And actually, with a background in psychology, I would say that even more than a baby’s overall health and wellness (which is so important to me), is parental mental health and wellness. I’ve suffered postpartum depression and sleep deprivation and understand the impact it can have on our lives. This is why so much of my work is dedicated to helping ensure parents can get back to sleeping well and being well. If you’re interested in learning more about the effects of and tips to deal with postpartum depression, rage, and overall mental health, make sure to watch this Instagram TV with Erika Djossa, founder of “Happy As A Mother.”

If you’ve been feeling like you simply have a ”bad sleeper” and that there’s nothing you can do to change it, please know that you are not destined to be sleep-deprived and exhausted forever. There IS something you can do, and it starts with YOU! Evaluating (and altering if necessary) your own personal behaviors so that you are able to encourage your little one to learn how to fall asleep independently is one of the greatest gifts and tools you can give to your child! And even if you aren’t ready to or interested in sleep training, making small changes to your behavior can still make an impact. If you want some tips for changes you can make that don’t include sleep training, check out this Instagram post

If you find yourself still struggling with your little one’s sleep, please know that you are not alone and that I am here to help. Download one of my comprehensive sleep guides or schedule a call with me for some personalized support. 





Need help transforming your child's sleep? Check out my sleep offerings for children 0-3 years old!


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