The baby sleep training vs co-sleeping issue gets parents in a tizzy. From family beds to cry-it-out, sleep methods are a highly controversial topic among parents and professionals alike. Having tried both baby sleep training and attachment parenting, I'd like to share a holistic view on a good night's sleep that has everyone's best interests in mind.
Parents who subscribe to Attachment Parenting (AP) commonly co-sleep with their infants either in the same bed or at least in the same room. As with more mainstream sleep strategies, there are pros and cons, myths and realities to co-sleeping and AP methods.
Skeptics declare that bed-sharing babies are in danger of suffocation. This is a myth. As long as you and your partner do not smoke or over-use alcohol or drugs and your mattress is firm, your baby should be safe in your bed. Note: It is unsafe to sleep with a baby on a sofa or armchair.
Proponents of co-sleeping claim it leads to more independent, confident or outgoing children, or that sleep sharing somehow leads to a child with higher self-esteem. While it remains to be seen if co-sleeping will influence your baby's personality, the bonding experience that may occur for mom and dad may boost their own self-esteem as parents.
- More sleep – Co-sleeping babies can breastfeed easily throughout the night, disrupting parents' sleep less in the early months when baby requires night time feeds.
- More bonding time – Sleeping together allows for extra time spent enjoying and building a close relationship with your baby.
- Simple soothing – Co-sleeping makes it easier to respond to babies, so they may fall asleep faster when they wake during the night and cry less.
- Decrease risk of SIDS – Studies show that less Sudden Infant Death Syndrome is reported for babies who co-sleep.
- Less rest – Sharing a bed with an infant can take time to get used to, and parents may not sleep as well when bed-sharing with baby.
- Less freedom for parents – Babies used to sleeping next to mom and dad may have a hard time falling asleep when in someone else's care. Additionally, transitioning from co-sleeping to solitary sleeping is usually difficult and may lead to bed-sharing when it no longer works for everyone involved.
- Over-dependent baby – Babies who are used to being nursed to sleep do not learn to get back to sleep when they wake from natural sleep cycle, requiring their parents' help well beyond infancy.
- More challenging intimacy – Co-sleeping forces parents to compromise in terms of their love-making in bed. Though it's possible to get creative, the demands of having a baby tend to overshadow inventive sex.
Baby sleep training
Baby sleep training involves helping your baby learn to fall asleep easily and eventually, stay asleep throughout the night. Most experts consider “sleeping though the night” to be a 5 hour stretch of uninterrupted sleep. Sleep-trained babies typically sleep in their own room in their own crib, although co-sleeping families can utilize routines as well. Sleep training typically involves:
- Sleeping, waking, and often feeding at the same time to establish a routine that works with your baby's own biological clock while not confusing day and night.
- A quiet, safe, separate sleep environment for babies that provides a comforting atmosphere without distraction.
- Following a nightly, pre-sleep routine, such as a warm bath, some quiet time spent together and feeding before bed time.
- Teaching baby to fall asleep on her own with minimal distress and without being nursed, rocked, or bounced to sleep.
There are many variations of baby sleep training, but the basic gist is that if you start routines early and are persistent and consistent, most babies (even “bad” sleepers) catch on to the routines by about four months of age without the notorious crying that give these methods a bad name. Older babies (especially beyond 6 months) may require a bit more crying before they give up their co-sleeping habits, but the transition can usually occur within 3 consecutive nights of a new routine.
Critics of baby sleep training believe that leaving a baby to cry herself to sleep is not only cruel and heartless, but also detrimental to babies' emotional development and may cause unnecessary or even harmful physical distress.
Proponents believe that baby sleep training is the swiftest way to teach good sleep habits as well as providing a healthy, restful environment for the whole family. Allowing a baby that is not hungry, sick, stuck in a dirty diaper or otherwise in need of physical care to cry a bit while learning to soothe herself to sleep is normal and not torture. Most sleep training methods provide options for “no-cry” or minimal crying, and parents who use these methods usually can recognize those times when their baby is too distressed to fall asleep on her own.
Pros of baby sleep training
- More Sleep – Once a sleep routine is established, the whole family sleeps for longer stretches uninterrupted.
- Contented Baby – Sleep trained babies know how to fall asleep without assistance of mom and dad, tend to be well rested, and adequately fed – all of which makes for a happy, calm baby.
- Good separation = good connection – Parenting requires constant attention and connection to your child. Having the ability to unplug and recharge allows for better bonding and connection during the waking hours.
- Happy Mommy – (and Daddy). Well-rested parents can be more present for themselves and their children, are able to make better decisions, have more patience for the challenges of parenting, and have more ability to experience the joys of parenting as well.
Cons of baby sleep training
- Front Loaded Effort – During the early days of establishing a routine (when a new mother is already exhausted and overwhelmed from birth, breastfeeding, and adjusting to a new baby), mama may get less sleep and feel more stressed as she must wake at night to go to baby for feedings.
- Extra Discipline Required – Routines take time and consistency to establish. It may be frustrating and seem like baby will never catch on for the first several weeks of trying. Having a mentor who's done it before may help.
- Less Flexibility – Scheduled babies are best kept to their routine on a regular basis. This may not work for parents who prefer to take the baby along to social engagements on a regular basis or are just not good with sticking to a schedule.
- More Gear – Co-sleeping requires your bed. Scheduled babies tend to sleep in a crib in their own room. You will also need a baby monitor to listen for baby's cries from your room at night and black-out curtains to simulate night during nap times.
Baby sleep training vs co-sleeping – A strategy that feels right
Both baby sleep training and co-sleeping have their plusses and minuses. As the parent to your child, it is up to you to pay attention to what feels right regarding sleeping arrangements (and all other decisions). There is no right or wrong way, only what works for you and your baby. This may be die-hard attachment parenting, conventional baby sleep training, or somewhere in between.
If you're interested in trying sleep training, I highly recommend The Contented Little Baby Book by Gina Ford – My current bible on sleep routines after severe sleep deprivation with baby #1. Gina is known for her hard-core routines, and some of her concepts (especially regarding formula, water, and solid food) need to be taken with a grain of salt, but the concept of proper sleep/feeding patterns makes sense and, if you stick with it, will result in your household getting more sleep and more peace.
For more support on compassionate baby sleep training read this post.